Cleaning up Manila Bay has been a decades-long task for government. Although the launch of the rehabilitation plan seven months ago was nothing new given annual coastal clean-up activities, there needed to be a renewed genuine commitment and tangible results addressing the plastic waste problem. Looking past the hype, it could not have come at a more opportune time as the Philippines has been labeled as the third top source of ocean plastic waste.
One of the programs being implemented, which I thought was rather underrated, was the Adopt-an-Estero program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). This is a collaborative program between the concerned estero (canal) community, the local government unit, other agencies, and a donor partner, and aims to complement the Manila Bay clean-up by cleaning the waterways that empty into it. Since then, big companies have partnered with the DENR to rehabilitate the most polluted rivers in Metro Manila.
What this underscores is that while government has an immense responsibility of seeing this plan through, it acknowledges that it cannot do everything on its own. This is a significant chance to integrate sustainability and governance through empowering communities, enforcing environmental regulations, and engaging private partners.
After all, cleaning up waste in Manila Bay and overall plastic waste leakage does not end with just garbage collection. It is about better product designs, responsible consumer consumption, and how waste is properly diverted and disposed of — adopting a circular approach to waste and strengthening every step of the process. Recycling is an essential part of an efficient waste management system. While a linear economy of waste is anchored on use-once-and-dispose-after, recycling in a circular economy approach is a process wherein not all waste ends up being discarded in landfills but rather processed into something new, and reintroduced into the value chain. Given efficient waste management systems, responsive and clear policy direction, and regulated consumer behavior, recycling has the potential to turn plastic waste from a heaping problem to a mountain of opportunity.
In the Philippines, recycling is largely dependent on the monetary value of recyclable materials which makes it an attractive source of income for waste collectors and recycling centers. In fact, plastic materials have among the highest values among recyclable waste. However, existing plastic recycling centers only process a small amount of recyclable plastic materials, with the majority of discarded plastic waste either landing in landfills or in the ocean.
Effectively, what makes recycling a commercially attractive waste treatment practice is the existing stream of recyclable materials, and a formal and informal workforce that can be integrated in the waste management system. It can generate income and livelihood opportunities for communities, and formal and informal waste collectors alike.
An efficient recycling industry also minimizes the likelihood that recyclable waste ends up in bodies of water or overstretches the capacity of our landfills. By addressing these gaps, there is now an incentive to properly segregate and collect waste, especially in areas not reached by garbage trucks, and even low-value residuals usually left behind by waste pickers. An incentivized workforce and an airtight system lead to improved quality and quantity of waste collection which in turn guarantees supply for the operations of the recycling industry.
Promoting a seamless recycling industry is a broad-based approach needing the participation of all stakeholders — households, establishments, waste-pickers, small-scale recycling centers, and LGUs. This is exemplified in public- and citizen-led programs that have been implemented through the years such as the school-based recycling program in Marikina, and the women-led organization of waste collectors in Malabon.
The Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS), in partnership with the local government, launched a residual plastic recycling facility in Parañaque. Plastic waste collected from several schools in the city is turned into eco-bricks or recycled building bricks which are also used to improve the schools’ facilities. PARMS is an alliance of major corporations and business groups in the Philippines such as Mondelez Philippines, Coca-Cola Philippines, Pepsi-Cola Products Philippines, Unilever, Universal Robina Corp., Nestlé Philippines, Monde Nissin Corp., and Procter & Gamble Philippines, among others.
Coca-Cola Philippines’ P1-billion state-of-the-art food-grade recycling facility is also a promising initiative, and the first in Southeast Asia. It aims to transform used recyclable PET plastic bottles back into new and useful beverage bottles. The facility will collect, sort, clean, and wash post-consumer recyclable plastic bottles and turn them into new bottles.
These examples, together with the key elements of recycling, reveal that there is economic value to recyclable plastic instead of being discarded in landfills if gaps in the solid waste management system are closed and redesigned to provide income-generating opportunities, especially for the local informal waste sector. In the short-term, it can reduce plastic waste in the waste stream which is likely to end up in the ocean. It is an industry which, if strengthened, can support better sustainability options for plastic waste reduction and avoidance.
The rehabilitation of Manila Bay may have sparked greater public awareness of the importance of addressing plastic waste pollution. But it also needs responsible consumer behavior and public-private partnership and collaboration. It aims to explore broad-based strategies in our waste management system that will create long-lasting environmental and economic impacts.
Developing vibrant, large-scale, and well-integrated recycling facilities present that opportunity. While it is only one way to improve our waste management system, revitalizing the recycling industry may just have enough pull to jumpstart the cycle.
Vanessa Pepino is a Non-Resident Fellow, Stratbase ADR Institute