Single-use plastics, still the environment's number 1 enemy

MANILA, Philippines – Plastic pollution isn't new. Efforts to curb the use of plastic, or even single-use plastic, has been going on for years but still has not reduced the amount of generated waste

Recently, with the government's cleanup drive and reports of dead whales with bellies full of plastic rocking the public, reducing consumption of or eliminating single-use plastic might not sound like a pipe dream at all. 

Even the World Bank Group also joined the bandwagon, having already launched PROBLUE, a trust fund for projects intended to solve marine life pollution. 

For environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the heightened awareness is a blessing, but their fight remains to be far from over. (READ: Despite gov't push, private sector group sees 'big gap' in solving trash problem)

Straight to the supplier

Last March, Greenpeace began its campaign again to curb the proliferation of single-use plastic waste from the source: by asking multinational companies that produce fast-moving consumer goods to take responsibility. (READ: The problem with plastics: stopping it 'at the source')

Earlier this April, Greenpeace and other supporters of the global movement Break Free from Plastic staged a protest ahead of Nestlé's annual general meeting, demanding accountability. 

Ecowaste Coalition National Coordinator Aileen Lucero, in an earlier issued statement, said that the government should "start charging" multinational companies as these are the sources of plastic waste to begin with. 

Environment groups earlier in April also estimated that around P5.8 million to P7.2 million a day or P2.1 billion to P2.6 billion a year is needed to manage residual wastes, which consist mostly of single-use plastics.

“Our taxes should be used to support educational, health, and other social services for Filipinos, and not to cover up the pollution footprint of multinational companies,” Lucero said. 

Global audit

As of 2018, products from Nestlé were the third most frequently collected waste, according to the 2018 global audit by Break Free from Plastic. The study covered 42 countries and tapped close to 10,000 volunteers who conducted 239 cleanup drives in that year..

The audit found that Coca-Cola Company and Pepsi Co took the lead as the top 2 brands that generated plastic waste worldwide.

Coca-cola, in a statement sent to Rappler on Wednesday, April 24, said they share a vision of a “litter-free community” with Break Free from Plastic. The company added that as its bottles and cans are fully recyclable, they are now working "towards using an average of 50% recycled content in...packaging by 2030."

Pepsi also said it is committed to achieve 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable packaging by 2025. “[W]e will continue to collaborate with a number of leaders in this area to learn and share the latest science and practical solutions,” the company added. 

In the Philippines, Mondelez International, Universal Robina Corp (URC), and Coca-Cola were the top 3 sources of plastic waste recovered from the audit. 

 

Mondelez also committed in 2018 to have all its packaging recyclable by 2025 and is aiming to switch to sustainably-sourced paper-based packaging by 2020. Its Parañaque facility already makes use of recyclable or recycled materials for packaging. 

URC, in its 2016 Natural Resources report, said that they make use of Bi-axially Oriented Polypropylene (BOPP) film, which can be upcycled into plastic pallets. A small number of these upcycled plastic are mixed with polyethylene terephthalate to make plastic bottle packaging. 

GAIA report

Nestlé, which ranks as the third largest source of plastic waste globally, ranked as the top source of plastic pollution in a March 2019 report by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). This, despite its pledge to fully use recyclable packaging by 2025.

Unlike Break Free from Movement’s study, GAIA’s report covered 5 years of household waste assessment and brand audit in the Philippines.

Greenpeace campaigner Abigail Aguilar in their protest said that Nestlé, despite its promise to reduce the waste generated from its products, still generated 1.7 million metric tons of plastic packaging in 2018, 13% higher from 2017. 

"As a major contributor to plastic pollution, Nestlé must take immediate action to reduce its production of throwaway packaging and invest in refill and reuse delivery systems for the sake of our planet,” Aguilar added. 

In a statement sent to Rappler on Friday, April 26, Nestlé said they also have their own waste collection and recycling programs in partnership with Green Antz Builders.

The company is already working with the local government units (LGUs) of Bulacan, Cagayan de Oro City, and Cauayan City in Isabela to recycle sachets into eco-bricks, eco-pavers, or school chairs.

Cartons from its ready-to-drink line, on the other hand, are being converted into recycled paper.

GAIA's report also showed Unilever and Procter and Gamble (P&G) as the second and third top sources of waste, respectively. Unilever and P&G previously announced their shift to a "circular economy" wherein plastic waste is collected and recycled back for their packaging.

Mondelez, URC, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé, Unilever, and P&G are all part of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS), which pledged to set up a full-waste recovery facility in Parañaque City. PARMS turned over the proposed design for the facility to the Parañaque government in June 2018.

While shifting to reusable or recyclable plastic and even paper sounds like the obvious next step following the reduction in single-use plastic, it also has its pitfalls as it still generates waste. 

A new study by GAIA released on Tuesday, April 23, pointed out that recyclable plastic waste is bound to be dumped in countries without regulations that ban their importation, giving rise to new problems.

For instance, after China imposed a ban on bringing plastic waste into its borders, top exporting countries such as the US and Japan could end up rerouting their trash to Southeast Asian countries, or even to India and Turkey.

The study said that with new regulations imposing such bans, exports of plastic waste dropped by 50% from 2016 to the first 11 months of 2018. Citing a 2017 report, GAIA, however, said that the manufacture of plastic is still projected to rise. 

Addressing demand instead

Cutting the supply and strictly enforcing regulations can only go so far. While Greenpeace and other environment groups deal with companies, WWF-Philippines has its own agenda, its president and chief executive officer Jose Angelito Palma told Rappler.

The organization had also called for a ban on single-use plastic as the theme of this year's Earth Hour. WWF has set a goal to eliminate plastic found in nature by 2030. 

WWF-Philippines president and CEO Joel Palma once again calls for the ban on single-plastic use."Don't be part of the pollution but the part of the solution" #EarthHourPH2019 | @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/vDHq1rKzdl — Anna Mogato (@AGAMogato) March 30, 2019 

"We’re trying to work with the supply chain to try to think of alternatives or look into upcycling rather than recycling," Palma said.

"When you say upcycling, it’s trying to get the waste plastic and use it for something different, more productive than ending up as waste," he added. 

Unlike Greenpeace, WWF-Philippines is also targeting the reduction of consumer demand, instead of pressuring manufacturers to reduce their supply of single-use plastic. 

"Hopefully we can generate much movement and support that... the consumers themselves will dictate to the manufacturers to be more considerate to the environment," Palma said. 

"It's easy to ban [plastic] but no one would do it. It's useless. What we want is to reduce [plastic]," he added in a mix of English and Filipino. (READ: Volume of Baguio plastic wastes down 1 year after ban

Aside from consumers, WWF-Philippines is also in the early stages of a plan to collaborate with LGUs willing to serve as pilot areas for programs intended to reduce waste. 

"We sort of agreed to work on a specific area near a river and the sea that's in a terrible situation," Palma said, refusing to name the LGUs they are already in talks with. 

"We were assigned to the most difficult area where there were informal settlers but we took on the challenge. We have to prove that it's possible."

Many birds, one stone

Aside from WWF-Philippines, a conservation advocacy group has also gone down to engage communities to increase environmental awareness, especially about marine biodiversity in the Verde Island Passage.

Science, Education and Advocacy (SEA) Institute executive director Joseph Ascalon told Rappler on Monday, April 22, that they already began a pilot program with Barangay San Teodoro in Mabini, Batangas two years ago. 

Under the program, residents collect plastic waste from the seas and turn these into handbags, providing another source of livelihood for the fishing community.

While Barangay San Teodoro still needs "help in terms of marketing and design," SEA Institute is already planning to recruit more barangays to be part of the alternative livelihood program.

Ascalon said that the availability of enough material to make handbags just shows the amount of plastic harvested from the waters.

"It (the program) is just one small part of the bigger picture in raising awareness about proper disposal...you have to change the people's behavior [as well],"  he added. – Rappler.com