Dave Albao
Dave is the Executive Director of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, the nonprofit taking care of Danjugan Island, a wildlife sanctuary with environmental education and ecotourism programs, located in Negros Occidental, the Philippines. Dave and their team are also implementing projects funded by USAID, GIZ, and the EU; recently focused on reducing ocean plastic. Dave was a 2016 Professional Fellow on Environmental Sustainability in Oregon, USA, and received a diploma on Sustainable Business from the Swedish Institute Management Programme in 2020. They are a Gen.T Leader of Tomorrow, named as one of the 300 honourees in the Gen.T List 2021, curated by Tatler, featuring trailblazing entrepreneurs and creatives who are driving positive impact and catalysing change in Asia.

Zero waste innovations: The “wala usik” model in the Philippines

Interview with Dave Albao, Executive Director, Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation
East Asia and Pacific
29. Sep 2021

The Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation is a nonprofit taking care of Danjugan Island, a wildlife sanctuary with environmental education and ecotourism programs, located in Negros Occidental, the Philippines. The team is also implementing projects funded by USAID, GIZ, and the EU; recently focused on reducing ocean plastic. These include advocating for zero-waste and circular enterprises for a "wala usik economy," including micro businesses such as sari-sari stores and cafes that are innovating to reduce single-use plastic waste from their operations.   

Can you tell us what inspired you to help sari-sari convenience stores in the Philippines transition to zero waste stores (Wala Usik)? 

There are an estimated 800,000 sari-sari stores in the Philippines, present in almost every community. From our coastal cleanup data we saw how much single-use plastic (SUP) packaging for fast-moving consumer goods is leaking from poor waste management systems, and almost all of these kinds of trash originate from the sari-sari stores. Going deeper into the ‘sachet economy’ that perpetuates the dependence on SUPs, we understood that the consumers are unable to transition to zero-waste practices due to their circumstances and socio-economic conditions. The sachets serve their purpose in delivering consumer goods with convenience, and they are affordable, widely available, and efficient for the consumers.

Our question was: How can we redesign the sari-sari store so that it reduces the need for SUPs and multi-layer / small-format flexibles (sachets) in dispensing daily household products with the same small volumes and the same or better price points? How might we enable the transition to zero-waste sari-sari stores with the support of the community? To begin answering these questions, we tapped into our own cultural context and found that the phrase “wala usik” pre-dated the modern-day zero-waste movement. It means “nothing wasted” in our local language, and that gave us an inspiration on how to get stakeholders on board with a call to action that is not foreign to them. 

man standing in a plastic free sari sari store
PRRCFI has launched prototypes of zero-waste sari-sari stores. © PRRCFI

Are you measuring your impact on both the environment and local communities through the zero waste store model? If so, how are you measuring this and what have you discovered?   

We are measuring the impact of the wala usik sari-sari store prototypes through quantitative and qualitative data. We have monitored the amount of SUPs prevented through the alternative business models based on the purchases in the prototype stores, and extrapolated figures that would indicate the potential of the said prototypes to reduce SUPs entering the local solid waste management system. In our first prototyping cycle, eight sari-sari stores were found to have prevented the use of more than 45,000 individual sachets over a period of seven months.

We also looked into data that indicated consumer awareness, acceptability and access to this model, while also valuing lessons learned, identifying challenges and opportunities, and making recommendations for scaling and replication elsewhere. There have also been a significant volume of requests for assistance to other communities in the country in design thinking their own zero-waste sari-sari stores, and we are engaging them through sharing our experience, approach, and results.  

Can you tell us about the Wala Usik Challenge and what role you think innovative businesses can play in promoting a circular economy? 

Wala Usik Challenge: A Circular Economy Hackathon was a four-day virtual event held on August 27-30, 2021, where we helped 18 teams to hack their wala usik pitch for 48 hours. The teams pitched innovative, early-stage concepts of circular products, packaging and systems, which: (1) design out waste and pollution, (2) keep materials in use, and (3) regenerate natural resources. Five teams with the most innovative circular ideas were selected to receive a 100,000 Philippine peso (US $1,973) prize along with a two-month incubation support, to further firm up their circular business plans and make their ideas operational.

Wala Usik Challenge: A Circular Economy Hackathon is also a great opportunity to build a network of advocates, ideators, entrepreneurs and innovators working towards sustainability and a localized circular economy. In the process, we also hope to inspire consumers and the general public to support “wala usik”, a Hiligaynon/Bisaya phrase for circular practices where “nothing is wasted” and our natural ecosystems are thriving. 

In your view, what are the main challenges for local businesses that are making a social and environmental impact, while also making a profit?   

The main challenge for local business is a shift towards accounting for a triple bottom line. While we design them to make profit, they will also need to factor in the benefits in terms of planet and people, and most of the time these are not valued in profit and loss analysis. There are also upfront costs to transition into more sustainable models, and these may eat into the local businesses’ small profit margins. Aside from that, there is a gap in logistics, reverse logistics, and infrastructure to support better waste reduction and recovery from local businesses. There is also a massive challenge of behavioral change necessary from all stakeholders, like consumers, for these businesses to find and sustain their market and make positive social, environmental and economic impact.

tourists on Danjugan Island
Danjugan Island is supported by patrons who fund its programs through its visit packages. © PRRCFI

PRRCFI also runs an ecotourism business on Danjugan Island. Do you think it’s important to have an integrated tourism approach that includes communities? If so, why?  

There are definitely cross-cutting issues between tourism and waste management in communities, and we need an integrated and inclusive approach to ensure the sustainability of these sectors. It is very important we zoom out to see the bigger picture, design systems, and work with enabling factors to transform supply chains and operations of industries like tourism. We have been trying to do this in Danjugan Island, supporting our work with the local stakeholders to sustain the network of marine protected areas (MPAs) which the island is a part of. Ultimately, this is important to the food security, public health and livelihood of the communities.  

What role do visitors play in preserving nature at Danjugan Island? How do you ensure that they have a positive, regenerative impact rather than a negative impact on the environment?   

We call visitors to Danjugan as our patrons, and the tourism operations are funding and sustaining PRRCFI’s work on the island. Anyone who wishes to visit undergoes an application process that involves agreement to our low-impact, low-volume philosophy of travel, and our strict guidelines on visitor behavior to ensure that they do not cause negative impact to the wildlife sanctuary. Danjugan’s environmental education through its local guides and learning experiences also builds responsible behavior that the visitors can carry on beyond their visit to Danjugan.

environmental education program conducted by PRRCFI, Philippines
PRRCFI designs and executes environmental education programs with the experiential learning approach. © PRRCFI

Does your support to local communities include training related to preserving resources (both at sari sari stores and on Danjugan Island)? If so, what kind of training?  

All of our programs and projects place importance on the training and capacity building of stakeholders. Our general approach is through experiential learning and design thinking, and the topics/modules we have developed are inspired by our longest running program – the Marine and Wildlife Camps. Our trainings include participatory assessments or citizen science activities, livelihood training i.e. tour guiding, fishery and coastal resource management workshops, facilitation for community environmental education, and waste management/audit/action planning sessions.