Sachet away: What's lacking in our plastic laws?

AT A GLANCE

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines has one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world and yet it is among the top sources of plastic trash leaking into oceans.

Who's the culprit? Advocates point to the booming sachet economy and the lack of policies in place to regulate single-use plastics, let alone ban it.

In a September 21 brand audit by the Break Free from Plastic (BFFP) movement, over 3,700 volunteers in 20 locations across the country picked up over 37,000 pieces of plastic trash for the World Clean-up Day.

In a single day's worth of collection, they picked up about half (47.28%) of the total trash or 17,502 pieces of unbranded plastic trash. (READ: #2030Now: Refilling stations emerge as best solution to plastic pollution)

The other half were from multinational companies, with Coca-Cola (7.58%), Nestlé (4.74%), and Universal Robina Corporation (4.34%) topping the list.

According to the BFFP report, top plastic materials collected were Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) and Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Some examples of LDPE are squeezable bottles, food wraps, and bags, while PET are usually in the form of softdrink and water bottles.

Earlier this March, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific found that Filipinos use more than 163 million plastic sachet packets daily, or nearly 60 billion sachets a year.

Affordability and convenience are among the reasons why Filipinos continue to patronize single-use packaging.

This can easily be addressed by bringing non-single-use packaging such as tumblers or tupperwares at stores, advocates said, just like how it was done before the boom of the sachet economy. But old habits die hard.

With the "tingi" (retail) economy now deeply ingrained in Filipino culture, what can be done to reduce plastic pollution? 

Recycling not enough

Republic Act (RA) No. 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 served as a landmark legislation for managing wastes in the country. It tasked LGUs or local government units to have solid waste management plans for the government to oversee.

While there is a law on waste management, LGUs are struggling to implement it. 

These plans should have guidelines for reusing, recycling, and composting wastes generated in their areas. Fast forward to 2019, or nearly two decades after the law was passed, less than half (41.96%) of the LGUs in the Philippines have approved 10-year plans. 

Under RA 9003 and its implementing rules and regulations, plastics are categorized as "recyclable materials." Thus, LGUs should include plastics in their recycling programs. (READ: The challenges of going zero waste in the Philippines)

Apart from RA 9003, there are no other laws that specifically regulate plastic use.

The problem with recycling as the lone policy for plastics is that sachets, as small plastic packets, are often lined with aluminium or contain other materials that make them nonrecyclable. This leads to a high volume of residual waste, or waste that cannot be recycled or composted.

Environmental groups said that recycling is far from enough to deal with what they called a "plastic pollution emergency."

"Plastic recycling is not enough. We have to turn off the tap of single-use plastic," Monica Wilson of GAIA USA said at the International Zero Waste conference in Penang, Malaysia.

"We need to have systems," Wilson added.

POLLUTION. Plastic waste still end up in coastal areas as local governments struggle to implement RA 9003. Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler

POLLUTION. Plastic waste still end up in coastal areas as local governments struggle to implement RA 9003.

Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler

Among Philippine local governments, San Fernando City in Pampanga leads the way in eliminating residual waste, in a bid to reduce plastic pollution and bring down government expenses on trash.

San Fernando City has brought residual waste to just 20% in 2018 – the first city to do so – from 85% when they first started establishing material recovery facilities (MRFs) in 2013. 

San Fernando City Mayor Edwin Santiago made sure that barangays, establishments, and schools have their own MRFs. Now, the city has a total of 103 MRFs that conduct segregation-at-source.

"We have to put our money in education and health care. That's why we are spending about P12 million – and not P70 million – for solid waste," Santiago said. (READ: Philippine city shows zero waste is achievable)

Santiago acknowledged that the national government has been very helpful in their initiative, but he said that a single local government cannot do everything to totally remove plastics in the consciousness of Filipinos.

"We cannot avoid using plastic, but we have to manage," Santiago said. 

Sachet away

Multinational corporations like NestléUnileverProcter & Gamble, and Pepsi-Cola Products Philippines have already issued commitments to find more sustainable solutions to their packaging.

But since the law stated that plastics are treated as recyclables, these commitments are geared towards just that. (READ: Despite gov't push, private sector group sees 'big gap' in solving trash problem)

The United Nations Environment Assembly, of which the Philippines is part, has adopted resolutions stressing the importance of long-term elimination of trash in the oceans and addressing single-use plastic pollution.

Globally, at least 127 of 192 countries have policies ranging from a partial ban to a progressive phase-out of plastics products. But no country has so far instituted a "total ban" on plastics, as some still allow its "biodegradable" counterparts.

In its March report, the UN recommended the passage of specific legislation regulating plastic – particularly requiring manufacturers to reduce waste or for them to have policies on extended producers' responsibility. This means recognizing their responsibility beyond the sale of their product and providing, for example, for in-store recycling and upcycling.

The world body also recommended adopting recycling targets and charge enough to discourage  the purchase of plastic products.

"As knowledge and understanding of the scale of the problem of plastic pollution grows, more concerted action will be required at the national level to address the scale of the marine pollution problem caused by plastics," the UN said.

Several lawmakers at the Senate and the House of Representatives have filed bills with an end goal of banning single-use plastics. But all of these progressive measures have yet to be taken up by their respective committees.

Total phase-out

At the Senate, at least 3 senators have filed bills pushing for the total phaseout of single-use plastics – Senator Francis Pangilinan (SB 40), Senator Cynthia Villar (SB 333), and Senator Manny Pacquiao (SB 557).

These bills were a version of the proposed measure, filed by then-senator and now House Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda during the 17th Congress, which she has also filed at the House this Congress. Under their bills, Villar and Pangilinan want a ban on plastic importation.

The proposed penalties for violation range from P5,000 to P100,000 and revocation of license for small businesses. Big enterprises and plastic manufacturers may be slapped P50,000 to P1 million and may not be eligible for a renewal of business license for a period of 5 years.

Straws

Senator Risa Hontiveros and Senator Sonny Angara, meanwhile, are pushing for regulation of plastic straws.

While Hontiveros wants a ban on straws in food service establishments, Angara wants a mandatory P2-fee per requested plastic straw.

Both bills exempt senior citizens and persons with medical conditions from the coverage of the proposed measure.

Use of biodegradable plastics

Senator Lito Lapid and Senator Nancy Binay are both pushing for a measure that would require establishments to provide biodegradable plastic bags or other alternatives, instead of the usual single-use ones.

At the House of Representatives, 23 bills were filed by congressmen geared towards either imposing more taxes on plastic bags or a nationwide ban on single-use plastics and straws:

Ban

Several congressmen have filed their own versions similar to Legarda's bill too. The main contention among these versions lies in the phaseout time – whether just a year or 3 years – to carry out the ambitious banning of plastics.

Meanwhile, Bataan Representative Geraldine Roman had filed House Bill No. 3537 banning single-use plastics in commercial establishments, while Bohol Representative Joy Tambunting wants a ban in tourism sites as provided in HB 4724.

Iloilo 3rd District Representative Lorenz Defensor wants to ban plastics in advertising, including election paraphernalia.

Straws

When it comes to food and beverages, Quezon City Representative Precious Castelo filed HB 3537 banning straws in restaurants, while Tambunting's HB 3725 seeks to ban the use of nonrecyclable materials as food containers.

In-store recovery

Tambunting and Agusan del Norte congressman Lawrence Lemuel Fortun, in separate bills, seek to require in-store recovery programs for plastics.

Taxation

Sultan Kudarat 2nd District Representative Horacio Suansing Jr and Nueva Ecija 1st District Representative Estrellita Suansing wanted to approach regulation of plastics through taxation. They're proposing a P10 levy on every plastic bag.

In 2011, Legarda and the late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago had been pushing for a total plastic bag ban since the 15th Congress. These bills never moved past the committee level. 

With the opening of a new Congress last July, lawmakers still have plenty of time to pass their proposed measures until 2022.

Will we see these bills finally moving in the coming months? Or will we see a repeat of the past Congresses where discussions were stalled? – with a report from Jaia Yap/Rappler.com

Rappler is building a network of climate advocates, LGUs, corporations, NGOs, youth groups, and individuals for the #ManyWaysToZeroWaste campaign, a movement pushing for responsible ways to use and reduce plastic. Go here to know how you can help.

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

image