Table of Contents Hide
Rice, sugar, coffee, vinegar, soy sauce, shampoo and tooth paste.
These are some of the basic commodities that people need and many Filipinos would often prefer to buy in small quantities, often one-time use, in neighborhood retail stores.
The good news is that they are now available in so-called budget packs.
The bad news is they come in small disposable plastic packets and end up as residual waste that accumulate in the environment, even as the Philippines has in place Republic Act 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which could have addressed the country’s solid waste management problem.
Plastics, particularly sachets that comprise more than half of plastic waste, find their way in waterways and end up in the ocean, threatening coastal and marine biodiversity.
The Philippines, ranked third-largest contributor to ocean plastic pollution—and is trapped in this so-called sachet economy—the 2015 report on plastic pollution by Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment said.
The worsening problem caused by single-use plastics with particular focus on sachets, and how it adds to and worsens the growing plastics pollution problem, was highlighted during a virtual roundtable discussion and media briefing organized by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and the Break Free from Plastic Philippines (BFPP) movement in Asia Pacific and Philippines on July 14.
The report that was commissioned by GAIA used data from the University of Santo Tomas’s Research Center for Social Sciences and Education for its research on Filipinos’ sachet consumption habits.
Single-use plastics, specifically sachets, are a growing concern in the Philippines because of the affordability and convenience they give to users—especially the poor.
Around 164 million sachets are used every day, and they take up around 52 percent of the residual plastic waste stream, Miko Aliño, program manager at GAIA Asia Pacific who discussed the contents of the report said.
Ironically, he said seven out of 10 Filipinos are willing to buy food condiments in reusable containers, citing a 2019 survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), while another survey reported that six out of 10 Filipinos support a nationwide ban on sachets.
Even local governments, he said, recognized the plastic problem, and some have even gone beyond the usual plastic bag bans by enacting local laws or ordinances.
Sadly, he noted the exclusion of sachets from these local laws.
“Sachets are perceived as inexpensive and convenient because of their small and durable packaging. But in reality, they are expensive for cities to manage, difficult to effectively recycle and cannot be reused,” Aliño said.
Hijacking ‘tingi’ culture
Aliño said Filipinos were used to buying in small quantities, which he characterized as a sustainable practice.
“Before, people would buy vinegar and soy sauce, and brought with them empty bottles,” he said.
Aliño said corporations “highjacked” that practice and transformed the Filipinos’ way of consumption by introducing sachets, a marketing strategy that targetted the poor.
Multinational companies advertised them as affordable for daily-wage earners, so they could buy products at prices they could afford, although in small quantities.
It is based on the premise that sachets help consumers ration their use of a product better than in big containers, supposedly reduce product wasting.
Evading corporate responsibility
Aliño said corporations have managed to evade the responsibility for sachet plastic waste, which leaves local governments and communities struggling to address the imminent sachet pollution crisis.
“Corporations have greatly benefited from these products… but they are not made accountable for the pollution that comes along with its production and disposal,” he said.
Moreover, the report says that sachet purchase and use tend to be higher among lower socioeconomic brackets.
Aliño said some of the recommendations of the study include reintroducing alternative delivery schemes, such as Zero Waste stores and refilling.
Lawmakers, he said, also need to enact a binding extended producer-responsibility legislation so that companies would take greater responsibility for the impact of their products.
The legislation should also require corporations to fully disclose the amount of the plastic used in manufacturing, shipping, retailing and disposal.
He said there’s a need to develop guidelines on recycling and safe disposal of sachets that are already in the market, and for environment-friendly packaging in the Philippines.
Alternative to sachets
Rei Panaligan, national coordinator of BFPP, for his part, highlighted some of the initiatives in the Philippines to address the problem on single-use plastics and sachets. One alternative is to go back to reusables.
Reusables, he said, are safe even in time of pandemics. He cited a statement issued by 125 health experts from 19 countries, to assure retailers and consumers of their safety as long as that reusable is safe by employing basic hygiene.
He noted that an initiative of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to set up refilling stations in Region 3 is a step in the right direction.
The program brings together the DENR’s private partners upon the request of concerned local government units, where consumers can buy products in tingi using refillable containers.
He said some stores are now practicing zero waste using refillables.
Threat to food source
In a telephone interview, environmental lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos said ocean plastic pollution, particularly by sachets, are a menace and affects everything in the ocean, one of the world’s major food source.
“What we are seeing in the surface of the oceans are just 1 percent because 99 percent of the plastics are already in the ocean floor,” she said when sought for reaction by the BusinessMirror on July 29.
Plastics, she said, is contaminating, if not already contaminated, the fish and other seafood that people eat every day.
Stop producing plastics
Ramos, the vice president of conservation advocacy nongovernment organization Oceana Philippines, agreed with GAIA and BFFP that manufacturers should stop producing plastics that it cannot take back as part of its extended producer responsibility.
Better, she said the government should exercise and demonstrate political will in implementing policies that should have been implemented a long time ago.
The Office of the President, for one, should direct the DENR and the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) to release the list of nonenvironmentally acceptable product and packaging (NEAPP) materials which includes single-use plastics, she said.
“Section 29 of the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 requires the NSWMC to prepare the list within one year from the effectivity of the law. It’s been more than 18 years, but have they come up with a list of NEAPP?” Ramos lamented.
Threat to biodiversity
Experts have long been fretting about plastic pollution, particularly microplastics, as they threaten entire ecosystems and the extinction of marine species.
Interviewed via Messenger on July 29, AA Yaptinchay of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines said the effects of ocean plastic pollution, including microplastics, depend on the species as some are more susceptible than others.
He said globally there were 693 marine species documented to have encountered plastic debris with around 400 species that were involved in entanglement and ingestion.
This included all marine turtle species and half of all marine mammal and bird species. Any reduction in marine debris particularly plastics will be beneficial for marine wildlife, he said.
Ingestion of microplastic by wildlife from zooplankton to large marine fauna can lead to toxins in the bloodstream and tissues which may cause diseases, including reproductive impairment. The micro-plastics absorbs pollutants in the water which are released when they are ingested, he added.
“A pile of trash, especially plastic in the water column, occupies space which can displace wildlife, while those that sink to the bottom will smother the substrate which will kill all organisms under it including corals or a whole reef,” he explained.
Yantinchay said, “Macroplastics just become microplastics and ghost nets will keep on killing as long as it is in the water. Once we set it loose in the natural world, there is no getting it back nor stopping it from affecting wildlife and their habitats.”
Image credits: Sonia Astudillo, GAIA Asia Pacific