To plastic or not to plastic, that is the question...

Posted on March 02, 2012

The damage caused by storms Ondoy and Pepeng in 2009, as well as typhoon Pedring last year highlighted the need for a more comprehensive solution to address Metro Manila’s solid waste management problem.

Cleaning Up: A child scavenges for recyclable and sellable plastic along the riverside in the aftermath of heavy flooding at Marikina on Sept. 30, 2009, in the aftermath of Ondoy. -- AFP

In particular, the massive floods around the metropolis during those devastating storms belatedly brought to the fore the perils of drainage systems and waterways perennially clogged with plastic garbage.

Data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) show that more than 80% of the trash retrieved from the country’s shorelines is made up of non-biodegradable materials such as plastic and rubber. About half of these plastic items thrown in bodies of water were plastic bags, followed by food wrappers and plastic containers. These plastics take as much as 20 years before they decompose.

The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) said the bulk of the more than 8,000 metric tons of garbage collected in Metro Manila on a daily basis was comprised of plastics.

MMDA chairman Francis N. Tolentino has also raised the alarm on the haphazards posed by the dumping of plastic products that clog the metropolis’ already overburdened drainage system, resulting in flooding during heavy rains.

Waste audits conducted in November 2010 by the EcoWaste Coalition, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Greenpeace, Mother Earth Foundation and other environment advocacy groups revealed that 75.55% of the total volume of trash in Manila Bay was plastic discards, mostly plastic bags, and polystyrene (styrofoam) products.

“It is unfortunate that plastic items -- led by plastic bags and styro products -- remain to be the prime visible pollutants of Manila Bay. Our findings reinforced what all of us already know: plastics is a problem and our penchant for patronizing disposable products magnifies this problem,” GAIA representative Gigie Cruz said in a statement.

Muntinlupa bans plastic bags

The growing problem of plastic waste clogging drainage systems prompted various local government units to prohibit the use of plastic bags and polystyrene products.

In 2010, the Muntinlupa City Council approved City Ordinance 10-109 entitled, “An Ordinance Prohibiting the Use of Plastic Bags on Dry Goods, Regulating its Utilization on Wet Goods and Prohibiting the Use of Styrofoam/Styrophor in the City of Muntinlupa.”

The ordinance prohibits the use of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials for dry and wet goods by business establishments within city limits. It also provides for penalties for violators: P500 for the first offense; P1,000 for the second offense; and P2,500 and six months’ imprisonment for the third offense.

After a one-year moratorium, the ordinance took full effect in January last year, making Muntinlupa the first city in Metro Manila to adopt such a measure.

Muntinlupa Mayor Aldrin San Pedro told reporters that compliance with the ordinance is 100% after the city government showed that it is serious in implementing the ban.

He said that since the ban took effect, the city government has closed down a number of businesses -- including a Singaporean bread shop, and a Chinese dim sum restaurant -- for violating the ban.

“We have to change our old ways. We are so accustomed to using plastic bags because they are very convenient. But we have to remember its ill effects,” Mr. San Pedro said.

The mayor said the city council had to implement the ban after Muntinlupa became one of the worst affected cities in Metro Manila following the wrath of Ondoy. Many of the city’s barangays located along Laguna Lake were submerged in waist-deep floods for weeks.

The city’s tough stance compelled businesses big and small to comply -- despite the inconvenience.

Linda Moldez, a 39-year-old fish vendor at Muntinlupa’s public market in Alabang, welcomed the ban on plastics even if paper bags are not as easy to use for wet items like fish.

“We used to see a lot of plastic piling up in the garbage. Since the ban took effect, there were lesser garbage around here,” Ms. Moldez said in Filipino.

Ms. Moldez said she now uses banana leaves to wrap the fish she sells before she puts them inside brown paper bags. Other vendors use old newspapers and telephone directories to wrap produce instead of plastic bags.

“There are customers who still complain, specially those who do not live here in Muntinlupa. But rules are rules. We all have to follow them,” she said in the vernacular.

At the upscale Bellevue Hotel in Alabang, the plastics ban has also been successfully implemented.

Brown paper bags have replaced plastic take-out bags at the hotel’s Chinese fine dining restaurant Phoenix Court.

Inside the hotel’s rooms, white cloth sacks have replaced the plastic laundry bags that used to be distributed among the guests.

“The city government has been very helpful in making sure that companies like us can comply successfully with the ordinance,” said Bellevue Hotels and Resorts assistant manager for marketing and communications Jehn Domingo.

Since the ban took effect last year, the mayor said there were fewer floods in the city.

“There was less trash along the waterways which eased the local government’s headaches in ensuring that rainwater would leave the city’s streets as soon as possible,” he said in a statement.

Because of this, the Muntinlupa city council is currently preparing to expand the coverage of the ban to include more plastic items like cellophane bags and plastic cups.

City public information chief Omar Acosta said small stores and market vendors are “abusing” the use of the bags, locally called “plastic labo.” He said the bags were initially exempted from the ban so they can be used for wet goods, but some vendors also used them to wrap dry products.

Actor Roy Alvarez, president of the EcoWaste Coalition lauded Muntinlupa’s political will to implement the ban.

“The Muntinlupa plastic ban offers a beacon of hope for our beleaguered environment that has long been suffering from pollution,” Mr. Alvarez said in a statement.

Troy Lacsamana of the EcoWaste Coalition’s Task Force Plastics said a ban will control, if not eradicate, plastic pollution and will benefit local governments by meeting their waste reduction targets and decrease their expenses for garbage disposal.

“Our local governments have been carrying the plastic garbage burden, spending millions of pesos in de-clogging waterways and in managing residual plastic discards,” Mr. Lacsamana said in a statement.

More cities impose ban

Following the lead of Muntinlupa, more cities in Metro Manila have since imposed a ban on the use of plastics and polystyrene.

The Pasay City council has passed an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags in retail stores. The ordinance will take effect in October 2012 to give time for affected stakeholders, especially store owners, to comply with requirements.

The ordinance seeks to minimize plastic pollution in the city and reduce its expenditure in solid waste management disposal.

Businesses found violating the measure shall be given a warning for the first offense, after which, they shall be fined P1,000 and P3,000 for the second and third offenses and then closure of the business or cancellation of the business permit for the final violation.

Last January, the Quezon City council also approved a ban on the use of plastic shopping bags.

Under the new measure, all barangay officials and all the law enforcers of the environmental protection and waste management department are deputized to apprehend offenders.

Violators will be subject to a fine of P1,000 for first offense, P2,000 for the second and P5,000 and cancellation of business permit for the third.

The MMDA said Las Piñas has deputized an “Anti-Plastic Pulis” team to enforce the measure just like in Muntinlupa.

Makati Mayor Jejomar Erwin Binay said they have given a one-year grace period for all business establishments in the city to dispose of their plastic and styrofoam containers and switch to recyclable substitutes. The ban on the use of plastic bags will take effect in Makati next year.

Similar measures are also being proposed in the cities of Mandaluyong, Caloocan, Manila and Valenzuela.

Outside of Metro Manila, similar bans are in effect in Antipolo, Rizal; Los Baños and Biñan in Laguna; Carmona and Imus in Cavite; Lucban and Infanta in Quezon; Sta. Barbara in Iloilo; Batangas City and Burgos, Pangasinan.

A resident of a slum area in Manila’s port area shreds and aggregates plastic bags at a roadside in the Navotas area, Feb. 1, in preparation for dump trucks that will come by to pick the bags up and send them to recycling factories. -- Photo By Jonathan L. Cellona

Aside from the cities and municipalities, certain private retail chains have also encouraged the use of reusable “earth bags” in order to do away with plastic bags. The use of plastic bags is also discouraged in some retail stores every Wednesday.

The MMDA said it expects the 17 local government units in Metro Manila (16 cities and the lone municipality of Pateros) to enforce a ban on the use of plastics and styrofoam in packaging and handling of items and food products in all establishments, markets and sari-sari stores by next year.

The MMDA’s Mr. Tolentino, obviously impressed by the Muntinlupa initiative, is “strongly encouraging” all local governments to adopt similar projects “to combat the dangerous effects of environmental degradation which,” he said, “could lead to massive flooding and the injurious climate change.

“I expect next year all the 17 local government units would implement a similar ban,” Mr. Tolentino told reporters recently.

National legislation pushed

Marita Reyes, spokesperson of the advocacy group Pro-Earth Movement said the growing number of local government units that are banning the use of plastic bags should motivate President Benigno S.C. Aquino III to enact a national ban.

“While a few Philippine towns have implemented similar bans on plastic bags ahead of Muntinlupa, the city’s tough stance has shown that such a prohibition can be implemented in a highly urbanized and commercialized area,” Ms. Reyes said in an interview.

She however stressed that an environmentally conscious solution to the plastic bags problem may need the push of legislation to be effective in this country.

“While the lack of physical infrastructure to prevent, or at least mitigate, floods is obvious, on the national level, the absence of legislative infrastructure for a responsive policy environment is also evident,” she said.

To address this problem, several proposed measures are currently pending in Congress.

At the House of Representatives, House Bill (HB) No. 127, authored by Rep. Al Francis C. Bichara (Albay), HB No. 651 by Rep. Juan Edgardo M. Angara (Aurora), and HB No. 2109 by Reps. Rufus B. Rodriguez (Cagayan de Oro City) and Maximo B. Rodriguez, Jr. (Abante Mindanao Party List) propose to impose a plastic bag levy; mandate the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials for the packaging of consumer products; and ban the use of plastic bags in groceries, restaurants and other establishments.

At the Senate, Senator Loren B. Legarda filed last January Senate Bill (SB) 2759, or the proposed Total Plastic Ban Act.

The bill hopes to prohibit groceries, supermarkets, public markets, restaurants, fast food chains, department stores, retail stores and other similar establishments from using non-biodegradable plastic bags.

The proposed measure also calls on business establishments, which hand out plastic bags for almost every transaction, to take responsibility for the effects of these plastic bags to the environment.

“Companies must change their economic mind-set, wasteful production processes and packaging methods -- from the use of seemingly cost-effective plastic bags into investing in long-term reusable and recyclable bags which are more sustainable in the long run,” Ms. Legarda said in a statement.

Proposed penalties for violators include a fine of P10,000 for the first offense, P50,000 for the second offense, and P200,000 and one-year suspension of business permit for the third offense.

Citing a report from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Ms. Legarda said about 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year.

She added that nearly 200 different marine species die due to ingestion and choking from plastic bags, as mentioned in a 2005 report by the World Wildlife Fund.

“Plastic bags end up as litter as it makes its way to landfills, drainages and bodies of water, taking decades to decompose and damaging marine life when dumped into the sea,” Ms. Legarda said.

“Ondoy in 2009 clearly showed that plastic bags severely worsened the flooding in Metro Manila and made post-cleanup very difficult,” she added.

Aside from Ms. Legarda’s bill, similar proposed measures pending at the Senate include SB No. 1103 filed by Senator Manuel B. Villar, SB No. 1543 filed by Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and SB 2749 filed by Senator Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. These bills seek to regulate the use of plastic bags, and mandate the use of recyclable and environment friendly bags in lieu of plastic bags by shopping malls and retailers.

EcoWaste Coalition supports the enactment of a law that will enhance waste reduction by prohibiting the use of plastic bags and promoting organic reusable bags.

“We know for a fact that our noble legislators in Congress, led by the tireless Committee on Ecology, are doing their best to complement what local governments have started,” Mr. Alvarez said. “And we want them to know that we will be behind them in firmly cutting down waste and phasing out plastic bags.”

The group also called for the enactment of a law that will espouse recycling, support local governments in their waste management initiatives, and impose an environmental levy on plastic bags.

In defense of plastic

Like all trailblazing pieces of legislation, Muntinlupa’s implementation of a citywide ban on plastic bags was not without opposition.

Last April, workers from a plastic manufacturing company led by a certain Alan Malapitan filed criminal and administrative charges against the city mayor before the Office of the Ombudsman.

The case alleged that the city government is guilty of “oppressive implementation” of the total plastic ban.

News reports quoted Mr. Malapitan as saying that the ban was implemented without “even looking at its possible effects,” and that it threatens the livelihood of more than 5,000 workers in the plastic industry.

The problem, he said, was no the bags but the lack of “discipline in the disposal of garbage.”

Lawyer Raymund Palad, representing both Mr. Malapitan and the Philippine Plastic Industry Association, echoed the sentiment, saying Ordinance 10-109 was “in clear violation of Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.”

Meanwhile, trade advocacy group Fair Trade Alliance (FTA) warned last week that banning plastic bags and styrofoam has economic and business costs detrimental to the whole country.

In a press briefing, the FTA said local governments that have banned the use of the petroleum-based products could be having a “knee-jerk and simplistic” reaction to a trash disposal problem.

“Banning the use of plastics bags and styro, as seems to be on a roll among local governments, would severely affect the jobs and livelihood of these people,” Crispian N. Lao, Philippine Plastics Industry Association president, was quoted as saying in a statement read during the briefing.

Mr. Lao noted that the ban has seriously affected the plastics industry, which directly and indirectly employs 650,000 people and investments running up to billions of pesos.

“The problem of plastics clogging waterways can be substantially resolved with the strict implementation of existing laws on anti-littering and waste segregation at source,” he said.

Moreover, he said the government should establish efficient recycling systems for both plastics and styrofoam as these products are 100% recyclable and re-usable.

Meanwhile, Elsie M. David, JG Summit Corp. market research and development manager, said the bans on the use of plastic bags and styrofoam have resulted in the use of more paper bags as substitutes.

“Paper grocery bags use one gallon of water for [the production of] every bag, while the same amount of water can already produce 116 plastic bags.

“The energy required to produce a recyclable plastic bag is one-fifth of the energy required to produce a paper grocery bag,” she added.

Experts at the briefing thus called for the immediate passage of House Bill 4840 or the proposed Plastic Bag Regulation Act, which the House of Representatives approved on third and final reading in August. The counterpart Senate bill is pending at the committee level.

The proposed measure is supposed “to balance the environmental concerns, nurture the affected industries, preserve jobs and livelihood, and for sustainable development,” FTA said in a statement.

The FTA said that while it fully supports concerns on the environment, ordinances banning the use of plastic products might not have been carefully studied.

The FTA added that revenues generated by the plastic industry reached close to P60 billion in 2008, up from the P53 billion it posted in 2006. The manufacture of plastic chemicals posted revenues of P221 billion during the same year, up from the P211 billion in 2006.

Metro Manila’s Garbage

• The estimated total solid waste generated in Metro Manila daily is 6,700 tons (based on 2003 population estimates). This is equivalent to about 2,061 dump trucks.

• Only 720 tons (about 10.7%) of the 6,700 tons is recycled or composed.

• About 6,000 tons is either hauled to dump sites, dumped illegally on private land, in rivers, creeks, Manila Bay or openly burned.

• Given this average, 2.4 million tons of garbage will be generated every year.

• In the next 30 years, Metro Manila will generate over 70 million tons of solid waste.

• This is equivalent to over 230 million cubic meters of waste, an amount that equates to a knee-deep layer of waste over the entire metropolis (over 630 square kilometers). Collection of this waste will require a line of garbage trucks going three times round the earth, and over halfway to the moon.

• Local governments in Metro Manila spend about P3.54 billion annually on waste collection and disposal.

Source: The Garbage Book: Solid Waste Management in Metro Manila published by the Asian Development Bank in 2004.