CEBU CITY, Philippines – When COVID-19 struck, Remar Grace “Mai” Montecillo, for the first time after staying in Metro Cebu for six years, returned to her family in Catmon town, northern Cebu.
Mai, a 23-year-old graduating Management student from the University of the Philippines-Cebu (UP-Cebu), was surprised with not only how their humble community in Barangay San Jose flourished within a short span of time, but also on how prevalent littering had become.
“I was away from the province for six years to work and finish my education. When I returned, I observed that our town really progressed and a lot of small businesses were operating,” Mai said in Cebuano.
“But it was unsettling for me to find waste not properly disposed of. Back when I was growing up in Catmon, it was very rare to see plastic cups and bottles on the streets. One day, I was jogging in the morning, I managed to pick up at least 20 discarded plastic cups within five minutes,” she added.
With this, Mai and her family set up the ‘A Cup for a Cup’ initiative last April, originally intended for their milk tea business, in which they provide incentives such as discounts for anyone who can bring recyclable plastic cups.
“Even my own mother would ask ‘Di kaha ta malugi ani?’” she said in jest.
The first to avail of their discount was their neighbor’s child, who was saving up to buy his first milk tea.
“He was entrusting the coins he collected to us, saying that when it reaches P75, he will then buy a cup of milk tea. I was puzzled and asked my relatives ‘is he buying the milk tea on an installment basis?’So we told him, go collect at least 75 plastic bottles and cups, and we will give you one. It only took him a couple of hours to collect 75 pieces. We gave him back his coins, and he went home with his first cup of milk tea,” explained Mai.
With the help of her own family, peers, government and non-government organizations, and “strangers on the internet” who shared the same advocacy, Mai’s marketing strategy for her family’s milk tea shop eventually turned to become a community-building project that is now gradually helping the underprivileged in Catmon, a fourth-class municipality located 57 kilometers north of Cebu City.
“My concern back then was the trash. And then came massive help and support, and we were able to mobilize the project fully even without funding. And I’m really grateful for the support from JCI-CSI (Junior Chamber International – Cebu Sinulog), San Jose Barangay Council, SK (Sangguniang Kabataan) San Jose and Corazon, Facebook friends, UP Sagabay, strangers, family, and UP Iskolars,” she added.
In total, they were able to collect over 10,000 recyclable plastic cups, which ultimately paved the way for her to develop the project further and led her to envision a shared community garden, where residents can plant their own vegetables, crops, and fruits and harvest them for free.
“I am not a green thumb at all, and I barely have any sufficient knowledge about gardening when I started the A Cup for A Cup project. But when a family member raised the idea of using them for gardening, I did my research. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube tutorials and reading gardening articles,” explained Mai.
Recently, Mai shared with netizens on Facebook that some of the recyclable plastic cups they received were used to plant donated and ‘rejected seedlings’ they purchased from retailers of produce in public markets.
“We received seedlings as donations, too. But they can only go so far. We decided to buy rejected produce from wet markets like Carbon for a small fee. We thought those seeds would still grow and indeed, they did! We not only tried to solve waste management but also came up with another opportunity to help people,” Mai explained.
As of August 18, they were able to harvest okra, kangkong (Chinese spinach), talong (eggplant), and kilos of chili peppers. While they sold portions of their harvest, Mai said most of these were donated to their neighbors and other individuals in Catmon who were struggling.
“Right now, we’re providing free seedlings to farmers in the far-flung areas of Catmon. And we encouraged them to return the plastic cups where the seedlings were first planted to reuse and give them more seedlings in return,” said Mai.
“Our family is not wealthy nor uber-privileged. But you could say we are doing alright since we don’t have to worry if we will be having food on our table in the coming days. Others, however, would have to struggle, especially with the pandemic. So we tapped the SK in our barangay and neighboring barangays to share this eco-garden initiative with them. They have volunteers who then will distribute the harvests and seedlings to families who needed them,” she added.
Mai also decided to recruit a gardener to monitor and supervise the growing eco-garden.
“Realistically speaking, it’s hard balancing between a 9 to 5 job, and projects like these. That’s why we decided to hire people who really needed jobs in these challenging times. And we selected our neighbor, whose family is a 4Ps beneficiary, and whose husband recently lost his job. At the very least, we were able to provide them with means of livelihood,” she added.
During her free time, Mai virtually partakes her experience and lessons in coming up with their eco-conscious projects to those who are interested in replicating them. When asked what advice she usually gives to her audience, these are what she has to say:
“First would be to stay true to your advocacy. It would greatly help you come up with a clearer and bigger picture of the initiative you want.”
“Second, find the right people you want to share your project with. Because with them, you don’t have to go far to find the problems that needed solutions.”
“Third, consistency and constant communication will make everything easier. And last but not the least, we must always remember that even small actions can make a huge difference… We cannot save everyone at the same time but we can make our community better for them.”