Single-use plastics have been in the spotlight for the past years because of its impact on our environment. It pollutes throughout its lifecycle beginning from extraction, refining, and ending in their disposal in the oceans and waterways, soil, and in the air we breathe through burning or incineration. In fact, it does not only impact our environment but also our health, livelihoods, food and wildlife. Further, plastics do not biodegrade. Instead they slowly break down into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.
The plastic pollution crisis is considered transboundary in nature as it involves various countries and territories. From the production side, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has projected that plastic production (which often transpires in Global North countries) will continue to increase 25-billion-metric-ton mark in 2050. This is projected to happen despite the fact that historical wastes are still a problem. Further, according to estimates, only 9% of the plastics that have ever been produced is recycled while 79% accumulates in landfills, or worse, gets leaked into the environment.
Developing countries like the Philippines play a pivotal role in the global plastic pollution crisis. Global South countries are often blamed for this problem since their markets are flooded with consumer products which are often packed in single-use disposable plastics like sachets or packets aimed at reaching lower income brackets in developing countries. Corporations have inundated developing countries like the Philippines with these products packaged in sachets and packets in order to sell their products at a lower cost using the justification that these are pro-poor and economical for the low-income sector.
The reality is that, long before the introduction of sachets, countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have refill systems that are in place and are working efficiently. Multinational corporations have disrupted the refill systems that developing countries are used to having by opting to sell their products in sachets instead in bulk.
Moreover, countries and individuals around the world are creating for themselves real solutions to the plastic pollution crisis, to avoid relying on a broken system. In Asia, particularly in the Philippines, Zero Waste program and small business models operating on plastic-free systems of refill and reuse are gaining momentum, while corporations continue to sell falsely “innovative” types of throwaway packaging that is not recyclable or compostable.
The irony is that the burden of managing the overabundance of these low-value single-use plastics often falls on the shoulders of the communities and governments, while corporations’ plastic production remains unbridled and unchecked, and is poised to increase by nearly 40% over the next decade.
Of false solutions like waste-to-energy incinerators
In recent years, corporations have offered the methods of recycling, upcycling, and downcycling to curb the plastics pollution. But these are neither viable nor sustainable solutions. Recycling is not enough. Companies must eliminate problematic products and reduce the amount of plastics they produce while offering alternative packaging and distribution systems to their consumers.
The demand for plastics is created by companies who refuse to take responsibility for the pollution and place liability on consumers.
Instead of heeding global calls for less plastic in the marketplace, the plastics industry is also pushing for false solutions like burning. The industry tends to champion such schemes as “waste to energy,” gasification, and pyrolysis as solutions to the problem. But these methods require ongoing extraction of resources as they fail to keep valuable materials in a circular economy, and they have been known to create harmful emissions like heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, and greenhouse gases. Far from solving the problem, burning plastics creates new ones.
Going Zero Waste and dealing with unmanageable plastic residuals
In 2001, the Philippines enacted a landmark law - Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2001. This law is deemed a model law because of its decentralized and community-centred approach to waste and resource management systems. In complementary with Republic Act 8679 or the Clean Air Act, R.A. 9003 bans burning or incineration of wastes.
In fact, January is considered as the Philippines’ Zero Waste Month because this was the month when Republic Act No. 9003, was put into law nineteen years ago. However, despite being hailed as one of the world’s most progressive environmental laws, the implementation of the 19-year old law has suffered from lack of political will and contradicting policies from government agencies involved in waste and resource management. In fact, almost every year, there has always been a threat to repeal the ban on waste-to-energy incineration as enshrined in these two laws.
According to the National Solid Waste Commission in 2015, waste in Philippine cities and municipalities is mostly composed of organics (52 percent). Recyclables comprise 28 percent, and residuals (waste that can’t be reused, recycled or composted) 18 percent. Much of the waste (80 percent, which is organics and recyclables combined) can be safely returned to nature or industry without resorting to landfills or dumpsites and incineration.
Through proper segregation, organics can be composted in our homes, schools and offices. In a linear waste management approach, organics are wasted instead of being turned into a resource. Under a Zero Waste approach, recyclables are reused and recycled and become a source of livelihood for waste workers as well.
Various cities and municipalities in the Philippines have shown leadership in implementing the law and have been leading the way in going Zero Waste. A good model is the City of San Fernando, Pampanga, which achieved a 78-percent waste diversion record (or the amount that was composted or recycled instead of going into the landfill) in 2017, from 12 percent in 2012. Tacloban City was also able to increase the coverage of waste collection but managed to decrease the volume of waste sent into landfills. Fort Bonifacio, a barangay (village) in Taguig City pegs it at 92 percent.
However, as experienced in these Zero Waste communities, residual wastes (those that can neither be recycled or composted) which are mostly composed of SUPs like sachets have become unmanageable. Through Waste Assessments and Brand Audits (WABA) conducted as part of implementing a Zero Waste program, single-use plastics are the biggest detriment toward the achievement of Zero Waste because communities are burdened with a fraction of residual wastes which they do not have the capacity to deal with.
In a 2019 report, GAIA has posited that if “manufacturers were mandated at the national level to reduce production of throwaway plastic packaging, for example through innovations such as alternative delivery systems or reusable packaging, this would address a large part of the country’s plastic waste problem, including plastic waste leakage to rivers and seas.”
However, the work does not end at the local government unit (LGU) level. Many LGUs that have already been implementing zero-waste policies need strong support from national government agencies and legislators. They have the power to enable an environment that supports these policies by enacting laws and supporting the implementation of such laws that can scale up the successes of LGUs doing the Zero Waste approach.
For instance, cities like San Fernando, Pampanga, that are trying to reduce nonrecyclable plastic waste through local ordinances cannot implement Zero Waste effectively unless there is a law at the national level to mandate businesses to stop the production of single-use disposable plastic packaging. Having a national law will ensure that materials such as disposable implements or throwaway sachet packaging are not produced in the first place. Thus, it removes the burden from LGUs to have to manage plastic waste that can neither be recycled or composted. Instead of LGUs looking into false solutions like incinerators, pyrolysis, cement kilns etc.
Filipino consumers: Ban single-use plastics
GAIA commissioned a Social Weather Stations nationwide survey, which showed that seven out of 10 Filipinos feel that the best thing to do with SUPs is to ban their use at all times. Topping the list of materials that should be regulated or used less nationally is sando bags (71%), followed by plastic straws and stirrers (66%), plastic labo bags (65%), styrofoam or polystyrene food containers (64%), sachets (60%), Tetra pack or doy pack for juices (59%), plastic drinking cups (56%), cutlery such as plastic spoons and forks (54%), Plastic bottles for juice (49%), and Plastic bottles for water (41%).
In addition, 6 out of 10 said they are willing to buy their food condiments in recyclable or refillable containers instead of sachets while 4 out of 10 feel that companies should find alternative materials to plastic.
The Duterte administration should seriously think about these findings. What the results show is that Filipino consumers are willing to sacrifice convenience and disposability and are ready to embrace refill and alternative delivery systems. The current Philippine government’s pronouncement on banning SUPs should not only be a lip service. It must have the political will to make a national SUP ban law a priority piece of legislation among its allies in the Congress of the Philippines. Moreover, it must work on an effective implementation of solid waste management law and uphold the ban on incinerations.
Curbing plastics pollution requires collective action and proactive collaboration among various sectors and stakeholders. Governments, corporations, and citizens have their respective roles to play in finding our way out of the plastics crisis. All too often, the industry’s response to the problem is to downgrade it to a mere waste management issue, and to require municipalities and citizens to bear the cost of dealing with the pollution created by plastics producers and consumer brands.National governments, on the other hand, have a role to play in enabling an environment and policies that can support Zero Waste vision and plastic-free communities. The Duterte government should realize that.