Plastic pollution, land reclamation threatening PHL bodies of water

In Photo: Plastics compose most of the waste at the Taytay Materials Recovery Facility in Barangay Muzon, Taytay, Rizal. BusinessMirror file

Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu on June 3 issued a call to the public to refrain from using plastic products, particularly single-use plastics that end up clogging waterways or, worse, polluting the oceans.

The statement was issued in time for the celebration of June as Environment Month in the Philippines by virtue of Proclamation 237 and in celebration of June 5 each year as the World Environment Day (WED). This year’s WED theme is “Beat plastic pollution.”

Ocean pollution

The Philippines is one of the major sources of ocean 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 historic Manila Bay is a witness to this growing dilemma on ocean plastic pollution as tons of garbage end up on its shores, especially after a storm.

Land reclamation

Ocean pollution, however, is not the only problem besetting Manila Bay. Massive land-reclamation projects are currently in the pipeline, threatening the Manila Bay region with ecological collapse, said Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE).

A convenor of the People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems (People’s NICHE), Dulce said land-reclamation projects are posing equally serious threats to the country’s ocean environment.

“Land reclamation kills mangroves, seagrass and corals. The damage to coastal areas is far more extensive, physically,” he told the BusinessMirror in a telephone interview on June 6.

Massive land reclamation is ongoing in various parts of the country, but many of these dump-and-fill activities, are waiting to happen in Manila Bay, courtesy of the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA).

Environmental destruction

At a forum last week in Quezon City, People’s NICHE said an airport project would pose a very serious threat to Manila Bay’s coastal environment. The forum, held days before the WED, aired concerns over the P700-billion project, which will involve the land reclamation of not less than 2,500 hectares of foreshore areas in Manila Bay, particularly in the coastal towns of Bulacan.

Dulce said a recent scoping study by researchers of Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham) and the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC)-Philippines on the proposed project site in Bulacan, on May 7 saw stretches of mangrove areas that had already been cut in April this year.

Uninformed

Residents in the area revealed that they were not consulted or informed about the project and were surprised to learn through the news that the National Economic Development Authority Board has already approved the project.

“The fact that the cutting of the mangroves was already happening despite the lack of the necessary area and environmental clearances make it more shocking that such an environmentally destructive project of this scale can proceed with impunity,” Dulce said.

Citing its importance, Dulce said the mangrove forests along Bulacan coastal areas serve as the habitat of important marine life.

Migratory bird site

Migratory birds, he said, depend upon the habitat and subsistence from the mangrove forest in the area. He expressed fear that the destruction and disruption associated with the project will eventually drive them away.

On the other hand, poor fisherfolk who also depend on the bounty of the ocean, including the mangrove forest, will be deprived of their source of food and livelihood.

“This pattern of destruction will be repeated in other proposed reclamation sites in Manila Bay,” Dulce said.

Major risks

During the forum, Save Our Shores geologists Arlene Tengonciang and Narod Eco discussed the three major risks posed by reclamation in the bay.

These are the amplified risks of liquefaction, flooding, storm surges and other hazards; marine biodiversity and resource depletion; and runaway “urban sprawl” that heightens the number of people exposed to extreme weather and climate events.

“Corporations like San Miguel and government offices and officials in cahoots with them must be investigated and held accountable for these reclamation projects that have secured approval despite not having scientifically stringent environmental impact assessments and genuine consultations with the affected communities,” Dulce said.

Lack of national policy

According to Dulce, land reclamation will remain unless a national policy on the sound, people-driven management of coastal and marine ecosystems and resources is instituted.

“Until then, a moratorium on reclamation should be put in place,” Dulce said.

Meanwhile, in a statement issued in time for the celebration of WED, the CEC-Philippines called on the Duterte administration to immediately address the issues relating to the proliferation of reclamation projects nationwide.

“Fisherfolk and local communities have been raising their concerns on the impacts that they have experienced from previous reclamation projects even before the National Reclamation Plan during the term of President Benigno Aquino III,” the group said.

“We have conducted a Reclamation Summit in 2012 and a National Consultation of Fisherfolk on Coastal Resource Management in 2016. The position of the fisherfolk have been consistently clear: fishing grounds should be rehabilitated and not reclaimed; and that there should be sufficient government support for their basic needs, such as equipment, housing and additional income,” CEC-Philippines added.

Economic dislocation

According to CEC-Philippines, fisherfolk communities have been displaced due to reclamation projects, losing their access to their fishing grounds. The habitat destruction caused by reclamation have affected their fish catch and, therefore, caused a decline in their income.

The question on what problems reclamation solves is still vague, they said. Does reclamation rehabilitate the degraded fishing grounds? Does reclamation provide stable and regular livelihood with sufficient income? Does reclamation give housing to communities?

The brandishing of the PRA, local government units (LGUs) and the Duterte administration of new reclamation projects add insult to injury to fisherfolk who remain as the poorest sector in the country, the group said.

According to the PRA, there are 110 pending reclamation projects and more are encouraged under the Public-Private Partnership program.

The response of the government is a far cry from the calls of the fisherfolk and environmental advocates. With the approaching State of the Nation Address by President Duterte, they expect to hear a meticulously crafted speech on the administrations so-called achievements toward development.  But the truth of the worsening condition of the environment and the people cannot be hidden, they said.

Action from all fronts

For its part, Greenpeace is training its eye on the responsibility of plastic producers as it deals with the multifaceted problem brought about by plastic pollution.

Greenpeace said “action from all fronts,” especially from companies most responsible for producing single-use plastic, is a must to beat “catastrophic pollution” that chokes the planet.

In a statement, Greenpeace the companies were tagged as the biggest sources of plastic waste as revealed in a waste assessment and brand audit, conducted in six Philippine cities by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Mother Earth Foundation (MEF)

This is consistent with the released result in September 2017 that also identified the companies as top-polluters in a brand audit conducted by the Break Free from Plastic movement, including Greenpeace, on Freedom Island in Metro Manila.

“These companies must get their act together and start the reduction of single-use plastic packaging of their products,” Angelica Carballo Pago, campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines, said in a statement.

“Rather than just relying on individuals who are sincerely changing their habits in using plastics, the companies, who are making a lot of money from consumers, should invest in long-term solutions that will curb plastic pollution in our cities and waterways,” Pago said.

Shun single-use packaging

Greenpeace urged companies to do away with single-use packaging and instead introduce ecologically sound, long-term innovations that will help alleviate the mounting plastic-pollution problem, which primarily affects the poor and marginalized sectors of society.

Plastic pollution is a multifaceted challenge that encompasses many environmental ills—from polluting the oceans to the promotion of unhealthy diets, to fuelling climate change.

All over the world, 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, while approximately 8 million tons of plastic wastes enter the sea each year.

In addition, plastic production reinforces an even bigger problem that’s already affecting the lives of millions of people around the world: climate change.

‘Refuse plastic’

Greenpeace Climate and Energy Campaigner Kevin Yu said consumers could help in the reduction not just of plastic pollution, but of carbon emission as well, through their everyday choices.

“By refusing plastic, which is a byproduct of fossil fuels, consumers are breaking free not just from plastics, but also from dirty energy. This is a simple yet valuable act that can help end the fossil-fuel industry’s grip on our economy, our politics and our lives,” Yu said.

Food and plastic

The new data from GAIA and MEF also revealed that 79 percent of branded plastic residual-waste that were collected come from food packaging.

Virginia Benosa-Llorin, Food and Ecological Agriculture campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines, said the promotion of supposedly cheap but unhealthy food, tainted with toxic chemicals and preservatives, and wrapped in single-use plastic packaging, is costing Filipino citizens more, especially low-income families.

“It is communities in marginalized sectors who have to deal with these interconnected problems—not just dealing with the single-use plastic trash from our cities and towns, but also the cost to their health, from both the plastic pollution and the unhealthy food that these big corporations peddle,” Benosa-Llorin said.

“The global food system is currently responsible for a quarter of all GHG emissions that are causing climate change. Livestock alone accounts for 14 percent, comparable to the whole transport sector. We need ecologically produced, plant-based food choices over industrial and processed meat. We need to reimagine our consumption, including our food, from their sources down to how they reach our plates,” Benosa-Llorin added.

‘Dissonant’ environment policy

ThE ecological research institution Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED) expressed concern over what was described as “dissonance” in the administration’s pronounced commitment to the environment and its present environmental policies and implementation. Such dissonance, the group said in a statement, is found both in the administration’s pro-environment policies that are “weakly” implemented and its energy and environmental policies that “put the country’s environmental resources at risk” instead of safeguarding them.

“This policy and governance inconsistency is cause for concern because it enables industries like fossil fuels and extractives to operate without proper implementation of environmental safeguards. These are industries that both worsen climate change and weaken our adaptive capacity to climate impacts. They stand to be one of the major threats today not only to our environment but to our people,” CEED Legal and Policy Officer Atty. Avril de Torres said.

De Torres said while the Duterte administration has made several environmental commitments—notably the Paris Agreement and the national ban on open-pit mining which would supposedly address issues surrounding fossil fuels and mining—accounts from communities show that these commitments are not felt on the ground.

Destruction caused by mining

Benito Molino of the Zambales-based anti-mining group Concerned Citizens of Santa Cruz, Zambales (CCOS) said that mining operations continue despite the nationwide open-pit mining ban, through the alleged complicity between mining host communities’ LGUs and mining companies.

In a message to the BusinessMirror through social media, Molino told the BusinessMirror that in Santa Cruz one mining company is, in fact, literally dumping backfilling materials on a stream to allow its dump truck to cross the river unhampered.

He said despite the ban, mining operations carry on across a number of mining sites.

“In Zambales operations still continue through the unbridled illegal hauling and transport of ore by mining companies. It has been a continuing struggle for mining-affected communities across the country to raise this to the level of national government,” he said.

Mining is often being blamed for ridge-to-reef destruction as shaving of forests atop mountains result in the degradation of the terrestrial environment, causing siltation of rivers that trigger landslide and flashflood in coastal areas.

The DENR chief, in appealing to the public to cease from using plastic products, is also concerned of the adverse impact of uncollected waste once they found their way to waterways—the massive flood—especially with the onset of the rainy season.

Persistent pollutant

According to Cimatu, plastics are nonbiodegradable, they do not decay and are not absorbed by the environment.

“Once discarded, plastic is likely to end up in oceans after being washed down rivers, flushed down toilets, or windblown from dumps,” he said.

The easiest and best way to reduce plastic waste is to use reusable alternatives, such as eco-friendly tumblers and eco-bags, Cimatu urged the public.

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Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.

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