POSTSCRIPT / March 1, 2020 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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When death comes in plastic packaging

SEEING the filth poisoning our rivers and the trash being heaved back to us by the grumbling sea, one wonders if we could still learn to respect nature and coexist in a balanced ecosystem.

The Philippines has been mentioned as one of the big contributors to the garbage clogging streams and polluting the oceans, most of it traceable to ill-managed dump sites and to the non-biodegradable packaging thrown by consumers.

Much of the trash collected here and there is plastic waste, including sachets, candy wrappers, plastic bottles and bags. Mostly discarded without systematic sorting, both recyclable and non-recyclable plastic end up as major pollutants of the environment.

The Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003) has been with us for nearly two decades, but the public and private sectors have failed to use this law to clean up and reinvigorate the environment.

Plastic is the most commonly used material for packaging, especially by the food and pharmaceutical industries, because it is cheap, durable and lightweight. It maintains the integrity of the contents and makes the products affordable to mass consumers.

The demand for cheaper products has led to the use of single-serve packets and the rise of a sachet retail market. Witness vendors peddling cigarettes by the stick, drinking water in small bottles, candies by the piece, and corner stores selling myriad items in sachets.

The law has not singled out plastic as being “non-environmentally acceptable,” but in all its forms (sachets, bottles, straws, etc.), whether recyclable or not, plastic ends up as a key culprit in littering and polluting the environment.

There are over 30 bills in the Congress, most of them seeking to solve or minimize plastic pollution by banning or phasing out “single use plastic,” or SUP. The term “SUP” could be misleading as it seems to assume that plastic used multiple times, such as thick plastic bags, will not pollute (they do!) the environment when thrown away.

While a ban or phase-out scheme addresses plastic pollution, it may not solve the practical problems that minimal use of plastic containers inflict on consumers in the lowest income brackets.

Why not use other kinds of packaging or containers? Alternatives to plastic, such as glass and metal are more expensive, sometimes unwieldy. But the use of glass or metal containers pushes prices beyond the reach of the poor.

Using paper for sachets gives rise to other problems. The very quality that makes paper biodegradable also makes products in paper packaging susceptible to contamination and shortens their shelf life while exposing consumers to health risks.

Supposedly biodegradable plastics do not readily decay, but often require industrial intervention to truly degrade. In the meantime, they pollute the environment even in their deceptively smaller physical forms.

Some environmentalist groups have suggested refilling stations, or a revival of those times when one bought soft drinks from the corner store while paying a “deposito” for the bottle refundable upon its return to the store.

We have seen variations of having consumers bring containers or receptacles to stores where they are refilled. It is difficult to justify this messy handling of food products since the level of hygiene will be as hard to control as in buying food in open containers.

• Legislation sought to reduce use of plastic

PLASTIC has proven its usefulness and versatility, but it poses a threat to the environment after its use. Is there a way to exploit the benefits of plastic, and yet prevent its harming the environment after use?

A number of countries have tried implementing a solution called “Extended Producer Responsibility.” The principle of EPR is simple:

The producers and importers of plastic products, mainly plastic packaging, will collect the plastic waste after the products are used. The volume each manufacturer will collect will be proportionate to the amount of plastic it has sold to the public. The collection target will progressively increase until the amount of plastic collected will be at least equal to the amount sold.

The cost of collection will be borne by the producers of plastic, under the “producer pays” principle. Producers that are too small to set up a collection system can engage another operation called a “Producer Responsibility Organization” to collect their plastic waste.

Under the PRO scheme, no plastic packaging material will be exempt. With all producers of plastic covered by the law, theoretically, all the plastic produced will be taken out of the environment.

Moreover, producers seeking to avoid the cost of collection will have a reason to seek cheap alternatives to plastic. The producer that resorts to an alternative material would thus gain a competitive advantage.

The plastic collected can now be put to use again. The abundance of raw material will encourage recyclers to use the plastic to make new packaging materials or to use the plastic to manufacture other products.

For example, we have seen waste plastic used to make school chairs, eco-bricks, and even to lay out roads and pavements. Waste plastic is now also used by the cement industry as an alternative fuel to coal. There is also a potential to use waste plastic for waste-to-energy purposes. Japan, for example, generates a significant amount of electricity from plastic waste.

A bill mandating the adoption of EPR (House Bill No. 6279) has been filed by Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez. Authors of bills banning or phasing out plastic and producers of plastic may want to study his bill and see a possible consolidation of approaches to the common problem.

Our initial reading of the bill shows that it could be a win for nature, as plastic will be taken out of the environment — as it is also a win for producers, who will still be allowed to use plastic but with incentives to use less, or none at all.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 1, 2020)

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