MANILA, Philippines – The proposed ban on plastic soft drink straws and coffee stirrers is at a standstill, over a year since the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) declared these as “non-environmentally acceptable.”
To date, the commission has not yet released a phaseout plan for the two products, citing concerns that have not been allegedly resolved.
Environmental groups scored the commission for failing to follow through on the resolution and for neglecting its duty as mandated by the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act or Republic Act (RA) No. 9003.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which chairs the commission, has not responded to repeated requests for interviews and documents sent by Rappler since August.
In responses to interview requests to seek updates on the resolution, the DENR-Environmental Management Bureau, which serves as secretariat to the commission, said it was still waiting for clearance from the office of the DENR secretary.
Since the passage of RA 9003 in 2001, the commission has not listed and phased out any non-environmentally acceptable products (NEAP), despite the mandate to do so within a year of the law’s effectivity .
The implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the law defined NEAP as products or packaging that are “unsafe in production, use, post-consumer use, or that produce or release harmful products.”
The commission finally made headway on February 2, 2021, when it issued Resolution No. 1428, which listed plastic straws and stirrers as NEAP, following an assessment done by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).
In the resolution, the commission said the guidelines for the phaseout of the two products will be “issued one year after publication in a national paper of national circulation.”
But the phaseout plan has not been resolved up to now due to certain matters raised by the private sector – particularly from the plastics industry – during public consultations, said commission vice chairperson Crispian Lao.
“There is a question of alternatives – as prescribed by law, that needs to fall within the 10% cap – that should be made available to consumers,” Lao, who represents the recycling industry in the commission, said in an interview.
The law provides that products considered NEAP would not be prohibited unless the commission finds alternatives that are available to consumers at “no more than 10% greater cost” than the disposable product.
Lao said the commission is also considering how the Extended Producers Responsibility Act, which lapsed into law in July, would affect the resolution, as it includes drinking straws.
Immediately after the issuance of the commission’s resolution in 2021, the plastics industry pushed back, citing issues in the process by which the two products were declared as non-environmentally acceptable.
In a letter sent by the Philippine Plastics Industry Association, Inc. (PPIA) and the Association of Petrochemical Manufacturers of the Philippines, Inc. (APMP) to then-environment secretary Roy Cimatu on February 5, 2021, they cited the lack of a life cycle assessment (LCA) for plastic straws and stirrers prior to the vote of the commission en banc.
An LCA is a compilation and evaluation of inputs, outputs, and potential environmental impacts of a product throughout its life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to disposal.
According to the IRR of RA 9003, any decision to prohibit certain products and packaging types must be supported by “available scientific, environmental, technical and economic information and technical studies through, but not limited to, life cycle assessment and economic analysis.”
In their position paper, the two plastics associations also called out procedural issues during the voting of the commission en banc.
The commission is composed of representatives from different government agencies, such as the DENR, DOST, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government; and from the private sector, including those involved in manufacturing and recycling industries, as well as a nongovernmental organization.
During the en banc, which was conducted via Zoom, 10 out of the 17 members of the commission voted in favor of the resolution. Three voted against, one abstained, while three others did not attend the session.
In a video recording of the session obtained by Rappler, then-DENR undersecretary Benny Antiporda, who served as presiding alternate chair of the commission, declared the resolution approved with the majority in favor.
However, Lao questioned his interpretation of RA 9003, stating a provision that a two-thirds vote of all commission members is required in case a consensus is not met.
Antiporda, however, said the two-thirds vote was only a last resort, as provided by RA 9003. Lao once again raised a point of order, but the former environment undersecretary said he could not hear his comments due to a supposed weak internet connection and moved on to the next agenda.
Citing these arguments, the PPIA and APMP in their letter said, “We respectfully submit that the validity of the proposed NEAP list and Resolution 1428 itself are put into serious question.”
In response to Lao’s concerns about the proceedings, Antiporda said in an interview, “If he thinks that’s illegal, he should file his case in court.”
Rey Esguerra, chief of the environmental and biotechnology division of the DOST-Industrial Technology Development Institute (ITDI), confirmed that the study that had become the basis of the commission’s vote was only their rapid assessment and not a full life cycle assessment.
It was supposedly done at the behest of Antiporda and was completed in two months only, he said. In comparison, an earlier full life cycle assessment that they had done for regular grocery bags and possible alternatives was completed in four years.
But Antiporda, now an administrator of the National Irrigation Administration, stressed that these studies should have been undertaken by the DOST a long time ago, considering that RA 9003 had been passed for over 20 years.
“It’s their job…. I alerted them to conduct immediate testing on this matter because, in the first place, it’s long overdue,” he said in an interview.
Esguerra said their recommendation then was to gather more information on the two products since their study relied mostly on available literature.
“Our recommendation then was to collect more information, to make sure that any alternatives – especially if you’re using this for food – is safe for human contact,” he said.
Despite the resolution, the DOST-ITDI still finalized the research and submitted it earlier this year to the commission.
Rappler requested copies of both studies from the commission secretariat but did not receive any response.
“We completed the study early this year and it was definite that there were alternatives, like [not using] plastic straws,” Esguerra said. “For coffee stirrers, popsicle sticks were available in the market.”
He said those would fall under the less than 10% economic cost for consumers as required under the law.
“It may seem like a no-brainer to simply not use plastic straws,” Esguerra said. “But as it is science, we have to have a basis.”
More thorough assessment needed
In a 2021 letter to Cimatu, former DOST secretary Fortunato de la Peña recommended a “more [holistic] approach” in developing policies regarding the NEAP.
They recommended the conduct of a life cycle assessment to include food safety and hygiene, economic impact, and social behavioral patterns. The current LCA only assesses the products’ impacts on the environment.
The DOST also recommended a longer and gradual three-year phaseout, instead of one year, for the products.
“This will also allow for finding and introducing reusable and recyclable alternatives that are viable to the market,” the letter read.
But any more delay in the inclusion of products in the NEAP list further harms vulnerable communities and marine ecosystems due to the deluge of plastics, particularly single-use plastic products and packaging, green groups said.
More plastic waste
Plastic pollution is one of the world’s most daunting environmental challenges. A report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in February said that plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years. However, a bulk of plastic wastes are mismanaged, ending up in landfills, incinerated, or leaked into the environment.
While the plastic pollution problem is often blamed on poor and developing nations, the OECD said that its member countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, will still produce more plastic waste per person by 2060 than non-OECD countries.
The Philippines, along with five Asian countries, has been frequently tagged as a top contributor to marine plastic pollution. In July, however, nonprofit group Ocean Conservancy retracted its 2015 report that had been the basis of this oft-repeated claim, saying that its narrow focus on East and Southeast Asia created a faulty narrative on who is responsible for the ocean plastic pollution crisis.
Another growing threat is microplastics, which are small plastic pieces that are less than five millimeters long. These can be primary microplastics, which are tiny plastic fragments that have leaked into the environment, such as microbeads in cosmetic products and microfibers from clothes and fishing nets. Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, are those that come from the breakdown of larger plastic products, such as plastic bottles.
Research by the DENR-Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau found traces of microplastics in at least 10 marine sites in the Philippines, with the highest concentration in Tañon Strait, one of the country’s most productive fishing grounds.
While its full impact on human health and ecosystems is still being studied, microplastics can be ingested by fish, which are in turn eaten by humans.
We need alternatives
“Where is the sense of urgency?” asked Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president of marine conservation group Oceana Philippines.
“The NEAP list is already 20 years delayed, and now that they had attempted to include two products, they cannot even see it through.”
Identifying plastic soft drink straws and coffee stirrers as NEAP also “barely scratches the surface” of sources of plastic pollution, said Marian Ledesma, Greenpeace Philippines campaigner.
“Without enforcement of the mandated phaseout, recognizing NEAP will be a meaningless exercise that does not have any real effect on plastic pollution,” she said.
“The NSWMC needs to release the phaseout plan immediately so we can transition away from these disposable products towards reusable alternatives.”
Ramos said the commission should not only fixate on the economic costs of alternative products, but also consider the current negative environmental impacts of existing plastic products and packaging.
“Under our law, the burden of proof is on them…. But the next question is what they are doing about it, because they are mandated to do something,” she said.
“They always anchor their arguments on economic impacts, but they do not give a costing on the impact of pollution on our marine resources and on people’s health,” Ramos said, adding that the government has been stuck in the economic mindset as a “justification for their inaction.”
In December 2021, the Supreme Court, acting on a suit led by Oceana against the commission for failing to come up with the NEAP list and fulfill its mandate under RA 9003, issued a writ of kalikasan and a writ of continuing mandamus compelling the government to act on the issue. The case is still pending with the Court of Appeals.
Ramos said they hope there will be more proactive effort and political will under the new administration.
In his inaugural speech in June, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the Philippines will not shirk its responsibility to address plastic pollution.
In July, Senator Loren Legarda refiled a bill that seeks to regulate the manufacturing, importation, and use of single-use plastic products.
This is the latest attempt to pass legislation that would regulate plastic production and curb plastic waste in the country since the passage of RA 9003 in 2001.
Several bills had been filed in both the Senate and House of Representatives, from the taxation of plastic bags to the total ban on straws and single-use plastics. Many of these previous bills barely made it past the committee level.
Environmental groups are also calling on the government to act on the country’s plastic pollution problem in light of the climate crisis.
The OECD report underscored how most plastics in use today are primary plastics, made from crude oil or gas, and account for 3.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Plastics are also derived from fossil fuels, and we know that [they have] a grave environmental impact at every phase, from extraction to distribution,” Ramos said. “We committed to slashing 70% of our greenhouse gases, but it’s all lip service until we see action.” – Rappler.com
Reporting for this story was supported by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.