Water hyacinth as material for pet pods

This river nuisance can make your animal companions ‘feel more at home’

The US pet industry is estimated to grow to $72.13 billion in 2018 from $69.51 billion in 2017. With that number also comes the increased amount of trash that each discarded pet toy or pet food packaging that ends up in landfills, if not in the oceans.

This, and the hefty price tag of a convenient pet bed, has led Alice Sarmiento of Alaga to create pet pods made of water hyacinth.

Like many other inventions, Sarmiento’s product has come out of necessity.

Sarmiento, a freelance writer and lecturer at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, was looking to buy a comfy cat bed from the internet.

“I was pretty mortified to find that (a pod) had a five-figure price tag, so it was a conscious effort to make something that I could afford.”

In their trips to regional bazaars, Sarmiento and her mother found that water hyacinths “felt like a good starting point mainly because of proximity: The material is readily available.” Baskets were already being made using water hyacinths, and its weavers were from a foundation they had long been working with.

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She also got the idea of using the material from other brands that have been utilizing the material as a sustainable alternative to leather.

“My mom and I thought it was still much nicer when it retained both its natural grain and color, so using it for basketry felt like the most logical choice,” Sarmiento said.

From making baskets, Sarmiento decided to try making cat pods out of these water lilies, which multiply so quickly and abundantly on rivers during the rainy season that they clog the waterways and become a nuisance to water craft.

Sarmiento, for her part, merely intended to create something affordable and “nice” for companion animals. And it aligns perfectly with her advocacy: She is a volunteer at the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and donates 10% of the sales of her cat pods to the organization.

“Hopefully, the way we represent our products, as well as our beneficiary, helps change the culture around pet ownership into one of animal companionship,” she said. “It should send the message that our home is their home, that they (regardless of breed) depend on us as much as we depend on them. Hence the copy in our tags: ‘so our companion animals feel more at home’.”

Sarmiento is a clothing technology major, and she designed the pods for cats, which made it easy for her to meet with the supplier and have a prototype made.

On Alaga’s Facebook page, pet guardians can choose from an open bed (the Blissful Bed) and a cocoon-shaped pet basket, called the Peaceful Pod, which are reasonably priced and are made through a livelihood program in Las Pinas.


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“We are hoping to develop a pet lounger soon, but we found this cannot be made of water lily because it is too soft, so taking this product further will mean possibly having to look for a supplier outside of Manila,” Sarmiento explained.

She started volunteering with PAWS in 2011, mainly as a foster parent and humane educator. It was also her education on animal cruelty and neglect that made her realize that “it is important to support an organization that teaches us to be better human beings, and compassion and responsibility for the living–regardless of species–is a huge part of that.”

“Many of our customers are the type who pay a premium because they care about the advocacy (PAWS),” she said. “Most of our customers take care of cats, although occasionally someone buys a pod or a bed for their little dog. It can fit anything smaller than a Shih Tzu.”

According to Sarmiento, the longevity of the pods depends on the attitude of the pet toward the pod.

“The samples we have at home have survived,” she said. “Maybe water lily doesn’t feel nice against our cat’s claws? Maybe it just doesn’t compare to our sofa? But I have seen some customers post pictures of their pets with the pods they purchased last Christmas, and those are still intact.”

Aside from her animal welfare advocacy, Sarmiento is also the co-founder of Grrrl Gang Manila, a feminist group that creates safe, women-only spaces for those who wish to talk about or just listen to others share their experiences and problems with being a woman in the Philippines.

“I also write about art and work in the cultural sector, so I also default to advocating for the arts and humanities,” she shared.

On the idea of sustainability, Sarmiento says: “I really wish the rhetoric behind sustainability wasn’t so tightly wound-up with the idea of privilege or lifestyles, but that’s one of the realities we have to contend with. It often feels insensitive to push for sustainable products in a society that’s so deeply fragmented, so I try to be careful about terms like ‘social enterprise’ or ‘sustainable life choices.’ The reality is that producing sustainably often means foregoing economies of scale in order to pay our workers fairly while reducing our carbon footprint, and on the market, this often translates to having higher prices and reaching a smaller segment.”


Visit Alaga’s Facebook page <https://www.facebook.com/AlagaPH/>


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