By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan

LEGISLATION that will hold plastics producers accountable for managing the life cycle of their products will make companies conscious of the possible legal fallout from acting irresponsibly, but curbs on imports and production may ultimately be needed, environmental advocates said.

“If properly and fully implemented the law has significant potential to reduce plastic waste leaking into the environment,” Antonio Gabriel M. La Viña, a lawyer, educator and environmental expert, told BusinessWorld in a Viber message.

“However, there needs to be equal focus on upstream measures to reduce plastics used and put into the market to have a long-term dent on the Philippines’ plastic footprint,” he added. “Right now, the law does not have strong provisions on upstream measures and policies.”

Congress has ratified a consolidated version of a bill seeking to promote sustainability by holding enterprises responsible for the life cycle of their plastic products.

Senator Cynthia A. Villar, primary sponsor of the bill, has said that the reconciled bill focused on “waste reduction, recovery and recycling, and the development of environment-friendly products that advocates the internationally accepted principles on sustainable consumption and production, the circular economy, and producers’ full responsibility throughout the life cycle of their products.”

The act compels large or obliged enterprises to establish or phase in extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs for the plastic packaging of their products to efficiently manage waste and reduce the production, import, supply, or use of plastic packaging deemed low in reusability, recyclability or retrievability; and to achieve plastic neutrality through efficient recovery and diversion schemes.

“Obliged companies need to make sure the processes, methods and schemes they choose, to meet the diversion or collection targets, are environmentally sound and won’t cause equal harm to the environment,” Mr. La Viña said.

“There needs to be investment in facilities and infrastructure which will reuse and recycle as much of the plastic as technologically possible,” he added.

He called it a “good start” to focus on large companies to kick start the initiative, since they have the biggest market share, but said the government must make a clear plan on how to eventually cover micro, small, and medium enterprises as well.

“This will also avoid free-rider issues and inconsistent application of the law,” he added.

EcoWaste Coalition Plastic solutions campaigner Coleen Salamat said that to effectively reduce plastic waste, the government should not only require the retrieval and recycling of plastics but also regulate their production.

“The target of EPR should not solely be on recovery of plastic waste but how much plastics large businesses actually reduce in production,” she told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.

“If there are no plans and guidelines on reducing or phasing out non-environmentally acceptable products and packaging, then this might just be another band-aid solution,” she added.

Ms. Salamat also pointed out an “alarming” provision in the proposed law that includes the establishment of commercial or industrial-scale recycling, composting, thermal treatment, and other waste diversion or disposal facilities for waste products when investment is viable.

“The current trend on the initiatives of consistent top polluters like Nestlé, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola, still heavily rely on cement kilns, chemical recycling, and other false solutions that burn or melt single-use plastics,” she said.

“These false solutions do not reduce or prevent waste but also contribute to worsening of air pollution and release harmful chemicals that are actually carcinogenic,” she added. “False solutions delay and distract from addressing the root problem of plastics, which is in production at source.”

Since plastics are made with fossil fuels, allowing commercial-scale recycling which includes thermal treatment like waste-to-energy and cement kilns, will only fuel the climate crisis, Ms. Salamat said.

“Obliged enterprises must make sure that they are not doing more harm to the environment,” she added.

Under the bill, obliged enterprises may voluntarily organize themselves into producer responsibility organizations (PRO) to establish viable platforms to implement their EPR program.

Such enterprises must also establish and implement an auditing system to monitor and assess their compliance performance. An independent third-party auditor must certify the veracity of the report using standards established by the department.

Ms. Villar has said the targets for the recovery of plastic products generated are as follows: 20% by the end of 2023; 40% by 2024; 50% by 2025; 60% by 2026; 70% by 2027; and 80% by 2028 and every year thereafter.

Mr. La Viña said this was difficult to achieve considering the current infrastructure available for waste management “but not impossible if industry is pushed with some government support.”

“Industry wanted to start at 10% increments with a longer transition period which they saw as more doable,” he added.

Ms. Salamat also found the goals set to be achievable, noting that the current targets of large enterprises are in line with the EPR targets for recovery.

However, she noted that this legislation, if not fully implemented and enforced, will represent “business as usual.”

She also noted that there is little precedent for large enterprises being held accountable.

“The bill will only impose fines and penalties if obliged enterprises or PROs do not register their EPR programs and if they fail to meet the targets for recovery of plastic product footprint,” she said. “It is very important to note that recovery is not the only problem but (also) the continuous production of single-use plastics.”

“EPR, in its true sense, follows a ‘polluters pay’ principle. Producers have the main responsibility under EPR. Without prohibited acts (regulating) the production, use, distribution, and importation of non-environmentally products and packaging, then it does not really hold polluters accountable,” she added.

Obliged enterprises that fail to comply with the law can be fined at most P20 million and an automatic suspension of their business permits until the law is complied with.

“This law will help make businesses more conscious of their impact on the environment,” Mr. La Viña said.

“Not tackling environmental impacts and being more sustainable in operations will have consequences not just legally but in other aspects such as investments, cost of doing business and even reputation and brand name,” he added.