The Urban Garbage Trap

Who’s really to blame for metro’s flooding woes? Plastics or squatters?

In Photo: A scavenger collects garbage washed ashore by strong waves in Manila Bay on August 13, 2018.

THE Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is not just about to jump the gun and blame the garbage and flooding problems on manufacturers and their excessive production of single-use plastics and other plastic packaging products.

Hence, the proposal to impose a nationwide single-use plastic ban is not likely to happen—at least for now.

In a telephone interview, DENR Undersecretary for Solid Waste Management and Local Government Units Benny Antiporda said people, not plastics, are the real problem—and possibly—the solution to the garbage and flooding woes.

The culprit

Lack of discipline, he said, is the culprit behind the river of garbage that submerged parts of Metro Manila following the typhoon- and southwest monsoon-induced rains over the past few days.

National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) Secretariat Executive Director Eligio Ildefonso agrees.

“The garbage that flooded Metro Manila is proof that the people really lack discipline when it comes to waste disposal,” Ildefonso told the BusinessMirror in a separate interview.

As tons of garbage, mostly plastic food packaging materials and consumer goods, were literally dumped back by the waves on the shores of Manila Bay along the stretch of Roxas Boulevard, environmental groups reiterated the call to impose the ban on single-use plastics.

Leveling up their campaign against plastic pollution, the groups are now training their guns on manufacturers of single-use plastics and demanding accountability for plastic pollution.

Epic failure?

Antiporda said imposing a ban on plastics and styrofoam as food packaging materials failed miserably in addressing the problem, which, he said, is not because of the product packaging themselves, but because of the poor solid waste management and the people who do not practice proper waste segregation and the so-called 3Rs or reduce, reuse and recycle.

He said certain LGUs have, in fact, passed local ordinances and strictly imposed similar policies banning the use of plastic sando bags with relative success, but in the end, the campaign in supermarkets and even wet markets started to lose steam.

“What they [supermarkets] did was sell plastics or eco bags.  It [the ban on plastics] will only hurt the poor as they have to pay extra for these plastic bags,” Antiporda said in mixed English and Filipino.

Flooding, he said, is not caused by plastic waste alone, but admittedly by the poor solid waste management and poor enforcement of the garbage law, which is aggravated by the informal settlers whose makeshift shanties built along waterways prevent the smooth flow of the water out of Metro Manila.

Long-term solution

To prevent flooding, he said, there is a need to first clear the canals, creeks and rivers, which will require the relocation of squatters, followed by massive dredging of all the silted waterways to ensure the smooth flow of water through outlets that lead to either Laguna de Bay or coastal and marine areas like Manila Bay.

“Relocation is a long-term solution. We really need to relocate the informal settlers away from the creeks and the rivers and we solve half of the problem,” he said.

He admitted, though, that many people, particularly those squatting near creeks and rivers, still lack discipline, if not the sense of patriotism, as they continue to dump their waste into water bodies, unmindful of their adverse impact on the environment and even the health and well-being of their own community.

“Once they have been relocated, we can start the rehabilitation of our waterways,” Antiporda said.

One problem at a time

Antiporda said there is a need to conduct further study on how to best address the garbage problem, by making the 3Rs work more efficiently “one problem at a time.”

For instance, Antiporda said, most garbage in Metro Manila—about 90 percent or more—is kitchen waste.

“People tend to use plastic to seal spoiled food to prevent its foul odor. That is one problem. I am looking at working with LGUs to introduce the use of containers where residents can put their spoils for proper disposal,” he said.

Either the LGU will come up with a collection schedule or people will bring their spoiled food to a designated area where they can be disposed of, Antiporda said.

Either way, he said, the kitchen waste must be properly disposed of, either through composting for conversion into organic fertilizer, or treatment before disposal to the environment to prevent soil and water pollution.

Cause of flooding

Ildefonso said that uncollected garbage ends up in vacant lots, or worse, finds its way into canals, creeks and rivers, clogging the major arteries that prevent water from flowing out to the seas.

Around 20 percent of the garbage produced every day remains uncollected.

This means that in Metro Manila alone, which produces around 9,000 tons of garbage daily, around 1,800 tons end up in vacant lots or in waterways, causing rivers to overflow.

‘No burn’ WTE

To address the environmental and health problems caused by the poor solid waste management in the country, the DENR and the NSWMC are seeking to put in place guidelines for thermal waste-to-energy (WTE) solutions.

A draft of the guidelines in the form of a department administrative order is now being studied by the DENR’s Policy and Planning Office, Ildefonso said.

Thermal WTE does not make use of direct burning or incineration, Ildefonso said.

“It’s like when you leave rice unattended. Rice in the pot is burnt and turns into ash,” he said.

Through burning, heat is produced, which will then be converted into energy. Through the process, one ton of garbage can produce 1 megawatt of electricity, he said.

Such process, he added, would require highly combustible materials as fuel—like plastic—thereby partly helping address plastic pollution.

Not so fast

The Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas, however, rejected the idea that informal settlers, whether those living along riverbanks or coastal areas, are to blame for the garbage and flooding woes.

The group agrees garbage being washed ashore in Manila Bay is highly alarming because of its effect on communities. But garbage, the group stressed, is just one of the threats to the marine ecosystem and biodiversity in Manila Bay.

“The garbage washing ashore does not just come from the residents residing along Manila Bay,” Fernando Hicap, national chairman of Pamalakaya, said.

“This garbage came from different places. But while we recognize the contribution of garbage to pollution and contamination of fish species, it is crucial to address that still, 60 percent of pollution enters  Manila Bay from Pasig River, in which 80 percent comes from industrial and commercial establishments situated in Metro Manila,” he said.

More important, Hicap said, the pollution that is not visible to the naked eye poses more danger to the marine biodiversity and, most of all, to the livelihood of small fishermen who now have to endure the dwindling fish catch due to the deterioration of Manila Bay.

“We urge the concerned government agencies to address the long-standing pollution in Manila Bay fair and square. Garbage and other waste must not be used against us to justify our displacement in our community and, instead, resolve this issue by rehabilitating Manila Bay in the framework of restoring its marine resources and as a productive fishing ground,” Hicap said.

Environmental groups also strongly oppose any form of waste-to-energy technology, saying any WTE technology that makes use of sexy titles still use incinerators, which violates the Clean Air Act.

Image Credits: AP/Aaron Favila

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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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