Philippines central government on solving plastic trash problem: ‘We’ve done all we can’

Claiming it has done all it can to stop plastic waste from choking the oceans, the country’s central government pushed the responsibility of solving the problem to local governments and the people.

Freedom Island is drowning in garbage. The last coastal frontier in the Philippine capital provides refuge to migratory birds and a thick mangrove forest there serves as a natural typhoon barrier for millions of city dwellers. Yet empty plastic water and soda bottles protrude from the sand, tattered clothes and plastic sheets hang over mangrove branches, and heaps of shampoo, toothpaste and soy sauce sachets litter the coastline.

The trash offers a filthy contrast to the tantalising sunsets Manila Bay is famous for. It also illustrates strikingly the enormity of the garbage problem facing this developing nation of more than 100 million people. An archipelago of over 7,100 islands, the Philippines is the third worst ocean plastic polluter in the world, after China and Indonesia, according to a 2015 study in the journal Science. Globally, plastic pollution, especially of the ocean, is drawing increased attention as mounting research reveals the danger it poses to lifeforms across the food web.

The Philippines generates an estimated 43,684 tons of garbage daily, including 4,609 tons of plastic waste, according to government data, and proper disposal facilities are lacking for much of it. The trash is piling up on land, clogging coastlines, spilling into the sea, and travelling to remote corners of the globe as the country fails to meet targets for improved waste management that it signed into law 18 years ago.

The central government claims it’s done all it can, and that the onus is on local governments to get their trash in order and on the Philippine people to dispose of their garbage more responsibly. But environmental advocates disagree, saying the government could do more, including pressuring multinational corporations to change their products.

These big manufacturing companies failed to give an option for poor consumers.

Angelica Carballo-Pago, campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia

Metro Manila’s trash problem

Freedom Island, a patch of mangrove forest and salt marsh spanning 30 hectares (74 acres) in Metro Manila, forms part of the 175-hectare (432-acre) Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA). A briefer for the area describes it as an “important resting and refueling stop” for about 41 migratory bird species, including the Chinese egret (Egretta eulophotes), black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus), and Siberian rubythroat (Calliope calliope).

All the garbage swept ashore by the waves at Freedom Island threatens not only the birds, who might mistake it for food, but also the fish and other marine life.

During the summer monsoon, LPPCHEA employees collect a daily average of 500 sacks of garbage from the island’s 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) coastline, according to Ronnie Cafe, one of the garbage collectors. Most of it is non-recyclable and non-reusable, he said, and a lot of it is single-use sachets that once contained shampoo, vinegar, soy sauce or other consumables.

“Most of the wastes piling up here are coming from the households living along the riverbanks,” Cafe said. “They lacked the discipline for wantonly dumping their garbage at the river.”

The situation, he said, is “disheartening.” Fishermen are catching less nowadays due to the coastal filth, he added. Indeed, the island’s air reeks of decaying fish.

For the nearly 13 million residents of Metro Manila, garbage has become a major headache, second only to the horrendous traffic. The metropolis generates almost 10,000 tons of garbage daily, according to data from the Solid Waste Management Division (SWMD), part of the national Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“It’s really a big daily challenge, how to manage that volume of garbage,” said Juvinia Serafin, a senior environment specialist at SWMD. The problem arises largely from poor segregation of reusable, recyclable and compostable waste by households, compounded by inefficient waste collection by the metropolis’s 17 local government units (LGUs), she said.

At the rate Metro Manila is generating trash, the city’s three sanitary landfills will be full in 20 years, according to a study released last year by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, a policymaking and regulatory body.

Strong law, weak implementation

In fact, the Philippines has quite a strong law addressing solid waste. Republic Act 9003, also known as RA 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, mandates that all open dumpsites must be converted into sanitary landfills by 2004, four years after the law was passed.

But 14 years after that deadline, government figures are gloomy. There are only 139 operational sanitary landfills servicing just 308 of the country’s 1,634 LGUs, and at least 425 illegal dumpsites still operate across the country.

RA 9003 also mandates that every village or cluster of villages must set up a materials recovery facility (MRF) where biodegradable waste is converted into fertilizer, recyclable material is recycled or sold to junk shops, and residual waste is collected for transport to sanitary landfills. But as of last year, government data show that only 24 percent of the country’s 42,036 villages had operational MRFs.

“We should not wonder why we have a voluminous garbage problem; the compliance rate for MRF facilities in the villages is very dismal,” said Serafin.

The failure to meet those targets and comply with RA 9003 arises from a lack of political will on the part of local leaders as well as a lack of discipline regarding proper garbage disposal on the part of the public, according to Eligio Ildefonso, executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Commission Secretariat, the government agency tasked with implementing RA 9003.

“We have a very good law in the form of RA 9003 that we can be proud [of] to the world, but we sorely lack implementation,” Ildefonso said.

To push erring local leaders to reform, Ildefonso said his agency has lodged complaints over violations of RA 9003 with the national ombudsman’s office, an agency that investigates abuses of public officials and workers. So far it has lodged complaints against 50 LGUs involving 600 mayors, vice mayors and councilors, and is currently preparing charges against 100 additional LGUs, this time including village officials.

“If found guilty, these local officials can be disqualified from seeking public office, besides the usual fines,” Ildefonso said.

The national government claims to be doing all it can to curb the garbage menace facing the country. Serafin said that in addition to the usual push to recycle, reuse and reduce, especially when it comes to plastic products, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has trained and deployed over 300 individuals to capacitate local environment officers across the country to enforce RA 9003. The government, through its environment department, is also providing financial assistance to LGUs to build sanitary landfills to replace their open dumpsites.

But environmental groups say the government could do much more to curb the country’s garbage problem, especially by pressuring Western multinational companies to reduce their production of single-serve plastic packaging that finds its way into Philippine seas and coastlines.

Advocates particularly blame the companies for pushing the so-called “sachet economy” in the Philippines. Shampoo, bath soap, toothpaste, cooking oil, soy sauce, vinegar and many other low-cost consumer products come in small, single-use plastic packages that are affordable for the country’s bulk of poor and middle-income families.

“These big manufacturing companies failed to give an option for poor consumers,” said Angelica Carballo-Pago, a campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia based in the Philippines. “What they offer are single-use plastic products.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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