By Xianne S. Arcangel,VERA Files
The disposable bedroom slippers of a five-star hotel in Manila may be going straight to the black garbage bag after being worn by guests, but they are not headed for the dumpsite just yet.
Detainees who comprise the Makati City Jail Integrated Green Producers Cooperative (MIGCO) are helping the environment in their own creative way by turning such waste materials into fashionable and reusable items.
The thin, white slippers, which bear the embossed letter "S" logo of the Edsa Shangri-La Hotel, are re-fashioned by these green-minded inmates into colorful bedroom slippers that they sell for P30.
MIGCO, which claims to be Asia's first green cooperative for inmates, was jointly organized in 2011 by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), the Makati City government, the Makati Chamber of Commerce (MCC), and the Rotary Club of Makati EDSA.
According to MIGCO president Bong Espinocilla, the cooperative aims to "provide livelihood while saving Mother Earth" by recycling used tarpaulins, hotel slippers and plastic beverage bottles, among others.
Espinocilla, who has been in jail for seven years, said some of the inmates, along with a number of members of the BJMP and the local government, thought of putting up a green cooperative early last year to help augment the detainees' meager income from their existing livelihood program without the need to spend more money on new raw materials.
He said: "We realized that the benefactors who donate to the inmates are businessmen who probably have waste materials that they just throw away. So instead of asking them for fish, we thought of asking them to help us fish by giving us the equipment and recyclable materials to work with. They can give us what they don't need so that we can recycle them."
While the use of recycled materials in jail-based livelihood programs is not new—with prisoners from other jails known to weave baskets or make pen holders from rolled up sheets of an old telephone directory—what makes MIGCO different is the amount of support it has been getting from its partners.
Rotary Club chapters from South Korea and Indonesia helped finance the construction of MIGCO's production site. MCC donated 10 high-speed sewing machines to the inmates and continue to send scrap pieces of cloth and old tarpaulin for them to turn into bags. The local government regularly conducts training sessions inside the city jail to teach livelihood skills to the detainees.
MIGCO's membership has grown from 42 inmates since its launch in August 2011 to around 100 as of April 2012. According to Espinocilla, the members' skills have improved in such a short span of time that they are now able to turn whatever size of scrap cloth they have into a usable item.
The inmates automatically get half of the income from the sale of the finished product, while the remaining 50 percent is split between MIGCO and the BJMP (30 percent goes to the cooperative's capital while 20 percent goes to the educational and rehabilitative programs organized by the BJMP's Inmates' Welfare Division).
MIGCO's Solar Power Bulb Project, which it has been doing in partnership with My Shelter Foundation, has been chosen out of 160 international entries as one of the five finalists in the 2012 Ashden Awards.
The United Kingdom-based environmental firm recognizes organizations or businesses that play a key role in developing machines or equipment that promote renewable energy at the local level. The lone winner of the competition to be announced in May will bag a £40,000 cash prize while the remaining nominees will take home £20,000 each.
Espinocilla said the idea for recycling the slippers started around Christmas last year when the city jail was left with bags of hotel bedroom slippers despite having distributed hundreds of them to the inmates and donating as many slippers as they could to other penitentiaries in Metro Manila.
Through a lengthy process, the inmates figured how to take apart, clean, sew and design the slippers. Today, workers are able to make different sizes and designs of footwear in less than 10 minutes.
Supt. Elisa Oreiro, the wardress of the Makati City Jail Female Dormitory, said MIGCO improved on the prison's previous livelihood program by bringing together inmates with different skills to work on various projects.
Apart from reducing the amount of solid waste in Metro Manila through recycling, MIGCO's livelihood program is able to restore the inmates' confidence in themselves.
Virgilio Baduria, an inmate who has spent seven months in jail due to carnapping, finds fulfillment in sewing bags because he is able to keep himself busy while awaiting trial of his case.
Ruben Valdes, who has been in prison for more than four years, learned the skill he used to think as for women only and is now able to make bags, slippers and even curtains.
"Pag ako nakalaya, makina na lang ang kailangan ko para makapagtrabaho. Eh P11,000 lang naman yun. May patahian na 'ko (I would only need [to buy] a sewing machine when I'm released [from prison] and I can work already. That's only P11,000. I could have a tailoring business)," he said.
Espinocilla said that through MIGCO, inmates are able to learn entrepreneurial skills they can use when they are released and integrated back into society.
(The author is a journalism student of the University of the Philippines who is writing for VERA Files as part of her internship. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")