A plastic-free Philippines: will we get there?

Improper waste disposal is one of the largest environmental concerns that the global community continues to respond to. To emphasize the point, 45,000 tons of waste are produced daily, enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 36 minutes.

In 2006, the United Nations and other agencies estimated the world's annual waste production to be more than 1 billion tons, while other estimates peak at 1.3 billion tons. Topping the list of the world's waste-creating nations is the United States, which produces a quarter of the world's waste despite its less-than 5% share of the global population.

In the Philippines, an average person would produce 0.3 to 0.5 kilograms of waste daily. Using conservative estimates, a Filipino could produce around 185 kilograms of garbage per year, or 14.6 billion kilograms of garbage as a nation. Of that number, 45% is food or kitchen waste, 17% paper, 16% plastic, 7% grass and wood, while 5% accounts for metal waste and 3% for glass. However, only 10% of the total number of garbage produced is being recycled or composted; 73% goes to dump sites, while the remaining 17% remains in backyards, streets, sewers, and rivers.

Although it accounts for only a small proportion of the total garbage produced, the use of plastic  poses a great threat to the environment. Plastics are non-biodegradable; this means that their decomposition takes many years. Plastics thrown on waterways and canals may block the passage of water, resulting in devastating floods which could take away thousands of lives and destroy vast swathes of property and public infrastructure. Typhoon Ondoy (international name: Ketsana) was a stark warning of such repercussions in 2009. Plastics thrown in bodies of water may also be confused for food by fish, poisoning them.

The contribution of plastics towards global warming is also large. The production of five plastic bags creates around 1kg of carbon dioxide. Plastics also eliminate methane gas, a catalyst for global warming.

As with all countries in the world, the Philippines experiences the threats brought about by climate change. The rising of sea levels also threaten different localities and island provinces. Corals experience bleaching and the continued use of plastics indirectly worsens the problem.

The glaring effects of continued plastic production and use have forced the Philippines into changing both legislation and attitude. The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, for example, provides national directive on how waste should be handled, but most municipalities fail to effectively implement the regulation; the majority of households, the largest source of waste, do not observe its simplest mandate which is to segregate refuse. The Plastic Bag Regulation Act 2011, has also not driven the nation into action. For instance, Crispin Lao, a plastic industry spokesman, says that banning plastics misses the problem completely, suggesting that "it is an egregious mismatch between problem and solution."

While the national government stutters into actionLocal Government Units (LGUs) in Quezon City, Las Piñas City, Muntinlupa City, Pagbilao (in Quezon), and Albay have implemented ordinances in order to minimize plastic consumption.

Private organizations have jumped into the “No to Plastic” bandwagon. The Miss Philippines-Earth (MPE) beauties urge people to go back to basic by replacing plastic bags with bayong (a bag made of woven strips of palm leaves). MPE also campaigns for “Plastic-Free Wednesdays”. A similar crusade is also implemented by clothing brand Bench. The No-To-Plastic movement has seen schools become active, while De La Salle University and Holy Name University, Bohol, have banned entry of styrofoam products and plastics, respectively. St. Louis University in Baguio also declares Wednesday “a plastic-free day”.

Impressive as the action of LGUs, NGOs and private institutions is, the question continues to linger — will we ever achieve a plastic-free country?

Effective plastic-waste reduction will remain a distant dream for every Filipino who fights for a greener Philippines unless the majority change their lifestyle. The Philippines' dependence on plastic packages must end.

Solutions lie before us, some simple and others more difficult. The aforementioned use of bayongs would not only lessen the problem but would support the industry that feeds many families that rely on the currently meager income it generates.

The entire issue of improper disposal of plastic waste could be pinned to the people’s lack of environmental knowledge, or worse - apathy. How could it ever be though, that having plastic today is more important than saving the one home we have?

The government should strengthen the implementation of its various laws relating to environmental sustainability. Simple measures such as the instilling of environmental knowledge within classroom walls would help today's youth better understand their role as stewards of the planet. LGUs should strengthen their means of educating their constituents on proper waste management; it would be better if people followed a law because they understand its importance, rather than because they fear the consequences of breaking it.

In the short term, stricter implementation of laws is important. Inspections must be done regularly to ensure that everybody observes regulations. Authorities should not be lenient, and the citizens should not be obstructive. Cooperation is always the key.

I would like to believe that the Philippines can be plastic-free. However, current efforts are not enough and the prospects of achieving our goal remain bleak. I, like all other positive Filipinos, cling to the hope that the our nation can get there through the joint effort of the government, the private sector, and the entire Philippine population.

By: Dandreb James Arro

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