We all live in a world that generally seems to be on the cusp of the next big thing. From bigger screens to smaller cameras, faster ways of transportation and communication, innovation has truly shaped our society, behavior and interactions.
On a certain level, even the environmental problems that we are facing now — animals going extinct, extreme degradation of natural resources, plastic waste pollution, and the climate crisis, among others — are externalities of these innovations or arguably, a lack thereof.
Fortunately, consumers, companies, and governments have embraced the way of sustainability not just in terms of social responsibility or a separate component of development plans, but refashioning and integrating our way of life with smarter and sustainable alternatives. International and multilevel frameworks such as the Paris Agreement and sustainable development goals bring premium to a balance of environmental, social, and economic considerations for both land and ocean ecosystems. These have guided policies and standards implemented on national and local levels.
The heightened awareness about plastic waste pollution in the Philippines, for one, tells us an important story about the importance of sustainable production, proper waste management systems and efficient recycling processes. This discussion opens doors to different points of view, policy options, and technological advancement that can offer viable solutions to reducing plastic waste and reviving our ocean economy.
One that has been gaining ground lately is the complete banning of plastics. Numerous legislation on plastic use bans and tax measures on plastic production have been filed. There are news reports that say President Rodrigo Duterte is in support of this and might certify this bill as urgent.
While I understand that the motivation is to clean up our act, quite literally, I think the discourse has been simplified to become “since plastic is so bad, we use something else.”
A 2018 report of the American Chemistry Council and accounting firm Trucost says that the shift to alternative packaging will increase environmental costs five times higher than plastic packaging. These abrupt changes may translate into increases in production costs that may be passed on to consumers. This is a significant policy question as cost impacts are more likely to burden households at lower income levels.
Don’t get me wrong. It is encouraging to see efforts to revive indigenous packaging such as banana leaves, abaca, and twigs. Though this is challenging enough to replicate, this sheds light to possibilities of innovative packaging that industries and governments can explore.
Scientists in other countries argue that instead of banning plastics altogether, it would be more sensible to make plastics better or smarter. Plastic packaging replaced paper, glass, tin, and aluminum as it was cheaper, safer, more durable, and lightweight. It was even considered better for the environment at that time since it took less energy to produce plastic and transport goods in plastic packaging. Plastic materials also enabled the increase in the shelf life of food and the decrease of food waste which is recognized as having a big carbon footprint.
Whether our policymakers have taken these into consideration is something we need to confront.
Coca-Cola has recently invested in a state-of-the-art recycling and reprocessing facility in the Philippines that will collect, sort, clean, and wash post-consumer PET plastic bottles and turn them into new bottles using advanced technology. The company also developed and has even opened up its patent rights to the so-called PlantBottle technology which produces 100% recyclable packaging — and the technology has helped reduce the company’s emissions.
Big companies, such as Unilever and Nestle, that have been widely called out for their lack of accountability for the volume of plastic waste that comes from their products, have similarly committed to adhering to a closed loop system of waste management, using recyclable, reusable, or industrially compostable packaging and less virgin plastic, and helping in environmental education.
Instead of banning plastic use, government needs to support large-scale and comprehensive solutions. Government needs to incentivize innovative solutions to curb plastic waste pollution that can be widely implemented and replicated. It needs to hold accountable households, LGUs, and companies and implement existing environmental policies. We need to strengthen current systems of waste management and recycling processes to prepare for newer technologies such as biodegradable plastics and alternative packaging.
The challenge of cleaning up and rehabilitating Manila Bay is a wake-up call, and along with the tons of plastic waste are the social, economic, and financial implications that are beginning to surface.
Without implementing and strengthening regulatory mechanisms to penalize waste mismanagement behavior among consumers, establishments and LGUs, our bodies of water will still end up being polluted and our ecosystem adversely affected whatever alternative material we use. Ultimately, it all depends on policies and actions crafted with innovation and collaboration.
The sustainability trend is unlikely to disappear soon — hopefully never. We may not be ahead of the curve, but there is still a narrow window open to adopt comprehensive, innovative, more sensible approaches to plastic waste pollution and other environmental challenges.
Vanessa Pepino is a Non-Resident Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute.