Modern world’s scourge: single use plastics

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - June 24, 2021 - 12:00am

Corporate titans San Miguel Corp. (SMC) and International Container Terminals Services Inc. (ICTSI) were among the first to respond to a report published more than two weeks ago about Pasig River’s pollution and its effect on the world’s oceans.

SMC announced a kitty of P2 billion to be spent over the next five years to clean up and rehabilitate the 27-kilometer Pasig River, while ICTSI pledged $1 million for a financially sustainable Pasig River waste-recycling project.

But will these really work long-term? Because, in the end, it is not the Pasig River or the other 18 other rivers in the Philippines singled out to be among the top 50 worst polluters of oceans that are to blame; it’s the people and companies wantonly dumping toxic and plastic wastes into our waterways.

The initiatives of SMC and ICTSI are most appreciated, but they don’t really address the root of the problem. For decades, people and companies continue to throw trash, refuse, and toxic effluents into our river systems unfettered by regulations and poor policing.

Sure, Pasig River no longer emits that repulsive odor that commuters crossing any of its bridges half a century ago would remember. In fact, Pasig River now flows, and even if it still has that murky gray color, is no longer black and gooey as stagnant-dead rivers are.

But Pasig River is not in the pink of health, to be sure. And more and more of our rivers in many parts of the archipelago where urbanization and commercialization are gaining ground face the same fates as the Pasig River.

‘Disposable’ lifestyle

Plastic wastes are one of the biggest – if not the biggest – culprits. For many Filipinos, consumer products in single-use sachets and disposable containers have become an indispensable part of their lives: coffee mixes, shampoo and conditioners, PET bottles, food takeaways in styrofoam, plastic packaging, and more.

Despite campaigns by environment activists and a flurry of local government ordinances, Filipinos continue the “disposable” lifestyle with gusto, but without taking on the corresponding responsibility to observe the recycle-reuse tenets (never mind the third R, which is to reduce).

Biodegradable plastics? Remember when the use of plastics to wrap and carry goods in wet markets and groceries were being discouraged? Well, it’s still around, although plastic packaging manufacturers have branded their wares as biodegradable.

Most professed biodegradable plastics do not disintegrate or dissolve after a few days, much like you would expect of fruit peels or discarded vegetable cuttings. Many of the biodegradable plastics (which need to be differentiated from those fake biodegradables) take months to disappear when left in water or on the ground, while others actually need to go through high heat and moisture in industrial composters to melt away.

Single-use plastics have become modern society’s affliction, and have become the single biggest source of manmade pollutants in seas and oceans next to fashion clothing (including footwear and bags) and small, disposable electronic gadgets.

As a rule, countries that have more people spew higher amounts of plastic debris. In a 2018 study, India, China, and Indonesia topped the list of countries held accountable for plastic wastes found in oceans. Rich countries like the US and UK generate the most plastic waste per person, although they largely manage to keep them away from rivers and seas.

Developed economies deal with most plastic waste in a more systematic manner, thus significantly curbing its direct dumping in waterways. Still, not everything goes direct to incinerators or composters, and not all of their fine citizens will practice responsible waste disposal.

Reinventing RRR

The reduce-reuse-recycle (RRR) movement, believed to have started as early as the 1970s, is being stymied by the exponential rise in the production of plastics, even those “biodegradable” ones. It is time to rethink of a much more effective approach to win the war.

Companies and governments have an equal responsibility in mitigating this plastics scourge. A recent study by Minderoo Foundation has ferreted out just 20 companies responsible for producing 55 percent of the world’s single-use plastics which are carried by rivers and streams to end up in oceans.

Environment advocates are finding it more difficult to educate an increasing number of people (who can live in far-flung barrios) and dissuade them from using and responsibly disposing plastics. It may be easier to go after companies that produce the pollutants.

The Minderoo research traces plastic production to the very root. It singled out petrol company ExxonMobil, chemical manufacture Dow, and petroleum and chemical company Sinopec in the top three that single-handedly account for 16 percent of global single-use plastic waste.

The international campaign for a sustainable plastic economy is now even being threatened by the reported expansion of virgin polymer production in the next five years, which would result in a 30 percent increase in the manufacture of single-use plastics.

Governments must find unity in dealing with the plastics problem, even if this means wielding its punitive powers to hold companies accountable for producing or using plastics. Taxation is just one tool; mandating companies to allocate a percentage of their operating costs comparable to the amount of plastics they use or produce for waste disposal programs may be a better way.

The plastic waste problem is not going away soon, and may take a turn for worse unless radical solutions are implemented. Already, plastic pollution that has broken down to microplastic particles that have been found in the placenta of unborn babies and could negatively be bad for human health.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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