Quezon City plastic bag fee to go to 'green' projects

MANILA, Philippines – The biggest city in Metro Manila has updated its plastic reduction policy by requiring commercial establishments to use its plastic bag fees for city and barangay environmental projects.

In a forum held on Friday, November 14, the city presented 7 city projects and 20 barangay projects that establishments operating in Quezon City can fund. 

Projects for the city include city-wide tree-planting, solar panel installation in Quezon City public schools and a rainwater harvesting facility.

Some village-level proposals include a materials recovery facility, solar streetlight installation and a river-cleaning project.

The initiative is an offshoot of an ordinance enacted in 2012 requiring consumers to pay a P2 (US$0.04) fee for every plastic bag used at the point of sale in Quezon City "Type 1" retail establishments. (INFOGRAPHIC: Plastic in our seas: Why you should care)

These establishments include supermarkets, department stores and appliance stores. 

But an amendment to the ordinance's Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) now requires establishments to submit a project proposal before using the fees, called the Green Fund.  

The projects must be implemented within Quezon City and benefit the city's residents. 

The proposals are submitted to the city government's Environmental Protection and Waste Management Department (EPWMD), the arm that will also monitor the projects. 

The projects are to be implemented by the business establishment, the city and barangay government, and other partners involved such as schools.

From 2012 to September 2014, the total Green Fund generated has amounted to more than P60 million ($1.3 million), according to Dorothy Delarmente, the councilor who authored the ordinance.

This is based on quarterly monitoring reports submitted by the establishments. 

The funds have gone to solar panel projects of malls and tree-planting activities, Delarmente told Rappler on the sidelines of the forum.

'Not effective' 

But devoting plastic fees to environmental policy sounds too much like greenwashing for some. 

Froilan Grate, president of environmental group Mother Earth Foundation, said the fee is "unnecessary because Quezon City has enough money" for environmental programs.

Imposing a fee would put the burden of paying for environmental projects on consumers instead of the city government who should be using their budget to implement such projects anyway. 

The P2 fee is also "too small" to discourage shoppers from buying plastic bags, said MEF chairperson and Quezon City resident Sonia Mendoza. 

"If it's P2, I noticed it's so easy for people to just say yes at the counter," she told Rappler. 

Grate said such plastic bag fees would only be effective if they were used as a "transitional" provision.

"For example, in San Fernando (in Pampanga), for the first 6 months, you can buy a plastic bag for P5 but they will be phased out after. It's so that people are not shocked. It reminds people that soon, the plastics will be gone. But they have to decide if it's worth P5 ($0.11), which is heavier on the pocket," he said.

Quezon City's policy also appears to be encouraging people to use plastic bags since their payment for the bags will go to green projects anyway.

"It's like a 'pampalubag loob,' to assuage your guilt that you are using plastic," said Mendoza.

Has the two-year-old plastic regulation policy actually reduced the number of plastic bags that end up in Quezon City's land fill? 

The city government apparently isn't sure. 

EPWMD Acting Chief of Plans and Programs Vincent Vinarao told Rappler that they are just about to conduct a trash characterization study to see whether or not the number of disposed plastic bags have lessened through the years.

The study should be completed sometime in 2015, he said. 

Why not a total plastic ban?

Despite criticisms, Delarmente defended the plastic bag regulation versus the total plastic ban now being imposed by other Metro Manila cities.

"If you totally ban it, then the establishments will opt to use paper bags instead which is also not good for the environment because at the end of the day, it will also go to the trash. Paper also will take years to biodegrade. Our point is to reduce the number of solid waste," she told Rappler.

But Grate said that nothing is stopping local governments from regulating paper waste as well. 

The QC council adopted a regulatory scheme instead of a total ban after hearing out the establishment owners who are the most affected by the policy, said Delarmente. 

And yet many other Metro Manila cities are able to implement the total plastic ban called for by the Total Plastic Ban Act of 2011 authored by Senator Loren Legarda.

Mandaluyong, Muntinlupa, Makati, Pasig, Marikina, Las Piñas and Pasay are some of the cities that now impose a fine between P1,000 to P5,000 on establishments that continue to use plastic bags.

In some cases, it may lead to a cancellation of business permit, temporary or permanent closure, and even imprisonment for one to 3 months.

The law was envisioned to curb the rise of plastic pollution in the country that has led to dirty oceans and rivers, and increased incidents of flooding in cities. (READ: Plastic bags most common trash in Manila Bay – groups)

The plastic bag regulation fee is not the only environmental fee QC wants to impose.

An ordinance by Councilor Victor Ferrer Jr seeks to levy a P100 to P500 ($2-$11) yearly garbage collection fee from QC residents.

But in February, the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the ordinance due to a complaint filed by a resident. 

Similar to the plastic bag regulation fee, the garbage fee will fund "rewards" for barangays, homeowner associations, and condominium associations that undertake solid waste management projects.

From 2012 to 2013, Quezon City was the Metro Manila city that spent the most to throw its garbage, according to the Commission on Audit.

A Rappler investigative piece found that its expenses could have been significantly reduced if it followed the Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.

The Quezon City responded by saying that the law is too difficult to implement. – Rappler.com

Man with plastic bag image from Shutterstock

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.