The solution to plastic waste: Partnerships

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

We, as a society and species, are addicted to plastic, and it’s mostly single-use: it’s perceived as an economic, social and cultural necessity.

Think about the amount of plastic you use every day. It’s in your phone, in the car, bus or train you use to get around, in your furniture, toiletries, food and drink packaging at the grocery, market and fast food counters. It’s quite a shock to objectively catalogue just how much we all use it.

Of all the plastic that’s used in the world only 9% is recycled, but it lasts for hundreds of years, so it’s no surprise that poor disposal of plastic waste is one of the main causes of marine pollution. There’s been a lot of coverage in the media about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Also known as the Pacific trash vortex, the garbage patch is actually two distinct collections of debris bounded by the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

The Philippines generates 2.7 million tons of plastic waste annually and 20 percent – or half a million tons – of that leaks into the oceans, according to a joint report by the Ocean Conservancy charity and the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment published in 2015.

The Philippines is the third biggest ocean plastic polluter in the world behind China and Indonesia, with Vietnam not far behind, according to a report published in “Science” by a team of researchers in the United States and Australia in 2015, that found countries’ total amount of mismanaged plastic waste compared with the total amount of plastic marine debris.

It’s much easier to avert your eyes to the all too frequent sight of garbage choking up our waterways and drainage canals, and polluting our coasts. As the saying goes: “Out of sight, out of mind.” But we shouldn’t. We still don’t know the full extent of the impact of waste in our bodies and in the environment but it is known that leakage of chemicals used in plastics can cause cancer, and that micro plastics are killing and harming all kinds of marine life. There is a strong need for more scientific research to support developing appropriate policies.

Ignoring the problem isn’t going to solve it and everyone involved in the use of plastic, from manufacturers of the plastic itself, the products that use plastic packaging, retailers, consumers, collectors and waste disposal managers are all needed to bring about sustainable solutions.

The good news is that the momentum is building quickly all along the chain, on local, national, regional and global levels to act urgently and together. There is a recognition that this is going to be the only way to stop plastic waste pollution.

This week in Bangkok, the United Nations Environment Programme (which sees itself as the global champion for the environment with programmes focusing on sustainable development, climate, biodiversity and more) together with the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), with support from the Swedish Government, held the first ever SEA of Solutions partnership week. The conference and events held throughout the week tried to emphasise solutions along the plastic value chain and engage key stakeholders including local and national government, businesses and plastic producers, communities and youth. The idea was to provide a platform for private sector, academia, governments and communities to connect and effect change and thereby build partnerships and initiate regional coordination efforts, to find tangible solutions to marine plastic pollution in South East Asia.

Asia has become a major hotspot of plastic leakage, and plastic pollution is an acute threat to the region’s environment including marine and coastal ecosystems, economic development, social well-being, food security, and human health. 

The Philippines was strongly represented by the wonderful team of Pinays including Martha Fernandez, Imae Ann Mojado and Lea Las Piñas at UNEP Bangkok, UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Antoinette Taus, as well as a number of speakers and delegates including Aimee Gonzales, Executive Director of Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA), and Eligio Idelfonso, Executive Director of the National Solid Waste Management Commission Secretariat, within the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.

The Philippines in 2000 enacted the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, which is considered a strong law by international standards. For example, it mandates that all open dumpsites must be converted into sanitary landfills by 2004, four years after the law was passed. But in 2018, government figures showed only 139 operational sanitary landfills servicing just 308 of the country’s 1,634 LGUs, and at least 425 illegal dumpsites still operate across the country.

The law also mandates that every village or cluster of villages must set up a materials recovery facility where biodegradable waste can be converted into fertiliser, recyclable material can be recycled or sold to junk shops, and residual waste can be collected for transport to sanitary landfills. But government data showed that only 24 percent of the country’s 42,036 villages had operational MRFs. Implementation of the law isn’t working so complaints have been brought to the national ombudsman’s office. But clearly, much more needs to be done.

“The Sea of Solutions literally provided us a menu of doable, viable and sustainable solutions to the growing challenges brought by plastics to our society. I hope that these will be appropriately adopted by all nations,” Ildefonso said about the conference.

It was pretty astonishing to learn so much in just a few days about the amount of activity being put into the task at all levels. High level government officials mingled with managers from Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola and Unilever that were at pains to demonstrate what they’re doing to use more recycled plastic in their products used by billions around the world. All the delegates shared what they could offer as well as what they needed to upscale the fight against plastic pollution, as it emerged that as a community we have the solutions by working with each other.

The conference concluded with concrete pledges, including the dramatic announcement by Coca-Cola that bottles of Sprite will no longer be packaged in green plastic which cannot be recycled. That’s a significant substantial step, but so much more is needed. 

Some of the challenges described in the conference speak to a kind of inertia in the systems - perhaps due to the fear of taking risks – understandably given the extent of our reliance on plastic. But it was clear that the way to mitigate it is with partnerships: we cannot move forward without each other.

In a song composed for the conference, Antoinette Taus sang out: “It’s time to act now.” It’s a brilliant message from the Philippine people to the world.

(Veronica Pedrosa attended the SEA of Solutions conference as a moderator under contract with SEA Circular, UNEP.)

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