Plastic industry leans on Filipino negotiators over plastics treaty

The Philippine environment agency responsible for managing the country's solid waste includes a representative of the plastics industry, leaving the possibility of waste pollution solutions being tied to big business.

Activists gather in Quezon City, Philippines UNEA
Activists gather in Quezon City, Philippines to remind government delegates to negotiate for a legally binding agreement to prevent and remedy plastic pollution and its  toxic impacts. Image: EcoWaste Coalition

Efforts by the Philippines to hammer out a global pact to combat plastic pollution, risk being influenced by plastic producers who have a representative in the government’s solid waste management commission.

Filipino negotiators are virtually attending the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) that will run from today until 2 March in Nairobi, Kenya. Member states are set to negotiate the terms for the first ever treaty on plastic pollution, that may result in restrictions on plastic production.

“There is the recurring pressure in the course of unceasing discussion on plastic pollution internally and externally with some business groups, as the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) is being co-chaired by a representative from the plastics industry,” Albert Magalang, chief of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)’s climate change service, told Eco-Business. 

The NSWMC is the leading agency tasked with institutionalising a national programme that will manage the transport, processing and disposal of solid waste in the Philippines. 

The DENR secretary is the chairperson of the solid waste commission while the vice-chairperson, Crispian Lao, is also the founding president of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS), a multi-sectoral coalition whose members include top marine polluters Coca-Cola and Unilever. 

Both consumer goods giants, which emerged in the top three of global plastic polluters in an annual audit of plastic debris found in coastal areas last year, are also two of the 70 signatories asking the UN for the global agreeement. They ask that a legally binding treaty helps to reduce virgin plastic production and use and that it aligns with regulatory measures that cover the whole life cycle of plastics. 

There is the recurring pressure in the course of unceasing discussion on plastic pollution internally and externally with some business groups, as the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) is being co-chaired by a representative from the plastics industry.

Albert Magalang, chief of climate change service, Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Lao, also the managing director of a local plastics company, argued that his involvement in the NSWMC is as a representative of the recycling, not the plastics, sector. 

Lao said a good treaty should be one that is “inclusive, realistic and more importantly, implementable.”

The use of plastic packaging by food and consumer goods companies has been blamed for the marine pollution crisis, but no other material is as effective in ensuring the safe transportation of food, especially in an archipelagic country like the Philippines, where food has to be transported from one island to another, he told Eco-Business.

“Unless viable alternatives are identified that meets the health, safety and cost consideration of the consumers, and ensuring that there will be no transfer of environmental impacts through a life cycle and sustainability assessment approach, [it will not be a good treaty],” Lao said.

Shifting to reusable alternatives should consider the availability of water and waste water treatment infrastructure which are still lacking in many developing and low income countries like the Philippines, he explained.

Lao has pushed for an extended producer’s responsibility (EPR) scheme to be part of the accord, where private companies using plastic will be responsible for paying the cost of its collection, sorting, recycling and safe disposal.

“It should not be limited to plastics alone, but should also cover all materials under a circular economy, otherwise, there is a potential to shift to equally disposable alternatives that adds more strain to the local infrastructure,” he said.

Such disposable alternatives include imported, non recyclable wax or plastic lined paper that puts more pressure on existing inadequate disposal infrastructure. 

He noted that even if the alternatives can be composted, the country already faces challenges in managing more than half of the exisitng biodegradable waste generated in the country. 

Unless viable alternatives [to plastic] are identified that meets the health, safety and cost consideration of the consumers, and ensuring that there will be no transfer of environmental impacts through a life cycle and sustainability assessment approach, [it will not be a good treaty].

Crispian Lao, founding president of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS)

Major chemical and plastics producers are lobbying to weaken the plastics treaty, pushing it to cover waste rather than production, as the industry is projected to double plastic output worldwide within two decades.

The involvement of plastic manufacturers and oil companies, which provide the petroleum-based raw materials to make plastics, is worrisome, said environmentalists.

“We are concerned that they will resist progressive binding controls and targets to curb plastic pollution such as reducing plastic production, phasing out single-use plastics, banning toxic plastic chemical additives and imposing extended producer responsibility, which will lead to an unambitious treaty,” said Aileen Lucero, national coordinator, of watchdog EcoWaste Coalition.

“A watered down treaty that is limited in scope and reliant on voluntary or corporate-led initiatives will mean ‘business as usual’ with lots of ‘greenwashing’ to the detriment of human and ecological health.  A weak treaty will not solve the far-reaching plastic pollution that threatens the entire planet,” she told Eco-Business. 

Rich nations to help curb plastic waste of the Philippines

Despite the plastics industry possibly influencing the outcome of the negotiations, Magalang said the government will steer towards a treaty that will make corporations liable for the plastics they produce based on the principle of the common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The CBDR is a principle of international environmental law which states that while countries are responsible for addressing global environmental destruction, they are not equally responsible.

To achieve this, the Philippines will be lobbying for financial and technical support from rich countries, including capacity building, research and development, and technology transfer.

“There are wide differences in levels of economic development between developed and developing countries as well as the differences in their contributions and abilities or respective capabilities to address plastic pollution,” said Magalang, who was a climate negotiator at last year’s 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.

“[We need rich countries to] support actions by developing countries, especially in terms of reducing materials used in packaging, improving recyclability, redesign of materials as well as sustainable low-carbon waste management schemes.”

The UNEA will be considering two competing drafts to arrive at a framework. A more comprehensive one, sponsored by Rwanda and Peru, is proposing to reduce plastics pollution worldwide from production to disposal. The other, sponsored by Japan, focuses narrowly on oceans and end-of-use.

The Philippines, as a co-sponsor of the Peru-Rwanda Resolution which is now supported by 185 countries, will also be working towards the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) that will call for global standards and bans to effectively and efficiently put a stop to plastic pollution.

Together with Magalang representing the Philippines in the negotiations this week will be Elenida Basug, director of DENR’s climate change service and Raquel Smith-Ortega, section chief of the service.

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