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FEATURE STORY June 1, 2020

Meet the Innovator Protecting our Ocean in the Philippines: Dr. Maria Antonia “Tonette” Tanchuling


Dr. Maria Antonia “Tonette” Tanchuling understands better than most how the tiniest of things can impact our oceans, which is why her work studying the impacts of microplastics is so crucial to future ocean health in the Phillippines.

Tell us about yourself.

I have been working on solid waste management for many, many years now. I analyze the entire story of waste – where waste goes, which components go where, how much waste gets collected, and how much is reused, recycled or composted.

I am a Professor at the Institute of Civil Engineering and Faculty of the Environmental Engineering Graduate Program at the University of the Philippines Diliman. I also serve as the Chairperson of the Philippine Association of Tertiary Level Educational Institutions for Environmental Protection and Management, and I am a Principal Engineer at AMH Philippines, an engineering consultancy firm.

When we study the composition of waste, we see how much plastics there are in waste. We also see how much plastics waste is leaked into the open environment, like rivers, which eventually end up in oceans.


Tell us about your work. 

In 2017, as part of a World Bank program I had the opportunity to learn about microplastics at The German Federal Institute of Hydrology in Koblenz. When I returned I started researching microplastics here as there are very few of these studies conducted in the Philippines.

Microplastics are plastics that are about 5mm small or less. The presence of microplastics in our rivers and lakes poses a risk to living organisms that could mistakenly ingest the plastics as food. This can cause a biological impact that impacts commercial fisheries.

We’ve studied the composition of microplastics in rivers within the National Capital Region that flow into Manila Bay and Laguna Lake, the largest lake in the Philippines. Our studies help determine where waste management interventions should take place.

Another project I am working on is called the Integrated Waste Analysis, Survey and Technological Options, or IWASTO, which is Filipino for ‘Make it Right’.  It is part of a program funded by the Department of Science and Technology that seeks to rehabilitate Manila Bay.

Through this project, we look at the waste management practices of local government units and the reasons why waste ends up in the canals and rivers of the capital, and eventually in Manila Bay. We would like to educate and work closely with communities in Manila on proper solid waste management and promote technologies developed by the department. We plan to make information regarding waste practices publicly available through a mobile app and database. 


What drives you to do this work?

I like being out in nature. The ocean is filled with so much marine life that is diverse and beautiful. I was born in a mining town by the sea in Camarines Norte and growing up we frequented the beach. I grew up loving the sea. Adventures for me were riding boats and playing in the ocean.

Plastics should not be strewn about in the beach or floating in the waters. They don't belong there. Plus of course, the harm plastics cause to marine organisms is terrible.

But I am most passionate about safe water for all, because it is the poor who suffer the most from the lack of a clean water supply. Living in poor physical environments exacerbates problems the poor already must face.

The solution to saving our oceans should be tackled upstream. This is why I am also quite passionate about using the limited resources of the Earth wisely. We should reduce the amount of stuff we buy, use and waste. In so doing, we can reduce our carbon footprint.


(Photo: supplied)

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing our oceans in 2020?

It’s difficult to say right now as the gains of plastic campaigns may be lost due to health and sanitation measures that help address the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, plastic disposable bags are recommended instead of reusable bags to lessen infection and lockdowns have caused a spike in deliveries that require more plastic packaging.  With the increase in the use of disposable plastics for PPE and relief operations, there might be an increase of plastic waste in oceans in the future.


What message would you like everyone to hear on World Oceans Day 2020?

All of us have a role to play in taking care of our planet. Small behavioral changes, like opting for reusable grocery bags and water bottles, would help. 

I’d also like to emphasize the importance of good governance from national to local level. People seem to be discouraged from coming up with creative waste management solutions when the default action is mere compliance. 

An example is the law mandating the establishment of Materials Recovery Facilities in every barangay (village). The law does not include guidance on how the facilities should look or what to use them for, so some local governments build facilities that are not operational but exist just to comply. We have so many laws, but we lack the technical capability to enforce them. Information and data should be publicly available for citizens to be aware and empowered to demand more action from the government.

**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.