The rise in plastic waste is choking waters and polluting coastlines across the world. The scale of this global problem is evident in the Pacific Ocean, the largest and deepest of the world ocean basins. According to a study entitled, “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean” published in the journal Science in 2015, the Pacific Ocean has an enormous volume of plastic waste. The study found that 275 million metric tons of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons entering the ocean.
“Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025,” the study noted.
The people of the Philippines and the Pacific Island countries are highly dependent on their oceans. The proliferation of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean is endangering marine life and ecosystems, and threatening their livelihoods and way of life.
The plastic tide is rising in the Philippines
Philippines has the dubious honor of being the world’s third biggest contributor to the plastic problem, with 1.8 million tonnes of plastic waste or 5.9 percent of the total amount of plastic dumped into the ocean each year, according to another study entitled, “Stemming the Tide: Land-based Strategies for a Plastic-free Ocean” released in 2015 by the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. China tops the list of ocean plastic polluters, followed by Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The study noted that Metro Manila in the Philippines, for instance, generates roughly 560,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste each year within an area of 620 square kilometers.
For Filipino lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr, plastic pollution is emerging as one of the most serious environmental problems in the Philippines.
“We are drowning in our own waste. It is time to rethink the way we throw things, especially those that don’t rot, like plastic,” Oposa said.
Oposa, a 2009 Ramon Magsaysay awardee, has long been an environment advocate. He compelled local governments to comply with existing national laws such as the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 and the Marine National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992.
Making reference to the 3 Rs commonly used in waste management—Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, he stressed that there must only be one R—Remove, that is to remove the word “waste” from our mental and working vocabulary.
“We are so wasteful that we have even invented words to describe our wastefulness of the elements of life - land, air and water. We call it wastewater, gaseous waste and solid waste,” Oposa said. “There is enough (land, air and water) for everyone in the world to use, but there will never be enough for one to waste.”
Environmental groups in the Philippines said the accumulation of plastics in the waters adversely affects marine life, human food chain and health.
“It is a pervasive problem globally. We see it as the next big environmental issue which the world would need to seriously look into, much like how climate change was 10 or 15 years ago. There is a growing attention to this problem,” said Jed Alegado, Communications Officer for Asia Pacific, Break Free from Plastic Movement, which is a global movement envisioning a future free from plastic pollution.
Alegado explained that the global movement aims to turn the tide on plastic pollution through establishing zero waste cities in partnership with the local governments, changing consumers’ plastic consumption habits and pressing for corporate accountability.
Banning the use of plastic bags, regulating single-use plastics and proper waste management are all essential steps to solving plastic pollution, instead of false solutions like eco-bricks, cement kilns and incinerators for burning waste, Alegado added.
“We believe in a more concerted effort by individuals and the different stakeholders to the plastic crisis. Governments, the private sector and individuals will need to work together to curb the waste problem,” he said.
For the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines, the impacts of the plastic plague in the country is aggravated by other pollutive and environmentally-destructive activities such as large-scale mining and deforestation, big monocrop plantations, mega dams, pollutive energy technology and massive coastal land reclamation.
“Beating the pollution caused by plastic and other exploitative and environmentally-destructive activities involves a systems-thinking approach, that is, we need to restructure our social and economic systems and the way we produce things to achieve real and long-term results,” said April Porteria, CEC-Philippines Coordinator.
Multinational companies are the biggest source of ocean plastic polluters
The Break Free from Plastic Movement, started in 2016 with over 900 non-governmental organizations including Greenpeace, is calling on local communities across the globe to join the movement and use its brand audit methodology when participating in beach cleanups, to help identify the main global polluters. Beach cleanups have been successfully carried out in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Croatia, Spain and the Netherlands, and have identified some of the biggest companies in the world as major plastic polluters.
“Ocean plastics is a global problem and therefore should be resolved globally. All efforts, be it in Europe or Asia and the Pacific region, that will help solve this crisis in an environmentally-sound manner, are welcome, especially those that focus on addressing the source of the problem at and reducing the production and use of single-use plastics,” said Angelica Pago, Media Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines.
Pago said that while developing countries are struggling to manage their waste, companies must stop producing single-use plastics and take responsibility in waste management and waste recycling schemes.
Data gathered by various environmental groups from the coastal cleanup audits in six cities in the Philippines in the past 12 months also revealed that multinational companies are the country’s top sources of plastic pollution. These big companies are Unilever, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, PT Mayora and Coca-Cola. The products of these companies comprise almost three-quarters of all collected residual waste, or waste that can neither be composted nor recycled.
The audit results are consistent with findings from coastal waste and brand audits conducted in Freedom Island, an artificial island in Manila Bay, in September 2017.
Of the total waste collected, data from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Mother Earth Foundation (MEF) shows that 61.26% is biodegradable,19.17% is recyclable, 16.12% is residual and 3.44% hazardous. Of the residual plastic waste collected, a whopping 74% is branded throwaway packaging. Furthermore, only 10 companies are responsible for 56% of all the branded throwaway packaging.
“Companies must be compelled to stop using throwaway packaging. Even if we ban single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and other problematic products, we won’t be able to curb plastic pollution if companies don’t change,” said Froilan Grate, Regional Director of GAIA Asia pacific and President of MEF. He added that companies can reduce plastic waste by shifting to innovative and ecological ways to distribute their products.
Senator Loren Legarda, on the other hand, said, that plastics are ubiquitous components of the world’s consumer culture.
“Plastics symbolize the throwaway culture that we have developed. We cannot do business as usual as it pollutes our oceans and waters, and even the air when burned,” Legarda said. She added that she has already filed the proposed Plastic Bags Regulation Act under Senate Bill No. 430 which aims to strictly regulate the production, import, sale and use of plastic bags.
Long-term solutions for plastic pollution
Governments, scientists and environmental groups said long-term solutions go beyond coastal cleanups.
Philippines Environment Secretary, Roy Cimatu said that there are ongoing efforts to solve the marine debris problem in the country. He noted that several bills have been filed in the Congress to ban, phase-out, tax or regulate the use of plastic bags in the Philippines. Some local government units, he said, have already initiated the use of commercially-viable and environment-friendly alternatives for plastic.
For Senator Legarda, people should make conscious efforts to change daily routine and practices to reduce the negative impacts on the environment.
“We need to reduce wastage and veer away from a throwaway culture, because the waste that we produce, especially plastics, takes hundreds of years to degrade and will affect both our environment and human life,” Legarda said.
Long-term solutions can include waste reduction, proper waste management and change of consumers’ behavior towards the use of plastics, stressed Alegado of Break Free from Plastic Movement.
For Pago of Greenpeace-Philippines, she said that while the government and many people are stepping up recycling and waste reduction efforts, there is a need to make big corporations acknowledge and account for the large amount of plastic packaging. She added that reducing single-use plastics and improving waste management infrastructure in developing countries are also paramount.
Sonia Mendoza, Chairman of MEF, said that “zero waste” is the solution to the waste problem in the Philippines. Zero waste is a resource management solution that addresses the waste problem at root, ensuring resource efficiency, resource recovery and protection of scarce natural resources. Strategies include waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits and product design.
In the Philippines, municipalities are transitioning to the National Zero Waste Program in compliance with the strict implementation of the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, which mandates the segregation of waste at the household level to reduce waste handling costs.
“Implementing zero waste programs will result in a huge reduction of waste management costs, cleaner and greener surroundings and better livelihood for waste collection workers,” Mendoza said.
Pacific island countries lead in the regulation of plastic waste
The Pacific Island countries have long been adapting to the challenges of sea level rise, fierce cyclones, extreme weather events and other environmental changes. Notwithstanding these challenges, they have to also combat plastic pollution and find ways to effectively manage their waste.
According to a study on the so-called “ great pacific garbage patch” in the the journal “Scientific Reports” published by the Nature Publishing Group in March 2018, around 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic waste have accumulated along the stretch of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. These wastes have been increasing exponentially since the 1970s when researchers began observing the plastics floating in the Pacific Ocean.
This alarming figure indicates an urgent need for international measures to stop the increasing inflow of plastic waste into the ocean. In response to the pollution in the ocean, some Pacific Island countries are now stepping up to combat the problem.
The Vanuatu government announced recently that it will limit the use of plastics in its more than 80 islands. The ban, which came into effect early this year, regulates single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam packaging.
The Vanuatu government’s website states that the Council of Ministers has taken a number of steps to manage the country’s marine litter, such as banning the import of non-biodegradable plastic single-use bags and polystyrene take-away boxes to Vanuatu effective of January 31, 2018; obliging local manufacturers to use only biodegradable plastics; investigating and proposing a new method for the disposal of plastic bottle waste in Vanuatu; requiring business establishments to exhaust their existing stock of disposable plastic bags before June 30, 2018; implementing a regulation within the Waste Management Act; and support of other alternatives to plastic bags such as traditional baskets.
The legislation, which was supported by more than 2,000 signatures, demonstrates Vanuatu’s commitment to addressing marine litter and managing the problem of plastic litter and pollution around the islands, reported Vanuatu-based journalist Anita Roberts, a member of the Pacific Environment Journalists Network.
According to Roberts, the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai said the policy to ban the use and import of bottles and plastic bags favors the Vanuatu National Ocean Policy.
“Bottles and plastic bags are risky to human life and the environment,” the Prime Minster said, adding that keeping the environment clean and safe is a priority of the government.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) reported in February 2018 that other countries in the Pacific have also implemented measures to address the growing issue of plastic pollution. SPREP reported that the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Congress has passed a plastic ban and introduced a fine for shops that uses plastic bags. The Palau government has also passed a law last year, which bans single-use plastic bags in the country.
Fiji has imposed a fee last year on plastic bags to discourage consumers from using plastic bags, while the Republic of the Marshall Islands has banned the import, manufacture and use of plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging.
Plastic bans are already implemented in Cook Islands, Samoa and the Micronesia state of Yap. Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are also considering measures on how to manage their plastic waste.