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From waste to furniture: Philippines upcycles its way out of its plastic pollution crisis

Job Manahan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 05 2022 07:27 AM | Updated as of May 28 2022 04:12 PM

Philippine recycling firms have stepped up to address the waste problem, upcycling plastic trash into furniture and construction materials, while the country finds ways to solve plastic pollution at its source. George Calvelo and Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News
Philippine recycling firms have stepped up to address the waste problem, upcycling plastic trash into furniture and construction materials, while the country finds ways to solve plastic pollution at its source. George Calvelo and Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA (UPDATE)— Riva Gutierrez began sending her plastic waste to a recycling firm last year after seeing the huge amount of plastics starting to pile up in their trash. Alarmed over the couple of large black bags full of many single-use, discarded plastics: Gutierrez knew something needed to change.

"May guilt part on my end kapag nakikita ko yung volume ng basura na napo-produce namin sa isang araw," Gutierrez told ABS-CBN News in an interview.

"In this lifetime, in a day, ganito karaming basura yung napo-produce sa household namin and I am living how many years pa, so ilang kilo pa ng basura." 

(In just one day, our household was able to produce a lot of trash already and this is just a day in our lifetime, so how many more will we produce in the coming years? I feel guilty upon seeing the volume of waste we produce in one day.)

From these musings, a mission was born: collect plastics and turn it over to The Plastic Flamingo (The Plaf) — a Muntinlupa-based recycling firm that upcycles these trash — and finally reduce their plastic footprint. 

While such commitment costs her around P500 monthly, since she has to send their plastic waste through a courier, the advocate said it is but a "small price" in her mission to minimize plastics waste. 

"Sa akin okay lang, parang there's a greater purpose behind this cause... I also had this turning point. Nakikita ko yung basura, parang may realization ako na, 'Oh my God, ganito karaming basura yung kino-contribute ko sa mundo?'" she said. 

(It is okay because I think there is a greater purpose behind this cause. I had this turning point: I see this trash and realize that this is the amount of trash I am contributing to the world?)

Gutierrez is just one among the growing number of Filipinos worried about the country's plastics problem, already worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A study last year showed that the Philippines is the worst plastic polluter in the oceans, contributing to over a third of the global plastic waste, even surpassing big countries like India and China. Seven of 10 major polluting rivers were located in the Philippines, with Pasig River identified as the top plastic pollution source.

This could happen in an economy that consumes 48 million plastic bags daily, translating to 17.5 billion pieces a year, a study by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in 2019 showed. Mismanaged plastics leaked by the country’s rivers, on the other hand, is estimated to be at 356,371 metric tons (MT) annually.

Some 460 million tons of plastics were used in 2019, nearly double from 2000, Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said in its recent report.

“If we don’t rethink our strategies, even if the pandemic doesn’t kill us, plastic pollution will,” said Gloria Ramos, vice president of environment group Oceana Philippines.

Philippine recycling firms have stepped up to address the waste problem, transforming plastic trash into furniture and construction materials, while the country finds sustainable ways to solve plastic pollution at its source.

UPCYCLING: THE FUTURE OF PLASTIC WASTE?

The World Bank last year said the Philippines could unlock $1.1 billion or P53.4 billion annually through recycling, since the country only recycles around 28 percent of key plastic resins. 

Globally though, less than 10 percent of plastic wastes were recycled, according to the OECD prompting them to call for a "coordinated and global solutions.” In Asia, most or 72 percent of plastic discards were incinerated, 14 percent were thrown in landfills, while only 12 percent were recycled. 

Can upcycling boost Philippines’ recycling efforts?

Upcycling, simply put, is the process of transforming discarded trash into a product with a higher value compared to its original form. 

In the case of plastics, a few recycling businesses in the country have done this through plastic extrusion and heat compression, when tons of clean plastic waste get melted or molded through heat for another product. A company also puts the spotlight on this through ecobricking. 

These methods are considered mechanical recycling, noted Ricardo Sirot, Jr., a materials engineer and a teaching associate at University of the Philippines Diliman. 

"[Upcycling is] yung process in which we give yung greater value sa materials natin, product, and usually we incorporate additives so in terms of plastics kasi, for example [plastic] bottles, puwede siyang gawing (they can be made into) furniture, plastic lumbers," the MS Environmental Engineer student-researcher told ABS-CBN News in an interview. 

"Ang kailangan lang doon is mag-apply ka ng heat, heat treatment, mga equipment, and then additives para mas... ma-improve yung properties ng material natin," he added.

(What is needed there is to apply heat treatment, have an equipment and additives to improve the materials' quality.)

One of those engaged in plastic extrusion for recycling is The Plaf — a social enterprise established in 2018. The company also has its own plastic waste collection programs, doing this with the help of partner malls and establishments through 200 collection points around Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

"Our mission [is] we really want to tackle the proper disposal since it is lacking in the country right now. We really want to focus and allow people to learn how they can dispose of their waste," said Allison Tan, the Plaf's former communication and marketing associate.

Their warehouse in Muntinlupa, which sits nearby Poblacion River, is capable of converting 2,000 tons of plastic waste into upcycled products yearly — mostly lumber, planks, and just recently, drink coasters and eco-boards. The company is so far directly selling to interested entities.

Workers prepare to resume their work at The Plastic Flamingo recycling facility in Muntinlupa City on March 18, 2022. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News
Workers prepare to resume their work at The Plastic Flamingo recycling facility in Muntinlupa City on March 18, 2022. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The Plaf COO Erica Reyes said to extrude plastics, discarded pieces should be clean and shredded. These get mixed into their second-hand, modified extruder. Additives, such as UV blocks, flame retardants, among other chemicals, get included.

While the firm collects "all plastic wastes," not all can be recycled, Reyes told ABS-CBN News over Zoom. When they receive electronic parts made from plastics, these get sent to their partner recycling line.

Currently, she said they are using PET plastic bottles; shampoo and cooking oil containers (HDPE plastics); bottle caps, straws (PP plastics); shopping and courier bags, bubble wraps (LDPE plastics), and a "fair amount" of sachets. 

The firm last month also launched a new recycling line, which converts ubiquitous sachets and food wrappers into "eco-boards" or plastic panels —the equivalent of plywood— which could be used for housing, furniture, or construction. "We can build anything!" a portion of their brochure reads.

Their technology may be considered the first in the country, boosting the worth of single-use sachets despite its low recycling value.

With modified machines and demand pouring in during its initial years, The Plaf was able to create a 20-square-meter demo-shelter made out of 4 tons of plastic wastes, turning their vision of making plastic homes into reality. 

This was constructed in front of their warehouse, situated behind the employees who segregate collected plastics under the heat of the sun. The inside of the house was noticeably cooler, devoid of the humid feeling one would expect in something made from plastics.


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Workers sort different types of plastic at The Plastic Flamingo upcycling facility in Muntinlupa City on March 18, 2022. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A view of the shelter made out of eco-lumber at The Plastic Flamingo upcycling facility in Muntinlupa City on March 18, 2022. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A view of the shelter made out of eco-lumber at The Plastic Flamingo upcycling facility in Muntinlupa City on March 18, 2022. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The cooling effect was possible through the dark anthracite-colored plastic lumbers, which "absorb a lot of heat," chief products officer Anne Sophie van der Spek said. "We are also now planning to expand our colors so we are now going to have beige... which means it will be cooler." 

"We are just improving the roofing system that we have right now. As you can see, this one is sturdy, water-proof, resistance-proof, and rot-free as well. It will last long. Hindi din siya lalambot," The Plaf's Reyes added during the tour.

ENVIROTECH 

Another company, Envirotech Waste Recycling, upcycles plastics through plastic extrusion.

Established in 2010, the Davao-based firm is now offering a variety of products — from lumbers, chairs, tables, food canisters, plant pots, to fences, among other things. Envirotech sells their products to partners while some are available through e-commerce platforms.

Like The Plaf, the firm also seeks to transform sachets into usable plastic furniture. Its recycling plants can recycle between 60 and 90 tons of plastic wastes monthly, according to its CEO Winchester Lemen. 

The firm accepts most types of plastics ranging from plastic bags, candy wrappers, e-commerce packaging to even broken socks. 

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Philippines upcycles its way out of its plastic pollution crisis 5
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Some pieces of furniture made of plastic waste. Photos courtesy of Winchester Lemen.

Some pieces of furniture made of plastic waste. Photos courtesy of Winchester Lemen.

Some pieces of furniture made of plastic waste. Photos courtesy of Winchester Lemen.

Some pieces of furniture made of plastic waste. Photos courtesy of Winchester Lemen.

Some pieces of furniture made of plastic waste. Photos courtesy of Winchester Lemen.

Some pieces of furniture made of plastic waste. Photos courtesy of Winchester Lemen.

"Industrial wastes like polybags from the bananas, any type of packaging from the food industry. All types of materials, supot or whatever it is whether it could be a shrink wrap, bubble wrap, we accepted it," said Lemen in an interview.

Envirotech is also keen on producing a shelter made from recycled plastics, already furnished with its products. It plans to launch this year the 28-square meter plastic house that might cost around P300,000. 

"It's a low-cost housing for that matter," Lemen said.

"And it is equipped already with furniture. Pagpasok ng isang pamilya doon, all they would do is to relax and then sleep during the night because they already have a bed to lie down on, a living room where they can relax, and a dining table where they can eat," he added.

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For Envirotech's chief, despite the grim news about the Philippines' plastics wastes, there is still hope and it can be managed. 

"Plastics [are] not our enemy. We have a better chance of recycling them... for other things, I would say that discipline should be coming from us and not really blame the plastic packaging."

ECOBRICKS

When Green Antz chief Rommel Benig started his ecobricks business a decade ago, several clients rejected his idea. Only a few even believed that integrating shredded plastic wastes in cement would be possible for construction materials, except for his former employer Nestlé, which eventually gave the funding.

Benig remembered offering his first ecobrick directly to customers, who were not convinced that it can be an alternative to hollow blocks, an industry to be reckoned with. While Nestlé solved his funding woes, bricks with plastics were just so difficult to sell.

Local government units also snubbed his products.

When these individuals refused to budge, the campaign shifted to businesses, with Green Antz packaging these bricks for sustainability. Such products can facilitate a company's social responsibility program, his marketing went. 

This was when his firm started growing, eventually sealing partnerships with Ayala, Colgate-Palmolive, and Globe. 

"Nag-aalok ako literally, dala-dala ko yung brick pero ang hirap pasukin ng market. We shifted our focus and ginawa namin siyang program that can be treated as a [corporate social responsibility]," he said. 

(I was literally carrying my ecobrick but the market was just hard to penetrate. We shifted our focus and we turned it into a program that can be treated as a corporate social responsibility.)

Benig now commands at least 30 Green Antz eco-hubs nationwide, with the largest one located in Plaridel, Bulacan. Each eco-hub is capable of plastics collection, recycling, as well as manufacturing his ecobricks, ecocasts, and paver blocks. At least 120 plastic drop-off points are also available across the country. 

Ecobricks and ecopavers, he said, are stronger, more fire-resistant, and more practical to use than an ordinary hollow block. “Plastic is a substitute for sand and some of the gravel,” the CEO told ABS-CBN News. 

“‘Yun yung isang environmental impact nito. Nababawasan yung ginagamit naming buhangin tsaka kaunting graba,” he said, adding that their products are not toxic, too. 

(That is the environmental impact. We lessen the need for sand and gravel.) 

The company said this is so because they mostly use food-grade plastics in their prototypes, which also act as a thermal insulator: “Ine-encapsulate namin ito with concrete. Yun yung technology,” noted Benig. 

“Mas malamig siya sa loob. Pag conventional hollow blocks, may sunlight yung wall, pagdating sa loob mainit rin. For our products, kapag mainit sa labas, malamig sa loob. The plastic acts as an insulating material,” he explained.

(It is cooler inside. When we use conventional hollow blocks and the sunlight touches the wall, it gets warm. Our products give off cooling effect when it is hot outside.)

When plastics get shredded, these get mixed with cement and sand. A special formulation is poured over the grayish earth to glue materials together, until it gets molded as blocks and pavers and eventually dried.

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Workers produce bricks mixed with plastics at Green Antz' site in Plaridel, Bulacan. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Workers produce bricks mixed with plastics at Green Antz' site in Plaridel, Bulacan. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Workers produce bricks mixed with plastics at Green Antz' site in Plaridel, Bulacan. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

A batch of eco-bricks stocked for delivery at the Green Antz' production site in Plaridel, Bulacan. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Ecobricks and ecopavers have between 680 and 870 pound per square inch (psi) strength, but the latter is supposedly better in preventing floods because rainwater “can seep through,” according to Benig.

“The porus version, pervious type… water can go back... that will minimize flooding kasi diba kapag puro sementado ang pavement, nagko-cause ng flooding,” he said. 

(When the pavement is wholly made of concrete, it causes flooding.)
 
Green Antz has diverted over 500 tons of plastic waste since 2013, and Benig is keen on expanding it to up to 10 times or around 5,000 tons, as the demand for their product continues to grow.

"Mangangailangan ng mas marami pang plastic because this year, we intend to penetrate the big hardwares... We are also creating a distributor and non-distributor... including dealerships, so our products will be accessible sa mga tao.”

(We would need more plastics because this year, we intend to penetrate the big hardwares. We are also creating a distributor and non-distributor... including dealerships, so our products will be accessible to more people.)

PLASTIC CIRCULARITY: ENDLESS POSSIBILITY?

Usually, plastics are thrown away after consumers decide its end of life. But for these firms, their products can be returned for another chance to be upcycled, spurring zero-waste initiatives and the so-called circular economy, thus closing the production loop. 

The upcycling firms see plastic circularity as a solution to plastic leakage in the environment, with the model’s primary focus on extending plastics’ usefulness.

For UP Diliman’s Sirot, the circular economy push will help prevent plastics and other wastes’ immediate disposal to landfills. This is different from the current linear economy model, where plastics get easily thrown away. 

“With the circular economy model, instead [of disposing] of the waste, we recover them and then reprocess [them] and we use them to make new products… Paikot-ikot lang material mo and gusto natin yun kasi nape-prevent yung immediate disposal sa landfill and humahaba yung useful life, extended useful life niya sa circulation,” he explained.

(The material gets circulated and we want it because it prevents the immediate disposal to landfills. It also lengthens its useful life through that circulation.)

Some scientists and green campaigners, however, are not happy with upcycling, saying this only dilutes the conversation on eventually phasing out single-use plastics, as well as the accountability of companies for shedding plastics in the environment.

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As fast-moving consumer goods titans continue their plastics production, recycling will only be a dent to address plastics pollution, environmentalists ABS-CBN News have spoken to said. 

A recent study echoed this, noting that some 710 million metric tons of discarded plastics will be present in our environment in 20 years “despite efforts to curb plastic consumption.”

“It's just an interim initiative or response or solution to our problems but it isn't really a long-term sustainable option,” Greenpeace’s Zero Waste campaigner Marian Ledesma told ABS-CBN News. 

“At first glance it may seem like it's the perfect solution to our plastic waste problem, but what's really happening is that this is a distraction to the systemic solutions that we really need, which is to cut back and eventually phase out yung plastic production,” Ledesma added. 

Jorge Emmanuel, adjunct professor of environmental science and engineering at the Silliman University, said the focus now should be on the plastics’ life cycle, given the greenhouse emissions from their production until they get thrown away and eventually degrade into microplastics. 

But upcycling firms like Green Antz said they would be responsible for the plastic waste that could be generated in their ecobricks once they reach the end of their usefulness. The firm’s eco-hubs are capable of collecting and reprocessing debris with plastic materials in it. 

“Lahat ng products na ginagawa namin, pwede naming kuhanin yan, i-recycle at i-reprocess namin,” Benig said.

(All our products can be returned to us, we can recycle and reprocess them.)

“We are one of the pioneers of the circular economy in the Philippines . We need to embrace that. We need to walk the talk, so lahat ng mga products na gawa namin, puwede namin ulit kolektahin or gawin sa amin,” he added.

(So all the products we made can be collected or returned to us.)

The Plaf and Envirotech also urged consumers to send their products back to them when they want to throw it away.

"Once you don't want it anymore, you can bring it back to us and we can recycle it again. Endless possibility. It will get recycled again, over and over again," said Lemen, CEO of Envirotech. 

But aside from noting the threats of what can be seen, experts and environment campaigners also fear the potential hidden risks that these upcycling processes have to humans, given the presence of plastic dusts, microplastics during manufacturing, and the possibly harmful vapor that people inhale.

For the Asia Pacific coordinator of anti-waste incineration group GAIA, more studies are needed to gauge the upcycled materials’ impact, especially since the concept is new. “Hindi natin siya alam gaano siya kaligtas and why are we promoting it already,” said Froilan Grate.

(We do not know how safe these are but why are we promoting it already?) 

But despite the products’ increasing popularity, some people, like Gutierrez, have yet to see an upcycled plastic lumber or even the in-demand drink coasters made by The Plaf. She is particularly interested in how these are made.

“Hindi ko pa siya nakikita, hindi ko pa siya nahahawakan, hindi ko pa siya naamoy,” she said. “It is just [there] sa page nila and Instagram— how they sell their advocacy. It is something quite catchy, kaya as an individual, I am willing to donate and help them.”

(I haven't seen, touched, or smelled the upcycled products. Their page in Instagram sells their advocacy. It is something quite catchy, which was why as an individual, I am willing to donate and help them.)

 This series was done under the GAIA-Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific fellowship.