Featured image: Loic Druart
In the global war on plastic, each incremental win, no matter how small, stands as prospective grounds for a greener and cleaner future.
Humans are the architects of a marine tragedy unparalleled in the last 66 million years. Our marvel? Plastic.
Plastic was born from our vociferous demand for convenience. Now, it is an essential component in most inexpensive production models. This rise has not been without issue.
Plastic is so fantastically designed, but poorly controlled that it has become ubiquitous in most natural environments.
This statement could not be truer for marine environments. Today, there is around 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. By 2050 it is estimated that marine plastic will outweigh global fish populations.
The severity of the situation is well-established. But, this knowledge merely begs the question: how can we eliminate a product designed to persist? There is no clear answer to this question because most efforts made so far have failed to address the overriding problem.
Plastic pollution of the marine environment is largely an artefact of developing countries. Here, the localised economic and social difficulties of the people overshadow any green dispositions and action.
A scathing report by the UN in 2015 found that half of all plastic waste in the ocean originates from just 5 developing countries – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Most of these countries took their ranking as nothing more than an inconvenience, particular China whose response exemplifies their abysmal indifference for the environment. The Philippines, however, has not taken this title lightly. Instead, they have taken regulatory steps to affirm a previously unknown environmental agenda.
These steps have drawn much interest because they could serve as a precedent for future action if successful.
So, have these steps achieved effectual reductions of plastic pollution? Does the Philippines provide an answer to solving the plastic pollution crisis?
Plastic covers the beaches of Manila Bay. Regular clean ups fail to mitigate the build-up.
Source: Adam Cohn
A green agenda.
The Philippines is the third largest contributor to global marine plastic pollution. 81 percent of their plastic waste is mismanaged, equating to 5568 tonnes of plastic pollution per day. This has long been a known issue in the Philippines. (The UN report merely brought it to international attention).
Asian countries are rarely thought of as places that harbour an environmental mentality. However, a peripheral grassroots culture against plastic has been developing in the Philippines for years. Recently this movement, underpinned by the UN report, gained traction and translated into a political motivator.
“I understand the convenience and economics of plastic use. However, we should never let short-term benefits doom us in the long term” – Former Senate President of the Philippines, Koko Pimentel
Following this public statement by the former Senate President of the Philippines, the presence of regulatory frameworks directed at plastic pollution and usage in the Philippines has become more common.
A war on plastic?
The nations topography, complimented by the severity of plastic pollution, puts most Filipinos in daily contact with the material. For example, the clean-up of Manila Bay, a single coastline of this island nation, yielded 1,594 litres of trash.
For many, repulsion is simply an outcome of this daily confrontation. For others, the issue is more of an extensional concern. Regardless, plastic pollution is now a hot-button issue.
Currently, there is no national framework for a complete ban or phase-out of plastics. However, most local governments have attempted to regulate plastic pollution through the passing of ordinances. Some examples include:
– Senate Bill No. 1866 prohibits the use of plastic straws and stirrers in restaurants and other establishments.
– The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 contains provisions on recycling options and details recyclable materials.
– The Malay municipal government prohibits the use of single-use plastics in hotels, resorts, restaurants and establishments in the accommodation business. Reoffenders can be fined up to P2,500 and have their business permit revoked.
The presence of regulation directed at plastic usage and pollution in the Philippines is undeniable. However, cracks begin to show when analysing its application.
In some cities, ordinances are devised on the basis of a command-and-control approach. But such a system is thwart with administrative difficulties from day one – most parts of the Philippines lack the resources required to adequately mobilise their law enforcement.
Instead most places assume and rely on the sustainable convictions of people. The Philippines approach to mitigating plastic pollution relies on the individual to act responsibly or to act in accordance with a law that is incapable of being enforced.
A lack of national guidance has driven many municipalities to devise their own approach for dealing with the issue. Not all actions against plastic pollution, despite their possibly good intent, have been beneficial.
Many regions have dabbled with alternative waste disposal methods, mainly incineration, which is favoured for dealing with the visual component of plastic pollution. But, only leads to more issues.
Most notable is the municipality of Puerto Princesa City, where 100 metric tonnes of POPs will be released per day through a P2.1 billion WtE gasification development.
Incineration emits a wide range of toxic and hazardous air pollutants, including heavy metals, nanoparticles and many persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These toxins are the subject of the Stockholm Convention on POPs and took a place on a UN treaty for the worst of the world’s hazardous chemicals.
Incineration and other kinds of waste disposal methods are used as cheap and swift ways of addressing the issue without dealing with it – out of sight and out of mind. These are appealing to developing countries for obvious reasons.
The infrastructure and funding needed to appropriately address the issue are preferably spent on economic issues. This logic is at the heart of the countries emphasis on self-action rather than national action.
Indeed, self-guidance itself appears to be an issue because it has resulted in a string of conflicting approaches.
While some places have banned plastic bags, others use them in multitudes. While some places have outlawed the use of plastic condiments, others favour them. While some places are limiting plastic bottle usage, others have increased output.
In some cities, you will be fined for possessing a plastic bag. In others, this is limited to hospitals, city halls and government offices. In others, shopping malls may distribute plastic bags to customers. In one store, you may be denied a bag in abidance of a plastic ban, while the adjacent stores offer out bags in droves – one for every item you purchase.
To this discrepancy the Philippines has fostered much inter-municipality confusion. Furthermore, through a lack of national guidance, a push to reduce plastic usage in the country has translated to regional policies that target peripheral specifics of the issue, such as plastic straws.
Plastic incineration is rarely undertaken in a manner that addresses toxic emissions
Source: somsak suwanput
Too little, too late?
Small changes are evident in the mentality of the Philippines towards plastic pollution.
There is a higher presence of bins in most cities; the adoption of the three-tier segregation system is evident in most affluent cities; alternative straws are now offered in most tourist areas; many stores offer paper bags over plastic bags; et cetera. There are many superficial changes. But, little has been adopted on a scale needed to achieve tangible reductions.
Little has been achieved because the foundational issues are not being addressed. Despite popular opinion, plastic pollution does not stem from large corporations like Nestle or from their ‘sachet economy’. It stems from people.
“What we need is waste reduction. In order to actually reduce flooding, we need to change our mentality from just throwing things away to learning how to reuse our things” – Soap Boxie
Addressing plastic pollution will require behavioural change. Disassociating the notion of plastic from convenience and plastic waste from disposable. This will be difficult.
Despite the existence of a green movement, most Filipinos do not value the environment beyond its benefits for the self. Most people maintain the view that the environment is an entity entirely separate from humans. And it is treated accordingly.
Addressing this mentality is difficult. Most of the world has failed to overcome it. But, it can be circumvented to at least motivate people to act sustainably for themselves id est plastic pollution and more broadly waste mismanagement as an antithesis of progress.
This will require education; strong governance; investment in waste management; regulation of commercial plastic usage; regulating availability of plastic; social adaptation to change and more. (And, an article of its own).
The Philippines does not hold the answer to halting broader plastic pollution. But, every revolution has begun with a single person demanding change.
Will the plastic pollution crisis be solved by governments or people?
***The true motive of the Philippines government and its people is hard to discern. Much of the nation perpetuates some of the most damaging of human actions, including a ballooning population, an abysmal meat abstention rate, deforestation, rapidly declining terrestrial species and fish stocks – what’s the point of a clean ocean with no fish in it? Convenience and pleasure remains the decisive factor for environmental degradation in the region. A factor the Philippines seems unable to adequately and logically address.
***The information in this article is accurate as of the publication date preceding the main text. It is important to recognise that all information should be sourced from a wide and varying range of up-to-date articles, before drawing conclusions.