Growing up in the Philippines, one of my early memories are of kalesas (horse-drawn carts) filled to the brim with baskets and other handicrafts strung on the cart’s back and sides. I wondered how they fit all those interesting baskets onto the cart — small ones, large ones for storage, fish baskets —and how they secured everything in place.
Even in the 1970’s, it was an anachronistic sight. This slow-moving, horse-drawn handicraft cart sharing the road with jeeps, buses and cars. I imagine the drivers probably getting annoyed trying to drive around the handicraft kalesas.
The older I got, the less of these handicraft kalesas I encountered. Coming into the market too, were many plastic containers and other plastic products. Perhaps the plastics cost less, or perceived to be better than a native market bag or native baskets.
I remember a photograph I took with a friend by one of these Kalesas when I was 16. Shortly after that, we immigrated to the U.S.
My Own Basket
While on an elementary school field trip, I bought my first Philippine basket, woven from Nito, a type of climbing fern. It was a simple round basket, and over time, the color changed from green to a deep dark brown.
I had this basket with me between immigrating to the U.S., moving to Germany while serving in the US Air Force, and back to California again. Regrettably, I don’t have it anymore (one move too many) but it certainly lasted for a long time.
I returned to the Philippines, after being away for 20 years.
It was great to see family, the sights, the smells — even the smell of diesel from vehicles, was strangely, an immediate connection for me that I was back home. And the ocean… the beautiful rice fields, the green lush environment…my heart was so happy.
The one thing that bothered me right away though, was that there was a lot more trash around. Little plastic bags and snack packaging wraps seem to be everywhere…and that part was disturbing to see.
We visited some relatives who lived by the beach. They told us that they walk the beach area every morning to collect trash that washes ashore or gets blown in, put it in a pile and burn it.
It was sad to see this…but then again, 20 years was a long time, and many snack foods were now packaged in these little bags, and well…everything else seem to be packaged in little plastic bags.
Where are the Bayongs?
At the markets, I did not see people carrying bayongs – the traditional market totes that my aunts and just about everyone had when going to the market, handles tucked in their arms. In fact, most people did not bring bags — and why would you, when you got a plastic bag for every item you bought at the market.
Or if they did have a bayong, it was the woven plastic sort, usually made in China. It must be cheaper than the native bags — or maybe again, there is a perception that these bags are stronger. The problem though, is that those plastic bags break too. The handles break, the strands start to unravel…and these plastic bayongs end up being thrown away.
The difference is that the old, native bayongs –usually made from native leaves like romblon / pandan, or rattan—just decomposed and returned to being part of ecosystem. And that plastic bag… well, it could take much longer…as in hundreds of years before that bag ever disappears.
About Native Leaf
In my previous post, I was exploring the “About Us” topic…why we do what we do. And this is my super extended “About Us” page, and since I don’t want to scare people away from the website with the longest “About Us” page ever, this information is here…under Our Story.
I have always appreciated the look, and the feel of natural, native products, and the craftsmanship (and patience) that goes into making these hand-woven items.
A combination of this appreciation, remembering those Kalesas filled with handicrafts, the near disappearance of the native bayongs from the market, the overuse of plastic bags, and the question, what can I do…is the reason why Native Leaf exists.
And corny as it may seem, and maybe too often said…I do want to make a difference, in whatever small way I can. And so if the business of Native Leaf can help a few families with extra income, and we can replace some plastic bags and packaging in the process, then that would be a good thing.
I would like to see Filipino-Americans who travel to the Philippines find and buy native bayongs in their local markets and bring it here, and proudly use them whenever they go shopping. And if the bags eventually break down from repeated use, throw it in your compost pile, then happily go out and buy a new one— or better yet, buy two or a few more, and you have now given a family who makes these bags a renewed source of income.
And to environment-conscious and savvy consumers here in the U.S. and beyond, to look for and carry beautiful Philippine-made bayongs to the market, reduce their plastic bag use so that there are less plastics added to the municipal waste systems (or for people who live near the coast, less plastics that blow away and end up in the ocean).
More importantly, that shoppers in the Philippines see the value in using native products so that they are preferred over woven plastic bayongs.
So that is the root of the Native Leaf story.
Native Leaf’s focus is to create, or reinterpret traditional products made from sustainable, earth friendly materials, and tell the story behind the products, as well as to make gift packaging that are reusable, compostable and biodegradable.
Fair trade is important to me, and so we do our best to work directly with the people who make the products we sell and to follow fair trade guidelines (more about this in future posts).
Fast Forward 2011 and the Plastics Problem
And so forward now to 2011…Recent research and findings tells us that our throw away society — fueled in part by the ease of using plastic bags, and disposable plastic everything– is now causing problems for our oceans, which covers 71% of our home planet.
Plastics are relatively new to our eco system, so there really is nothing natural to break them down yet –hence, why you may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an area in the Pacific Ocean which contains an estimated 150 million tons of plastic covering an area twice the size of Texas). More information on this can be accessed through Oceana at http://na.oceana.org/en/living-blue , or another source for facts about debris affecting our oceans is available by visiting the U.S. Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration.
It’s not that I am against plastics. I love my modern products and living in the modern world. I like the and the ease and convenience of plastic packaging when I go to the grocery store, just like everyone else. And sometimes, there really is no better option available than to use plastics.
And I have faith that we — the most intelligent inhabitants of this planet — will choose to recycle and be responsible, and find solutions to this plastics problem.
For now though…not everything has to be made of plastics, and we should consider and use alternatives to plastics when possible.
Now more than ever, I am committed to promoting Native Leaf products — all biodegradable, meaning that after its usefulness, it breaks down, and back to earth through moisture and microbes, and can go back into our eco system.
The Internet – and the Handicraft Kalesa
In a way, the internet — through our retail website — functions as those Kalesa’s that use to meander around town with their hand-crafted goods. Except in reverse, because it is at your convenience, and in reverse in that we want to provide an alternative to plastic products and plastic packaging. Plastic bags and plastics in gift packaging like organza nylon, seem to be the norm now…
If we can offer an option — our sturdy and beautiful romblon placemats for example, or our hand-woven abaca textile bags and boxes for gift giving, or a re-usable market tote when shopping — then in our small way, we have made a difference.
Not only for our planet, but also in contributing to the livelihood of someone in a developing country, who created that item.
So stayed tuned as we continue on this journey, one small, fairly traded bag —or table top accessory —at a time.
And thank you for taking the time to read this story.