Vanessa Pepino, Non-Resident Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute
The last two months have been replete with small victories related to the Philippines’ waste problem. After languishing in our ports for years, shipping containers of garbage — plastics, household kitchen waste, shredded electronic wastes, and contaminated trash — were recently shipped back to their places of origin. Whether it was low business costs, ineffective checks, or regulatory oversight that led these piles of garbage to our shores, using another country as a dumping ground is an utterly deplorable practice.
The reality is, it is cheaper to export trash to low- or low-middle income countries where recycling costs are cheaper than disposing of it at home. However, it is also a reality that low-income and lower-middle income economies, such as the Philippines, are the least equipped when it comes to proper waste disposal, efficient collection systems, and recycling and recovery processes. It becomes an even more massive task to think of other countries’ waste when we already have a problem in managing our own waste polluting our water bodies, affecting our health and biodiversity. In 2017 alone, Ocean Conservancy reports that the Philippines had 2.7 million tons of plastic waste, of which 17% of collected waste and 31% of uncollected waste leaked into the ocean. Not to mention, we bear the brunt of social, environmental, and economic consequences of waste pollution.
Be that as it may, there are local innovations or community-based projects that have the potential to contribute to a nationwide and long-term sustainable approach to waste management. In a recent publication titled Plastics and Circular Economy: Community Solutions, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) draws attention to the need to shift from a linear model of “take, make, use, and dispose” — which has led to our current waste problem — to a circular economy approach. The latter is a closed loop of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” even at local levels, where habits and behaviors are entrenched and contribute to the problem of plastic pollution. UNDP highlights best local practices around the world in “material engineering and product design, shifting consumer use and behavior, and developing sound approaches to waste collection and management” in Burundi, Jamaica, Gambia, Afghanistan, etc.
A common and outstanding theme in these countries is the value of awareness, environmental education, and community empowerment in encouraging changes in behavior when programs — whether public or private-led — are implemented. These are key components in addressing plastic waste pollution that can still be improved in the Philippines.
A study published by the Albert Del Rosario Institute (ADRi) titled “A Balanced Approach to Solid Waste Management: Governance and Total Stakeholder Participation” pointed out the need of local and national policies as well as waste management systems to keep up with the waste problem, the most urgent and pressing of which is plastic waste pollution. There are a few local governments that encourage locals to manage trash or recycle them as “eco-bottles” in exchange for cash or other items. There are stronger and tighter systems of monitoring, evaluation, and feedback for solid waste management activities in other provinces that can be upscaled and replicated everywhere else. While waste assessments and brand audits have brought into the open the responsibility of big corporations and consumers to curb waste, there is a need for more government action, commitment, and results.
In fact, this year has seen promising solutions to plastic pollution in the Philippines. In Valenzuela City, Nestle Philippines launched its first citywide pilot program to recover single-use plastics (e.g. plastic waste laminates or sachets, used beverage cartons) and reproduce them as “ecobricks” in partnership with a social enterprise. This also requires a collaborative partnership with the local government and the Department of Education. Nestle has committed globally to redesign its packaging to be 100-percent recyclable by 2025.
Furthermore, Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines Inc., the bottling arm of Coca-Cola Philippines, recently announced plans to build a P1-billion state-of-the-art food-grade recycling facility, the company’s first major investment in a recycling facility in Southeast Asia. In line with their global action plan of “World Without Waste,” they plan to transform used recyclable PET plastic bottles into new and useful beverage bottles again. It is a closed-loop approach of collecting, sorting, cleaning, and washing post-consumer recyclable plastic bottles, turning them into new bottles, and bringing them back into the value chain. They are essentially adding economic value to used plastic bottles, empowering communities, generating income opportunities (especially for the local informal waste sector), and reducing plastic waste in the waste stream. The plan requires collaborative and creative linkages with government and local communities to make it work, but it is nonetheless a transformational initiative that other companies may learn a thing or two from.
Results may not happen overnight but at least we see these efforts from public and private stakeholders that are not band-aid solutions but when integrated have the potential to be a sustainable and effective approach.
This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.