Sensible thinking and environmental stewardship

Carmelo Bayarcal, Convenor of Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship (PBEST), an environment project of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Over the years there has been an outpouring of indignation over the world’s use and reliance on plastic. When we look at the visuals in the news and on social media — the floating “island” of plastic, marine life choking on plastic, etc. — the impact is undeniable.

After much has been said and hyped, it did not take long for governments, including our own, to propose legislation that would ban or regulate the use of plastic and move towards sustainable alternatives. Here in the Philippines — and largely as a reaction to the 2015 report on plastic pollution by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment that ranks the Philippines as the world’s third largest contributor to ocean plastic — several lawmakers have filed bills seeking the total banning of single use plastic.

Such solution seems logical and sensible. Bans and tax measures may contribute to the reduction of plastics that potentially clog our waterways and sewage systems.

However, the adoption of drastic steps to control plastics does not come without economic repercussions and, ironically, environmental impacts as well.

Most consumers in the Philippines fall in the D and E economic segments. They are used to buying in tingi or in sachets. This “tingi economy” enables low-income consumers to afford necessities such as toiletries, pharmaceuticals, beverages, cosmetics, food items, and many others. This type of economic exchange has been sustaining the country’s micro economy for decades and is even used as an economic indicator showing trends in product demand of many industries.

A typical example is our friendly neighborhood supermarket routinely wrapping fresh meats, fruits and vegetables using cling-wrap plastics. Should the proposal to ban single-use plastic prosper, all the packaging changes in the above-mentioned products will have a major economic impact in the country. It’s not that easy, is it?

Furthermore, we seem to have forgotten what has driven the shift to plastics in the first place. Plastic, decades ago, was the revolutionary alternative to paper, tin, and glass. It became the more practical, cheaper, and more environmentally sound alternative over other materials available then.

And this holds true up to now. The production of plastic bags requires fewer resources (land, water, CO2 emissions, etc.) than that of paper or cotton bags. In a 2018 study published by The Danish Environmental Protection Agency, a paper bag must be used at least 43 times for its per-use environmental impacts to be equal to or less than that of a typical disposable plastic bag used one time, while an organic cotton bag must be reused 20,000 times to produce less of an environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag.

A plastic ban appears to be a stop-gap solution to solving the plastics problem. There is also not much discussion regarding systematic solutions, which is necessary in approaching such a multi-dimensional problem.

We should employ a holistic approach in tackling this issue, taking into consideration both the economic and environmental aspects. All stakeholders — big corporations, small businesses, government, and consumers — should be involved and must take action.

The sweeping vilification of plastic will not solve our current woes. Smart public policies can be made to address the change in paradigm for both the industry sector and the citizens’ behavior with regards to sustainability. Simply banning single-use plastics without meaningful, significant, and complementary action from all stakeholders is like plugging a leak when the whole dam is about to break.

Fortunately, stakeholders are starting to embrace the value of sustainability. Coca-Cola, for instance, introduced its PlantBottle packaging technology — producing a fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made partially from plants. It is also investing in a P1-billion state-of-the-art recycling facility in the Philippines to collect, sort, clean, and wash post-consumer PET plastic bottles, turn them into new bottles, and bring them back into the value chain.

Unilever, on the other hand, has committed to help collect and process around 600,000 tons of plastic annually by 2025. Here in the Philippines, it has partnered with the City of Manila for its “Kolek Kilo Kita para sa Walastik na Maynila Program.” The extensive plastic waste collection program seeks to improve the city’s plastic waste management while providing livelihood programs through incentivized waste segregation and collection.

As for the government, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has become very active in coastal clean-up operations as part of rehabilitation of the Manila Bay. Partnerships are forged with the private sector through their Adopt-an-Estero program. Citizens are also tapped into DENR’s efforts through the hiring of “estero rangers” to help address indiscriminate waste disposal and improve garbage collection. These efforts can be upscaled and replicated in different parts of the country.

While it is noticeable that the shift towards sustainability is now gaining momentum, the country’s capacity to recycle should also be upgraded. Coupled with sensible policies anchored on environmental stewardship, we could effectively address plastic waste and other types of pollution.




This article was originally published in BusinessWorld. Image Source: BusinessWorld / Freepik.

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