In 2018, plastic imports grew by 1.5% and was valued at US$ 180 million.
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Commentary: How the recycling industry can help reduce plastic pollution
Vanessa Pepino (Philstar.com) - September 7, 2019 - 5:05pm

Plastic waste pollution is one of the country’s most pressing environmental problems. However, what is unknown to most is that in 2018, plastic imports grew by 1.5% and was valued at US$ 180 million. This was needed to fuel our manufacturing industries and meet the seemingly indispensable demand for plastic.

While concrete and intersectoral strategies are necessary to address plastic waste pollution and further waste reduction, perhaps it is in understanding plastic trade that we can incorporate mechanisms for competitiveness, efficiency, and innovation – particularly for the Philippine recycling industry.

Based on a 2018 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Global Recycling Rate is only at 18% and this translates to recycled plastic having a meager share of 12 percent in total global plastic production.  

Given the available technology of before, insignificant waste collection, and high transport costs, recycling was more expensive than raw plastic production. But today, there are more available technologies that can accelerate and improve domestic recycling capabilities.  

For instance, IBM developed a new recycling method called the VolCat. The VolCat method is capable of processing items that are typically very hard to recycle, like carpets, clothing and toys. However, when not recycled, these items are normally dumped in landfills.  

In the Philippines, local plastic production is dominated by a supply of imported plastic, followed by a local supply of recycled plastic, and locally produced raw plastic materials. In households, compostable waste has the most significant share of municipal solid waste, followed by recyclable waste, residual waste and special waste.  

Most household recyclables are classified to be plastic. In spite of this, a 2008 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) noted that while most of the plastic consumed are kept and still in use, a significant amount is disposed in landfills.  

Meanwhile, roughly 25% of plastic waste is exported but is mostly dominated by plastic scraps.

What is odd, though, is that this hardly reconciles with the volume of trash in streets, waterways, and landfills which arguably may be recyclable. 

The reality is, we have a very limited recycling industry. There is obviously a “disconnect” between the amount of recyclable waste processed in recycling facilities versus collected and even uncollected waste.  There is a significant volume of recyclable plastic in our waste stream that could have been segregated properly instead of being stocked in our landfills. 

Not to mention, a bulk of waste remains uncollected because of gaps in our waste collection system.  The fact remains, that whether collected or uncollected, there is still that possibility of plastic waste being littered or leaked into waterways and ends up in the ocean.  

As a result of its limited capacity, the recycling industry has been dominated by the “garbage-pickers” of the informal sector.  While this is key to uncovering uncollected waste in areas not reached by formal waste management systems through the garbage trucks that ply the streets, garbage-pickers are not compensated justly and are even subjected to harsh environments as they go about their daily waste-picking.  

Despite being a commercially attractive waste treatment practice, the current state of our recycling facilities is unable to neither keep up with increasing plastic waste nor generate decent income opportunities. 

It would be a most welcome improvement if we can develop and create more efficient recycling facilities which can meet the demands of plastic waste recycling. Aside from augmenting our present waste management system, this can eventually increase the price of materials and entice the “informal sector/industry” of waste pickers to also include other plastic waste and not only be limited to plastic bottles.  

We are definitely eyeing a more sustainable solution to Plastic Waste Management and stop the operation of sanitary landfills which pose more danger than provide solution.  

A well thought of waste management system that shall provide a high level of efficiency and productivity and addresses the entire cycle from waste segregation, collection, to recycling should be seriously considered by the government.  

Dignity in work or labor among the workers in this sector must also be foremost in the development of the system. The informal “waste-pickers” may even be integrated into the system. This will definitely provide a long-term solution to our perennial issue on waste, garbage, cleanliness and diseases. 

The government can also provide incentives to those who will venture into waste recycling businesses but they have to maintain the highest standards in their processes in terms of the quality of the facilities, effectiveness of their system, support to the labor sector, efficiency and productivity in meeting the requirements of waste management. 

The end in mind of government is to become a major exporter of recycled plastic materials, reduce the dependency on imported plastic materials, and create a viable value chain integrating plastic waste. This situation will be a defining moment for the country in terms of waste management and we can even be a country that is ranked among the best in Plastic Waste Management. 

Coca-Cola Philippines Inc. is building a P1 billion “state-of-the-art” waste recycling facility, the first in South East Asia. Anchored on the principle of Circular Approach, the food grade recycling facility is a promising initiative to waste reduction as the facility is capable of recycling PET bottles and produce new bottles.  

We can also integrate the school-based and the community-based recycling programs into the country’s Recycling System and replicate these facilities in more schools and communities.  After all, we need a broad-based approach to streamline existing strategies, and encourage participation of more stakeholders. 

What we have is not just a local demand for recycled plastics, but a thriving international demand for recycled plastics with higher economic value.

With the continued reliance on plastic products and a clamor for exploring viable and sustainable alternatives to existing waste management and waste management facilities, recycling is truly a most welcome solution.  

Let us be one in the responsible stewardship of our environment! 

Vanessa Pepino is a non-resident fellow of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, a partner of Philstar.com.

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