DENR: Time to ditch single-use plastic in Boracay

This March 22, 2012, photo shows a polluted Bulabog Beach on Boracay Island.

Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu on June 12 issued a statement disclosing the plan to impose a single-use plastic ban on the pollution-challenged Boracay Island to help address its growing solid-waste management problem.

This followed his statement early this month urging the general public to refrain from using disposable plastic products that clog waterways or worse, ocean pollution.

Besides garbage, Boracay is faced with the challenge of water pollution brought about by the direct discharge of untreated wastewater from households and tourism establishments.

Plastic pollution

Next to China and Indonesia, the Philippines placed third on the list of countries with most ocean plastic pollution, according to a 2015 study conducted by the University of Georgia and reported by Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment.

The finding came not as a big surprise considering the poor implementation of Republic Act (RA) 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which was approved and signed into law more than 17 years ago.

Around 20 percent of the 9,000 tons of garbage generated in Metro Manila alone, for instance, find their ways into vacant lots or into canals, creeks and rivers, and end up either in Laguna de Bay or Manila Bay.

The bulk of this garbage is single-use plastics, which could no longer be recycled or may likely end up as residual waste.

Boracay garbage woes

In seriously considering a ban on single-use plastic items in Boracay, the DENR chief is aiming to address its growing garbage problem.

The island generates an estimated 90 tons to 115 tons of garbage a day, but only 30 tons to 40 tons are hauled out to mainland Malay, Aklan, he said.

He added that a large portion of Boracay’s trash is composed of single-use plastics—such as grocery bags, toothbrush, bottled water, sachets of shampoo and condiments and soap wrappers.

Prohibiting the use of single-use plastics would not only help solve the island’s solid-waste problem but also plastic pollution that threatens the area’s marine environment, the official said.

Environmental degradation

“Plastic, particularly those for single-use packaging, has greatly contributed to the degradation of the environment. Plastic pollution continues to poison our oceans and injure marine life. When not properly disposed of, they clog waterways and cause flooding,” he said.

According to Cimatu, hotels will be encouraged to use dispensers for their liquid soap, shampoo and conditioner; while stores will be asked to sell condiments like soy sauce, vinegar and cooking oil through refilling stations.

“Let us go back to basics. We used to bring a glass bottle to the sari-sari store when we buy cooking oil and vinegar. Let’s do the same now,” he said.

Threat to marine life

Ocean plastic pollution is a serious threat to the coastal and marine ecosystem, including marine wildlife.

According to Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines (MWWP), ingestion of plastic can be considered a driver of biodiversity loss.

MWWP led by its founder, AA Yaptinchay, said the impact of ocean plastic pollution has varying degrees to the marine ecosystem, including its ingestion by marine species.

“The effect depends on the species as some are more susceptible than others,” he said.

Interviewed via social media on June 12, Yaptinchay said 693 marine species were documented of having encountered plastic debris globally, with around 400 species having entangled or have ingested plastic.

“This includes all marine turtle species and half of marine mammal and bird species. Any reduction in marine debris, particularly plastics, will be beneficial for marine wildlife,” he said.

Welcome development

Yaptinchay believes that the plan to impose a single-use plastic ban in Boracay is a welcome development, especially because its surrounding waters are frequented by marine turtles.

However, he said the plan should transcend local coverage and become a policy that is national in scope and coverage.

“We are glad that DENR Secretary Cimatu is willing to partially address the marine debris problem in the Philippine seas by banning single-use plastics on Boracay Island. However, single-use plastics in the marine environment is not a problem exclusive to Boracay Island, but a problem in the whole country. This move may contribute to the solution of Boracay Island’s solid-waste problems, but it is not able to address the marine-debris problem in the country,” he pointed out.

“This needs to be taken at a national level. We need to follow the EU [European Union], UK [United Kingdom], India, among others, who are leading the way in ridding their societies of the single-use plastics menace,” he added.

Sought for reaction, Vince Cinches, ocean and political campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines also lauded the plan and said the DENR chief should not think twice to enforce a ban on single-use plastic on Boracay.

Like Yaptinchay, Cinches said the policy should be enforced across the country.

Integrated management plan

However, he said such policy should be integrated into the master plan for Boracay.

“We hope that Secretary Cimatu will not think twice in implementing a single-use plastic ban in Boracay, but it should be integrated within the whole solid management in the area, including the development plan of Boracay. Meaning, it should be integrated or not separate. It is a step in the right direction because Boracay has many problems,” Cinches told the BusinessMirror in a telephone interview on June 10.

He said Cimatu should also pursue single-use plastic ban across the country, noting that the Philippines is now faced with the serious problem of ocean plastic pollution.

“We are now the third major source of plastic pollution [globally],” he noted.

Multistakeholder approach

Addressing the solid-waste management issue in Boracay should have a multistakeholder approach.

“They should invite more NGOs [nongovernment organizations] and involve the LGUs [local government units],” Cinches said.

However, he cautioned the DENR and LGUs against putting up a waste-to-energy plant, saying the process of converting waste into energy is a violation of the Clean Air Act.

Cinches said characterization of garbage on Boracay would give various actors a clearer picture of the problem and a better idea on how to best implement proper solid-waste management anchored on the principle of 3Rs—or reduce, reuse and recycle—as mandated by RA 9003.

For his part, Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE), described Cimatu’s policy pronouncement as “tokenism” amid the lack of sound science and rehabilitation policy.

Consider carrying capacity

“A single-use plastic ban in Boracay is positive but underwhelmingly tokenism. Whatever type of waste produced would still choke the island’s ecosystem if the amount generated is beyond carrying capacity,” Dulce told the BusinessMirror via e-mail.

Dulce said a cap on daily tourist entries and a moratorium on construction of new large-scale tourism infrastructure would better address the root of solid, liquid and all other waste generation problems on the island.

“There should be an executive policy that categorically bans the construction of mega-casinos in Boracay. This [mega-casinos] will triple the number of tourists flocking to the island way beyond its carrying capacity. There should be a full-blown independent investigation into the previously reported forest clearings and possibly other continuing construction activities despite the closure. It must be ascertained if this is a case of incompetence or collusion with big-business interests,” he said.

Greener Boracay

Various stakeholders on Boracay Island are supportive of the plan to ban single-use plastic.

Ethel Tornberg, general manager of WaterColors Dive Resort, said the campaign against plastic started long ago. Tornberg said she has actually initiated a campaign to lobby in the halls of the Sanggunian (Legislative councils) in the municipality of Malay and Aklan province to pass an ordinance that will ban single-use plastic on Boracay.

She told the BusinessMirror through social media that the resort is advocating an environment-friendly business practice.

The company has started to do away with, among others, the use of plastic straws, disposable, single-use bathroom amenities, disposable water bottle, and has started to conserve and promote energy sustainably.

“At WaterColors, we realize the potential impact of the hospitality industry on the environment, especially on a small island like Boracay,” the company’s web site explains.

Tornberg welcomes such plan coming from no less than the country’s top environment official.

“We’ve started years ago here in Boracay and for many years, I’ve been trying to influence local legislators but no one seems to bite the idea. As an avid diver and having been born and raised in Metro Manila who fell in love with Boracay, I see the problem caused by these practices [that lead to ocean pollution], which is aggravated by multinationals that accommodate the tingi [retail] trend,” she said.

She said since some of her friends have won a seat in the last election, the campaign against single-use plastics has gained traction, but only for a while.

“Since we are fixing Boracay anyway, maybe we can be the first to ban disposables, one-time use hotel toiletries and amenities,” she added.

She narrated that a friend who works at the garbage dump has said it is obvious who are the big producers of the types of garbage based on their brand.

“Disposable slippers, toothbrush, combs, toothpaste tubes, toiletry bottles, shavers, shower caps were all used and dumped after an average of two-nights stay [at hotels]. Just imagine!” she lamented.

Unfortunately, Tornberg said all the noise they made so far seemed to have no effect or simply fell on deaf ears, failing to translate into a local policy, at the very least.

Not in Boracay alone

In calling to ditch single-use plastic, Cimatu was not talking about Boracay alone.

Environment Undersecretary Jonas R. Leones believes that the DENR chief wants the policy implemented and enforced not just in Boracay but also in other areas, as well, noting that the country has everything to gain in protecting its rich marine biodiversity.

“Perhaps the DENR secretary wants to test it first in Boracay because it has become his mission—given by no less than President Duterte—so he is focused on Boracay. But eventually, it will translate into a national policy,” he said.

Leones, the DENR’s undersecretary for policy, planning, international affairs and foreign-assisted projects, said some LGUs have, in fact, imposed the ban through local legislation as they realized the adverse environmental impact of improper disposal of single-use plastics.

“Other LGUs have started to impose a ban on single-use plastic already,” he said.

With Cimatu’s recent statements, a national policy pronouncement ditching single-use plastic for good may be in the offing.

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