plastic pollution

[OPINION] On the road to a plastics-free Philippines

John Leo C. Algo
[OPINION] On the road to a plastics-free Philippines

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'While options such as eco-bags and bamboo straws are readily accessible in many areas, alternative products and systems for sachets, plastic bottles, and others remain in need of support for innovation and production'

The phaseout of single-use plastics (SUPs) has recently gained momentum in the Philippines. 

In early February, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) named plastic coffee stirrers and softdrink straws among the non-environmentally acceptable products to be phased out within one year, under RA 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.  

Deliberations are also being conducted in the House of Representatives on regulating SUPs, including suggested phaseout periods for plastic bags, sachets, utensils, and other products. Terms are also being proposed for SUP producers and importers to fund and implement programs to prevent further waste generation. Other measures such as providing incentives to participating entities, information and education campaigns, and developing viable alternatives to these non-biodegradable products are also being discussed.

These long-overdue developments are welcomed in the Philippines, which has struggled to properly address plastic pollution. The country uses 60 billion sachets and 16.5 billion “labo” bags a year; around 20% of its plastic waste end up in the oceans, leading to its status as one of the worst marine plastic polluters. 

As we attempt to initiate the challenging transition to a SUP-free economy and a more sustainability-conscious society, we must remember the following about this process.

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What should be achieved?

Regardless of our respective views on this issue, it is a reality that SUPs have become a significant part of our economy and modern culture. Factors such as changing modes of production, the raw materials used to produce environment-friendly alternatives, and the livelihoods of workers in the SUP industry must be accounted for to minimize adverse impacts of this necessary shift. 

The just transition to a plastics-free future would take many years to accomplish. Until then, there still lies the issue of addressing the SUP waste that would be generated, not to mention the high volume of other types of waste that must be managed. 

While addressing plastic pollution is of utmost importance, it is one component of the overall issue of solid waste management and the road to a zero-waste future. The successful implementation of any phaseout strategy needs the stronger implementation of RA 9003, including enhanced recycling and recovery programs, more efficient waste disposal, and encouraging citizens to avoid unnecessary purchase and use of products. 

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this law that must be strengthened is enhancing local capacities in addressing plastic pollution. Around 30% of all local government units (LGUs) currently have ordinances banning or regulating SUPs in the Philippines. These actors, along with other local stakeholders, must be provided with materials recovery facilities, and financial and technical resources to properly manage local waste. They should also be capacitated to report their implementation of programs and activities, which are crucial for assessing the implementation of nationwide SUP phaseout strategies. 

Research and development of more environment-friendly substitutes to SUP packaging must be prioritized. While options such as eco-bags and bamboo straws are readily accessible in many areas, alternative products and systems for sachets, plastic bottles, and others remain in need of support for innovation and production. This is one area that plastic producers and importers must fund, as part of their responsibility for their contribution to this crisis.  

That said, we must remember that any eco-friendly product that is not disposed of properly could also worsen environmental pollution. Any product has an accompanying ecological footprint, corresponding to amounts of water, energy, and other resources that would be wasted should current waste-related issues continue. 

Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of why SUPs have to be phased out in the first place: they take thousands of years to decompose, have a high ecological footprint, have polluted lands, oceans, and even our atmosphere, and are harmful to our health and that of many animals when inhaled or ingested, as microplastics or otherwise. 

We must remember that the just transition does not only apply to SUP producers and importers and commercial establishments in the Philippines. This also applies to the Filipino consumers, many of whom rightfully focus on meeting their daily needs instead of the environmental impacts of the products they purchase. 

They must be protected from potential price hikes and other consequences associated with the introduction of non-plastic packaging. The narrative of blaming the plastic pollution problem mainly on improper use and disposal, as observed with several SUP producers around the world, should also be avoided.  

Protecting the well-being of Filipino consumers is not just about ensuring their access to products to fulfill their daily needs; it also includes their right to understand the environmental, economic, and social implications of the products they consume. Consumers must be given proper choices to attain sustainable living, without harming others and the environment. They must be consistently included in relevant decision-making processes relating to this just transition, an aspect that government agencies must not forget. 

Phasing out single-use plastics in the Philippines requires a transformative approach involving the full cooperation of governments, businesses, civil society, media, and communities. The direction of the inevitable just transition is clear: SUPs do not belong in a sustainable world. 

We have waited for decades to finally see momentum. We must not let anyone change that. – Rappler.com

John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He has been a citizen journalist since 2016.