When the idea of a zero-waste sari-sari store first popped up in one of our team’s planning sessions in 2017, it felt novel and exciting.
Some of us thought it was crazy, looking at how almost everything sold in a sari-sari store was packed in single-use packaging. We knew that sachets made hundreds of products accessible and affordable to households on tight budgets. And with sari-sari stores found in almost every corner of Filipino communities—about 800,000 of them throughout the country—we knew that it would be an uphill climb to transition these microbusinesses to being plastic-free.
There was the term “sachet economy” referring to our profitable dependence on packaged goods and the economic realities of low-income communities enabling it. It is daunting to even think of disrupting a business model that is serving millions of people.
At that time, the issue of marine plastic pollution has finally started to be highlighted on the covers of magazines and headlines for primetime newscasts. In my case, the viral YouTube video of a plastic straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nose caught my attention.
Groups around the world have already been picking up waste from our shores for decades since 1986 when the International Coastal Cleanup Day was founded, but it was only in the last seven to eight years that we saw plastic pollution take the spotlight on the agenda of governments everywhere.
In the Philippines, audits and research on the kinds of waste being collected from our coastal ecosystems pointed to one obvious finding: A lot of the trash being collected were sachets. These linked back to the ubiquitous sari-sari stores. And around eight tons of these single-use plastics flow from mismanaged waste on land, down to our waterways and the sea. Our country was even named as one of the top three sources of ocean plastic. All this, too, while our country is also a topnotcher when it comes to bearing the brunt of climate change and the negative impacts of global environmental problems.
So, we asked the question: Can we redesign the sari-sari store to be free of single-use plastic? How can we sell consumer goods with the same “tingi-tingi” volumes available, with the same price points, but without the sachets?
We started prototyping zero-waste sari-sari stores in Negros Island with a multi-sectoral approach, and for five years including time during the pandemic, we of course met a lot of challenges. More than behavior change, we were face to face with the mammoth system of fast-moving consumer goods, designed from the top-down, with profit being masked as convenience. The consumers, even the conscious ones, feel powerless and too small to change the sari-sari store.
But we saw how it could be done. After more than 20 prototypes of zero-waste microbusiness models, encompassing sari-sari stores, and now also carinderias and cafes, we got the attention of producers, government, international development agencies, and the media.
Out of the many reports, recommendations, and requests for replication, there is a recurring theme outside of the technical requirements and the business development aspect of our path to zero-waste sari-sari stores.
The most important lesson we learned is surprisingly cultural. And as we share this lesson, we hope that these will also help us reflect and rethink the work we do in mobilizing communities for climate actions and the global goals for sustainable development. We learned that we must translate climate actions and environmental advocacy into our local context and language, tapping into our own cultural heritage.
This is not something new, but during the social preparation phase of our projects, we realized we kept using foreign words like “zero-waste,” “circular economy,” and “conservation.” Even if we translated what they meant in our dialects, these concepts still sounded alienating. We eventually had a breakthrough in our community consultations when we simplified our messaging into “Wala Usik” (Hiligaynon/ Bisaya for “nothing wasted” and it is “walang sayang” in Tagalog).
When people hear “Wala Usik,” they would often recall their grandparents watching over during mealtime then saying “Dapat wala usik, ha!” as a reminder to eat everything there is on the plate as they give a talk on how food is produced by hard work of many hands, from the farmers to whoever paid for and prepared the meal. We always had a culture of not wasting anything, probably because of a history or experience of scarcity, but also because it is ingrained in our indigenous respect for nature where all our resources come from.
When we started using the term and mindset of “Wala Usik” in our work, we quickly rediscovered that in fact, the idea of a zero-waste sari-sari store is not totally crazy nor novel. Not too long ago, before sachets became widespread, there were reusable containers for everything. There may be some of us in this generation that remembers walking with an empty glass Tanduay bottle to the neighbor’s store to buy cooking oil. Minimal packaging, bringing a bayong when purchasing, and locally sourced products were also hallmarks of the sari-sari stores pre-plastic. These are just a few of the wonderful re-discoveries we made as we eventually assigned the name “Wala Usik Sari-Sari Store” to those who were inspired enough to cut off single-use plastic from their business.
There is still resistance to the transition to more sustainable and circular businesses because communities are already so used to the convenience brought about by established supply chains and distribution logistics for sachets and single-use plastics. But not too many people will resist the message of “Wala Usik.”
Who wants to waste resources? Who wants to waste anything? We also found witty campaign slogans such as “Indi ko pag-usiki” (Huwag mo akong sayangin in Tagalog). We were able to link this to food security when we talk about fish stocks, for example, that are already threatened by marine plastic pollution, and even public health, when the discussion would involve finding microplastic in what we drink and eat.
“Wala Usik” is beyond being plastic-free or zero-waste. It is a more profound philosophy linking conservation, sustainability, and circularity in our local context and language. And we are optimistic that fellow Filipinos will rediscover this message as part of their heritage.
About the author
Climate Reality Leader Dave Albao is the Executive Director of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI), the non-profit organization taking care of Danjugan Island—a wildlife sanctuary in Negros Occidental. Dave and their team are also implementing projects funded by USAID, GIZ, and the EU, including initiatives that advocate for zero-waste and circular enterprises for a “Wala Usik Economy,” including micro-businesses such as sari-sari stores, carinderias, and cafes that are innovating to reduce single-use plastic waste from their operations.