The Philippines' Plastic Problem
Plastic was invented more than a hundred years ago. It is an ingenious material created because of its versatility, durability, and its cost-efficiency for usage in various industries and trade. Years later, we discovered that the convenience of plastic comes with a hefty price—an enormous environmental problem: land and marine pollution and climate change which will persist for years.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF USING PLASTIC
Ateneo Institute of Sustainability’s (AIS) “The Face of Plastic” discussed the big picture where it is almost impossible not to use plastic in all aspects of our lives—from food, clothing, gadgets, household needs, you name it.
It mentioned not much accountability is put onto the producers and the burden of use and disposal is on the individual consumer. Whilst numerous companies have announced that they are taking steps to reduce and recycle plastic, it seems to be a smokescreen just to show they are doing something to combat the problem while not addressing the root cause.
In an economy designed to keep plastic in high demand, producers are incentivized to supply people with more and more plastics... Whereas plastic sachets and containers were not perceived as needs before, it is thanks to some companies that these are now almost inextricable from everyday reality.
--- “The Face of Plastic”, Stanley Guevarra
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE PLASTIC WE USE?
Since plastics are typically single-use and intended for quick consumption, solid waste disposal and management is a huge challenge because trash is frequently found in public spaces and open landfills continue to contaminate the air. Even with the existence of Republic Act (RA) 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management of 2000 which mandates segregation at the barangay level by local government units (LGUs), all types of waste still get mixed up in collection and there’s still insufficient infrastructure for waste management.
According to Crispian Lao of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS), 70% of the Filipino population lacks access to sanitary landfills and disposal facilities, leading garbage to flow into the oceans. Moreover, whereas the Philippines is among Southeast Asian countries with the highest rates of garbage collection, the country does not properly dispose of its rubbish as 77% of plastic found in the ocean was from collected waste.
DENR Secretary Jim Sampulna has cited a lack of strict enforcement, sufficient budget, and firm implementation of waste segregation by LGUs and waste collectors as reasons why plastics and other waste remain to be growing substantially. On the other hand, DENR Undersecretary Benito Antonio de Leon also mentioned the lack of awareness and knowledge of Filipinos about proper waste segregation in the household; which is another problem of its own.
With segregation, recycling is commonly promoted as a solution to the plastic waste problem. However, only 9% of plastics are recycled worldwide. In the Philippines, while figures look better, just 28% of key plastic resins were recycled in 2019. World Bank reported that over 890 million USD is lost due to unrecycled valuable materials and the country recorded an 85% recycling capacity gap, higher than neighbors Malaysia and Thailand.
High electric costs, cheap landfill disposal fees, and the fact that recycling suppliers are typically small and medium-sized businesses (that are unable to scale their operations to meet the demands of multinational corporations) are all said to be deterrents to recycling, according to IFC Country Manager Jean-Marc Arbogast. Also, he said that more than 60% of goods sold locally come in packaging that is difficult to recycle. These reasons make it difficult to change the status quo and that’s why the accumulation of plastic waste seems to be never-ending.
HOW DO WE TACKLE THE PLASTIC PROBLEM?
Good thing sustainability groups, organizations, and advocates such as World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature, Break Free from Plastics Philippines, and Alliance to End Plastic Waste actively campaign for zero-waste and sustainable practices, as well as call on corporations to support extended producer responsibility where producers are liable to consumer products to be more environmentally friendly from production until disposal.
There is also growing awareness and shift to a circular economy, where this production and consumption paradigm aims to reuse, repair, and recycle existing items to prolong the life cycle of products to reduce waste. Benefits of a circular economy include production resilience (less pressure on the environment and increasing supply for raw materials), stimulating innovation, boosting the economy, and cost-efficiency over time.
In the Philippines, an organization called Circulo supports this movement by focusing on four pillars: fashion, food, plastics, and electronics due to increased sustainability demand in these areas. Corporations have also partnered with government and sustainability companies to carry out circular economy projects such as eco-bricks production (Pilipinas Shell, Ayala Land) and creating fertilizers out of used coconut husks (Van der Knaap Group).
Good Business Practices
Businesses have played a key role in the proliferation of plastics over the years. Today, their cooperation is also vital to the fate of the planet.
Being eco-friendly used to be a side note or a luxury only a few businesses can undertake. Nowadays though, there are a multitude of ways businesses can participate in the solution rather than the problem of pollution.
Companies can start with their offices and their employees encouraging them to bring their own mugs/water bottles instead of using disposable cups, purchasing refurbished or secondhand equipment, or even starting a waste recycling program.
For businesses that consume a lot of plastic, their biggest contribution would be to shift to using sustainable alternatives to minimize their use of plastic. For example, fashion brands can utilize eco-friendly materials in their fabric as well as packaging. Those in the food and beverage industry such as restaurants can switch to 100% biodegradable food packaging (See: Why Your Food Business Should Shift to Using Eco-Friendly Packaging) for takeout and deliveries. Packaging made from sugarcane bagasse like those sold by Econtainer is ideal to help food businesses reduce their ecological footprint. (Read more: Paper Straws and Containers Aren't Enough — Turn to Sugarcane Instead).
Individually, we can help lessen plastic waste by sharing information about waste disposal, signing petitions about sustainability and waste, and reusing/recycling/upcycling our belongings.
We can also choose to support eco-friendly businesses in our everyday life. As consumers, it is our responsibility to choose the products and businesses we support wisely. We also have a voice that businesses need to hear. We ought to let them hear straight that being eco-friendly is not just a fad, it truly matters, and we take it seriously as should they. (See: 12 Local Companies That Will Support Your Sustainable Lifestyle).
Solving plastic pollution and sustainability goals seem too far to reach but small actions yield compounding results in the long run. As long as we continue pushing sustainability beyond being a “trend” and adapting it as a lifestyle, we can be hopeful and optimistic that we will achieve less waste and make a positive impact on the environment that will be enjoyed by generations to come.
Artwork based on “The Face of Plastic”. Click here to read the full article.