Trash endgame: Can recycling solve PH's plastic woes?
This is the last part of a 3-part series. You can read the first part here, and the second part here.
MANILA– While the Philippines sees the plastics upcycling industry expanding, environmentalists believe that much more must be done to address the plastic waste backlog. This is because even if the 3 firms and other recyclers are able to divert tons of plastics into recycled items, the unabated plastics production still cancels this.
Food networks and businesses should instead phase out single-use plastics, the production of which is expected to increase by 30 percent in the next 5 years, advocates have said.
The Philippines, reportedly the top plastic polluter worldwide, banks largely on sachets and single-use items, with plastic scraps leaking mostly in rivers, based on a recent study.
Some Philippine recyclers have shifted to melting plastic waste and upcycles these into fresh plastic products as furniture and construction materials. A firm, on the other hand, turns polymer trash into ecobricks.
But for the Ecowaste Coalition, this recycling solution is not proactive.
“‘Yun yung nagiging problema when it comes to these recycling. Jina-justify din at the same time 'yung production. Ang pag-address na when it comes to recycling na more on downstream pa rin yung approach na contrary to zero-waste,” its advocacy officer Coleen Salamat said in an interview.
(That is the problem. This type of recycling justifies the production of plastics. They said this addressed the problem but the approach is still downstream contrary to zero-waste.)
“With increasing companies... na may ganitong program, nagiging problematic na siya kasi hindi lahat ng plastic nare-recycle lalo na dito sa Philippines. Hindi nare-recycle yung sachet, so ang ginagawa nila... shine-shred into smaller pieces.”
(It is becoming a problem given that there are more companies that have these programs. It is problematic in a sense that not all plastics get recycled in the country. Sachets cannot be recycled so what they do is shred these into smaller pieces.)
In fact, under the National Solid Waste Management Commission’s (NSWMC) waste management hierarchy, recycling is not top priority. The most preferred options are the avoidance and reduction of waste. Treatment and residuals management go last.
A Global Plastics Treaty is being negotiated to cut down plastics use, with nearly 200 nations at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) agreeing to tackle the "full life cycle" of plastics and all the pollution it costs. In March, the parties agreed to make an intergovernmental committee to finalize a legally binding treaty by 2024.
Dr. Jorge Emmanuel, among the scientists who drafted a declaration backing the negotiations, agreed with the treaty’s focus, given the greenhouse emissions from plastic production until they get thrown away and eventually degrade into microplastics.
“We need to look at the pollution put out and the amount of carbon, this is the link to climate change by the way, produced during the manufacturing of these plastics,” noted Emmanuel.
“The solution is not to recycle because it will just add to the pollution problem if not now, in the coming decades. And it continues to require new plastics from fossil fuel,” he explained in a Zoom interview.
A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that plastics have produced some 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions “throughout their life cycle.”
Plastics were able to generate 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 alone, 90 percent of which were through their production process from fossil fuels, the OECD report added.
But the organization is pushing for recycling and the prolonging of plastic products’ useful life.
While patented environmental plastic solutions “increased more than threefold” from 1990 to 2017, the economic group said this only makes up around 1.2 percent of all plastics-related innovation.
“More ambitious policies are needed including a combination of investments in innovation and interventions aimed at increasing demand for circular solutions while restraining plastics consumption overall,” according to the report.
Among the viable solutions that countries should take include strengthening global commitment in making plastics “more circular and achieve net zero plastic leakage.”
RECYCLING WOES: ‘QUESTIONABLE, LIMITED’
Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives' (GAIA) Asia Pacific coordinator Froilan Grate said plastic upcycling can be an excuse to continue using plastics instead of addressing the pollution problem long-term, describing its capacity in the country as “very limited.”
"We know that plastic use is very massive. Yung percentage of that being diverted for use for planks, bricks, eco-fencing... is questionable," Grate told ABS-CBN News.
"Madaling sabihin na sige kolektahin natin lahat ng plastic, gawin nating bricks, planks, or fences pero ang tanong may demand ba for that? Saan gagamitin?" he added.
(It is easy to say that we can collect all plastics and make these as bricks, planks, or fences but the question is — will there be a demand for that? Where will they be used?)
Salamat, on the other hand, said top plastic-producing companies should change their business models instead of diverting the attention to recycling plastics. Initiatives like plastic upcycling can be considered as “false solutions."
"[They should not] produce these kinds of problematic materials, kasi at the very core, problematic na yung ganitong types of plastics and 'yung way nila to address again, hindi siya yung they are really changing their system or business models," Salamat said.
(They should not produce these kinds of problematic materials because at the very core, these plastics are a problem already and their way to address this does not really change their business models or system.)
"This is actually a false solution... because they do not address the problem at source, hindi pa rin nababawasan ‘yung production [of plastics]. When we address plastic pollution, it should be reduction sa production."
(The production of plastics remain unabated.)
Environment network Break Free From Plastic's (BFFP) brand audit in 2021 showed that the same big companies are contributing to the country's plastic pollution in recent years.
Only 8 of the 10 named firms, however, are part of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS). The coalition, made up of recycling firms and investing corporations, also aims to manage plastic waste and reduce waste generation nationwide by 2030.
As part of their declaration for the decade, PARMS members are looking into making packaging reusable and recyclable, as well as phasing out non-recyclable products and plastic materials "where environmentally sound and economically viable alternatives exist."
According to PARMS founding president Crispian Lao, the plastic problem still lies with the public and their "lack of discipline" to properly dispose of plastics and the limited infrastructure to "properly collect and dispose" it.
"It's a loop that needs to be fixed,” he said.
The rise of these firms means they are on the "right track," a reason why Filipinos must support them.
"Good news yun na lahat sila mage-expand (it is good news that all of them will expand) the beauty of it is, yes it is a niche [market] but there's more, we need more people to patronize these types of materials," said Lao, who is also the commissioner of the NSWMC representing the recycling industry.
The World Bank's Market Study for the Philippines: Plastics Circularity Opportunities and Barriers published last year noted that as long as the virgin plastic prices remains relatively low compared to recovered plastics, recyclers would struggle to compete.
The study said firms needed to reduce the cost of their recycled plastic resins by up to 30 percent just to make their prices competitive against virgin plastic resins. The cost of recycled ones continue to increase due to “higher living cost requirements for the informal sector and higher cost of waste collection and segregation.”
Among the firms ABS-CBN News interviewed for this report, only Plastic Flamingo was set to offer recycled HDPE pellets, seen as an alternative to virgin plastics. A relesase date has yet to be et.
“When prices of virgin resins are very low, there is no incentive for converters to use recycled resins. And the product made from virgin resins will always have better performance than recycled resins. It’s a disincentive to the recycling industry when virgin resin prices are low,” a quote from an unnamed petrochemical company read in the report.
To drive up the demand, World Bank said, the government and industries should intervene given their “critical” roles.
“Structural and systemic corrective measures, especially supporting legislations, are needed to enable decoupling of recycled resins from virgin and to ensure that the recycling industry remains competitive against virgin plastic prices,” it said.
But the global financial institution, echoing Lao, lamented the slim chances of plastics’ recyclability in the country due to its design, inability of most households to segregate trash, low feedstock quality, high transportation costs, and recyclers’ profitability challenges.
These were among the things that should first be addressed to ensure the viability of the country’s recycling sector.
“Due to its archipelagic nature as well as the burdensome and sometimes inconsistent regulations, the Philippines currently has the highest logistics cost base among Southeast Asian countries,” the report says about the recyclers’ high transportation cost just for plastic collection.
“Other commercialized recycling technologies that produce high-value recycled plastics (such as food-grade rPET, rPE and rPP) require consistent tonnages which is challenged by the complete reliance on collection through informal networks,” it added.
EXTENDED PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY?
Lao lamented the “lack of the proper design of the material” of plastics, causing consumers to throw these away at the end of their useful threshold.
What they are pushing for instead is an “inclusive” extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme to manage plastic wastes with stakeholders. This is what the Senate also proposed earlier this year, believing that this could solve Philippines’ plastic pollution in the long-run.
The Senate’s EPR wanted big plastic producing firms to get the biggest share of accountability on polymer trash.
It fundamentally obliges firms to properly and effectively recover, treat, recycle and dispose of their plastics once they get sold and used. The measure also aims “to reduce packaging waste generation and improve the recyclability and reusability of packaging wastes.”
"It is not a solution in itself, but it is a move in the right direction, I believe. We need to rescue our country from being a marine litter culprit and demonstrate that a developing country can and will make this work," said Senator Cynthia Villar, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change.
An EPR that PARMS wanted was something that could empower recycling firms and local governments’ materials recovery facilities, proposing instead a concept of “plastic credits.”
Based on the organization’s model, waste diverters, for example a recycling firm or LGU, get credits according to how much plastics they were able to divert from landfills and nature. A separate body will audit this according to their accounting standards and certify their work. These credits can be sold to entities for their EPR initiatives.
The non-profit group, composed of several fast-moving consumer goods companies, is also suggesting a “certification of the diversion output” for accountability purposes.
“Waste footprint owners can directly recover and divert waste, enter into an agreement with a waste diverter or put up recycling and treatment infrastructure to reach their diversion rate target or buy credits from licensed waste footprint diverters to meet their target,” it reads.
Aside from this, PARMS is promoting bulk purchases and the shift to colorless plastic bottles, to increase the products’ recyclability.
“They have to go above board to go documented also. We help them bring them above. We have a better accounting of how much materials, what those materials, what [is] being done with the materials rather than the quantity,” the commissioner said of the importance of their proposal.
"We will address. While we are promoting or looking more to circularity, the infrastructure for that circular model will also be provided... at least now that we have a roadmap to guide us. The roadmap.... will be continuously developed."
While Grate agreed that the EPR bill should involve stakeholders, the emphasis should not be on plastics alone: “It should be covering all waste stream.”
The public should watch out, he noted, for possible narratives that will be “friendly” to companies, including shifting the burden to consumers “to divert the attention from the producer to everyone on board.”
“I think what is worth celebrating is the recognition, na yung pananagutan ng kumpanya does not end the moment they produce and they sell the product, and in fact, sa buong life cycle ng produkto na binebenta nila, may pananagutan sila,” he said.
(That the company's accountability does not end the moment they produce and they sell the product, and in fact they will be accountable for the plastic products' whole life cycle.)
“Tama naman may pananagutan yung consumer, yung local governments, pero yung pananagutan na yun, follows after na-address ng kumpanya yung problem nila. It is not about passing the blame, it is about solving the problem sa umpisa pa lang.”
(It is true that the consumer and local governments must be held accountable too but this follows only after the company addressed their own plastics problem already.
SINGLE-USE PLASTICS: TO STOP OR NOT TO STOP
But for newly-installed Environment Secretary Jim Sampulna, a country’s capacity and capability to manage, recycle, and recover plastic wastes should be taken into consideration given the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations.
Sampulna emphasized the need for urgency in responding to environmental problems, including plastic pollution, as the public continues to experience "the massive choking of our oceans because of plastics, the rise of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, and the deterioration of our health from chemical and wastes."
“The environmental repercussions we are experiencing are all traceable to us humans such as climate change that intensifies hazards creating disasters worldwide,” his statement reads.
He has also called for the phasing out of single-use plastics, fearing that plastic pollution has already became “uncontrollable.”
"I myself, the DENR is supporting the bill banning the use of small plastic, ano. Kasi iyan ang hindi natin naku-control – shampoo, sabon, all of these things, hindi natin naku-control ito," he said in mid-March.
(We cannot control it anymore - shampoo, soaps (plastic products), all of these things cannot be controlled anymore.)
This problem was recognized by the Supreme Court last year when it issued a Writ of Kalikasan against the government over the sale and manufacture of unacceptable plastic products, a move that aimed to regulate single-use plastics.
Around 50 members of Oceana Philippines, scientists, and fisherfolk brought the government to court last year for its alleged neglect of the country’s plastic pollution problem.
"The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act has faced more than two decades of neglect by the NSWMC, compounding the burgeoning plastic crisis in the Philippines," Oceana said.
For Emmanuel, recycling is “not a solution” even if it “plays an important role for the interim.”
“We need to start working on alternatives... We will still need some plastics, even a treaty it will take some time, that's why recycling of safe plastics will continue to be something that will be needed,” he said, stressing the need to cut down single-use plastics production.
Lao urged caution on phasing out single-use plastics and even banning them. Several areas in the country, including Quezon City, have banned plastic straws and plastic bags, and other single-use materials.
The plastics industry recognizes the problem of plastic pollution, he said, but there must be an alternative packaging before the ban on plastics comes into full force.
"We have to be cognizant that if we move towards less plastics, better plastics, and no plastic at all, we have to make sure that we avoid the unintended consequence of multimedia transfer of environmental impacts other way," he explained.
“There are a lot of plastics in the system than what can be addressed… at the end of [its useful] life… While we are searching for alternatives to plastic packaging that would meet the objective of serving and protecting the consumers at the lowest cost possible, we are also developing the pathways and the infrastructure to address the waste,” he explained.
“If we are not using plastics, what are we going to use?”
For Oceana, Greenpeace, and GAIA, the shift to refillable containers and zero-waste initiatives are still the best alternatives for now, noting that these are not foreign concepts to Filipinos. The call for phasing out single-use plastics must also be sustained.
“Introducing reusable containers from the end of the consumers and also the consumer goods industry, they could start supplying or developing mga goods or products that are more for refilling,” said Ledesma.
“If you have liquids, provide products in bulk to retailers and then set up reuse systems so people can just refill… That's a more circular solution,” she added.
Oceana, meanwhile, urged the public to keep their homes plastics-free through these methods: How to make your household environment-friendly, plastics-free
Gloria Ramos, Oceana Philippines vice president, last month called for more refillable glass bottles since recycling "is not working" anymore to save the oceans.
"There is no way to fully control where a single-use plastic bottle ends up. It could be in a recycle bin, in the trash, on the street, or in the ocean," Ramos said in her presentation for Earth Day, April 22.
Local governments share the burden now on plastic pollution, which she said "can no longer be managed."
GAIA, meanwhile, is suggesting zero-waste initiatives, which they said reduce waste output by up to 80 percent. This has been attainable in some 400 municipalities in Europe, they said, with cities in the region and Asia also following suit.
This can begin through the following:
- Reducing waste generation by being conscious consumers, and by focusing on reuse and repair
- Separating discards
- Home composting
- Creating new business out of recyclables and organics
- Educating the public to increase participation in such initiatives.
EXPERTS: SOLUTION LIES WITH PUBLIC, GOVERNMENT
But for Jove Benosa, Ecowaste Coalition’s zero waste campaign officer, unless the country has a proper and enabling infrastructure to “effectively” recycle plastics, the pollution will continue.
“Bahagi ang recycling ng 3Rs pero may mga missteps doon sa recycling at may mga gaps sa paraan ng recycling. Nandoon yung incorrect sorting, tapos yung waste contaminated na, nadagdagan pa ng... kulang pa ang infrastructure sa kasalukuyan para effectively ma-recycle ang product or material,” noted Benosa.
(Recycling is part of the 3Rs but there were missteps and gaps in recycling. There is the incorrect sorting, the contamination of waste, and the lacking infrastructure to effectively recycle the product or material.)
The World Bank also raised the challenges some leaders face when it comes to waste management. A local chief executive, for example, can only sign solid waste management contracts for the duration of their time in office, limiting them from implementing long-term policies.
"The lack of funding to implement the legislation and infrastructure such as [materials recovery facilities are] cited as the key contributing factor to the failure to have widespread source-segregation," it said.
"Regulatory actions are necessary to create an enabling environment for plastics circularity. While voluntary commitments by the industry are a step in the right direction, they are not enough to divert plastic waste away from landfills and the open environment or tackle the marine plastics issue."
The upcycling industry in the country can still improve as long as this is strengthened and developed to include government support, UP Diliman teaching associate and materials engineer Ricardo Sirot, Jr., told ABS-CBN News.
"Once you have the right technology in place, adapted locally, all you need is the enabling environment – yung mga (the) policies, regulations, national, local policies and a comprehensive solid waste management framework," he said.
The EPR bill, once signed into a law for example, can "promulgate" such industries and can be a "stepping stone in achieving proper waste management."
"You are encouraging these producers, plastics, to manage their own waste... By such, I think lalago yung industry by then," he added.
(I think the industry will grow by then.)
For his part, Emmanuel said the public plays a key role in solving plastic pollution by being conscious with their behaviors as consumers, urging them to also think about the children.
"I believe very strongly that the problem with waste is not a technological problem. It is an issue having to do with our behaviors as consumers," the scientist said.
"This is the environment not only for ourselves but for future generations. That is an important moral imperative for all of us."
This series was done under the GAIA-Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific fellowship.