The Philippines is in a conundrum when dealing with plastics — it wants to reduce plastic consumption, but the economy cannot live without it. So, policy makers are in a quandary on how to balance competing interests in a classical dilemma of, to plastic or not to plastic.
Recently, a proposed measure requiring enterprises with total assets over P1 billion to recover some portion of their plastic packaging wastes or suffer a fine. This is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Act of 2022, or Republic Act No. 11898 which neither former president Rodrigo Duterte nor President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. signed 30 days after receipt from Congress.
Touted as a “solution” to the ever-growing volume of plastic waste in the Philippines, the law was also supposed to enhance the image of the country which was tarnished by an unwanted recognition as one of the top plastic polluters in the world. Many legislators hailed the enactment as a breakthrough in the country’s fight against solid wastes which is currently governed by the two-decade-old Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000. Not a few said this is the way forward to address plastic garbage that has gone unchecked for decades.
And the law looks like it has major merits especially in managing the problem from the producer’s vantage point as the law places the responsibility of ensuring that the materials and waste they produce do not end up in landfills. Instead, these wastes should be reused, recycled, or allowed to biodegrade in an ecologically sound manner. Largely adopted from the framework established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), EPR is an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life-cycle.
According to the new law, the following plastic products are included:
• Sachets, labels, laminates, and other flexible plastic packaging products, whether single-layer or multi-layered with plastics or other materials.
• Rigid plastic packaging products, whether layered with other materials, which include containers for beverages, food, household goods, personal care and cosmetic products, including their coverings, caps, or lids and other necessities or promotional items such as cutlery, plates, drinking straws, or sticks, tarps, signage, or labels.
• Plastic bags, which include single-use plastic bags, for carrying or transporting of goods, and provided or utilized at the point of sale.
At this point, it should be made clear that the law’s emphasis is only waste recovery which includes, among others, buying back material or waste from consumers; putting up collection points where the material or waste can be dropped off after consumption then collected for reuse or recycling; cleaning up of waste from coastal areas, public roads, other places; and establishing recycling, compositing, thermal treatment, and other waste diversion or disposal facilities.
And this is the contentious issue that has so far doused optimism about this law. Cause-oriented groups said the absence of more “teeth” in the law worries them. The inability of the law to penalize plastic producing companies from continuing to produce and use plastics makes the law weak and downright inutile in the fight to reduce plastic waste in the country. Instead of merely recovering waste, environmental groups called for a nationwide ban on single-use plastics. They also raised a howl on the exclusion of other enterprises that also use plastics as the law only applies to large enterprises. Without a ban, they argued, the problem of plastic waste will not be resolved.
According to a World Bank report, the plastic waste problem has been steadily worsening due to the growth of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the Philippines. It estimated that 14.6 million tons of MSW was generated in the Philippines in 2016. By 2019, MSW generation grew to 15.8 million tons. By 2030, the World Bank forecasts MSW generation to reach 20 million tons in the Philippines, 37% growth compared to 2016.
Surely legislators may have had some reasons why they focused their attention only on waste recovery and not a total ban. I can only surmise that they looked at the contribution of the plastic industry to the national economy, which was estimated to be $2.3 billion in 2018. Moreover, they probably took into consideration the country’s “sachet economy” — lower income families’ overly high dependence on single-use plastics, such as multilayer sachets and pouches.
But studies have shown that single-use disposable plastic is the greatest obstacle to sound waste management. Inadequate waste management systems and human negligence may have appeared to be some of the main contributors to plastic waste leakage and yet brand audit data by independent organizations show that it is the unfettered production of disposable plastics that is the culprit.
Indeed, for as long as the mass production of disposable plastics continues unabated, countries of the world will find it harder and harder to cope. Put simply, disposable plastic is a pollution problem, and the only way to prevent it is to stop it at its source or to find sustainable alternatives to disposable containers.
A fairly recent report by the NGO Mother Earth Foundation disclosed the following disturbing data:
1. The average Filipino uses 591 sachets, 174 shopping bags, and 163 plastic labo bags (thin, semi-transparent plastic bags), yearly.
2. Every day, almost 48 million shopping bags are used throughout the Philippines, or roughly 17.5 billion pieces a year.
3. Plastic labo bag use throughout the Philippines is at 45.2 million pieces per day, or 16.5 billion pieces a year.
4. Around three million diapers are discarded in the Philippines daily, or 1.1 billion diapers annually.
The sheer volume of the plastic waste generated daily is simply too much for the national and local government units to handle and manage. The problem indeed lies in the production and use of single-use plastic and not how the waste is being managed.
Based on the experiences in GAIA’s Zero Waste Cities project, by implementing zero waste strategies such as establishing working materials recovery facilities or MRFs, conducting door to door segregated collection, composting organics, and maximizing recycling of high-value materials among others, the government can only achieve a maximum of 70-80% waste diversion. Cities, municipalities, and barangays are still left stinking with 20% of the waste that they cannot manage. Thus, zero waste is simply a dream without solving the problem at its source.
From the looks of its, the Extended Producer Responsibility Act of 2022 is a valiant attempt at addressing the plastic menace in the country. Unfortunately, it was designed to tackle only the symptoms of the crisis, not the cause — the production of virgin single-use plastic. There is no law, standard, or formal safeguard to prevent companies from producing more and more plastic and plastic waste.
As one lady Senator said, the new law is a good start. But, dare I say, it is not enough.
Ron F. Jabal, APR, is the chairman and CEO of PAGEONE Group www.pageonegroup.phand founder of Advocacy Partners Asia