The Philippines’ plastic lawsuit highlights limitations of UN pollution pact

Ahead of its upcoming court case against the government for failing to tackle the country’s plastic litter problem, marine conservation group Oceana Philippines does not think the UN-backed treaty will trigger more cases.

barge of plastic waste in Manila Bay
Protesters use a barge carrying tonnes of plastic waste through Manila Bay, to highlight the systemic waste problem that produces massive amounts of plastic pollution in the Philippines. Image: Greenpeace / Arnaud Vittet

Even before world leaders agreed to draw up the first international treaty to control global plastics waste last month, the Philippines had already adopted environmental laws that recognise citizen suits against plastic pollution.

But such lawsuits remain uncommon in the country, sounding the alarm that a global pact will not be any use if it is not properly enforced, said Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president of marine conservation group Oceana Philippines.

“Our country is always eager to sign international conventions but the political will from national and local authorities in implementing national laws, some of which stem from international commitments, is key to addressing issues that impact our rights to health and a healthy environment,” Ramos told Eco-Business.

“At best, the awareness that the plastic treaty will generate will trigger much-needed action for our government to prioritise the protection of our non-negotiable right to a healthy environment.”

Our country is always eager to sign international conventions but political will… is key to addressing issues that impact our rights to health and a healthy environment.

Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice-president, Oceana Philippines

Oceana Philippines led a coalition of individuals and environmentalists in filing a petition in the Supreme Court last year, lambasting the Philippine government for its failure to address plastic pollution. The trial is set for 29 March.

If the court rules in their favour, it could set a precedent for citizens to hold governments and companies to account for their environmental impacts, in the wake of the United Nations-backed plastics agreement. But Ramos is sceptical it could trigger more similar cases in the Philippines. 

Philippine environmental laws that recognise citizen suits

Rule of Procedure for Environmental Cases 

To protect and advance the constitutional right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology. 

Clean Air Act

It is the policy of the state to formulate a holistic national programme of air pollution management that shall be implemented by the government through proper delegation and effective coordination of functions and activities.

Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000

It is the policy of the state to adopt a systematic, comprehensive and ecological solid waste management programme.

Fisheries Code of the Philippines

It is the policy of the state to to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

Ramos said the Philippines is the only country in the world which has adopted an environmental law called the Rule of Procedure for Environmental Cases where any Filipino citizen may file a case for enforcement of rights and obligations under environmental laws.

It guarantees every citizen the right to a healthy and balanced ecology, including the prevention of polluted seas by the dumping of waste which is hazardous to human health. The group is filing its petition against the government under this law.

“There hasn’t been a surge in cases [since the law was adopted in 2010]. Maybe because there are only a handful of environmental lawyers in the country or citizens are scared to institute legal action against government agencies,” Ramos said.

Aside from the looming plastics suit, the veteran environmental lawyer cited four other cases filed in the Supreme Court that touched on climate change as an issue: the restoration of Manila Bay, the capital’s most important yet most pollluted body of water, as well as the renewable energy law implementation, which both happened in 2008; the suit filed by the indigenous people of Zambales opposing the establishment of a coal-fired thermal power plant in 2018, a petition last year to declare the government’s waste-to-energy programme as unconstitutional and illegal.

“There could be more [climate lawsuits] but, definitely, not as many as expected considering the gargantuan environmental issues we are confronted with, and how filing for suits has been made simpler by defering filing fees until after the higher court issues a judgment under the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases,” she said. 

No plastic alternatives

Oceana Philippines has taken legal action against the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC), the government agency tasked with implementing the solid waste law, for taking so long to come up with the list of products and packaging which are deemed harmful to the environment.

In the year 2000, the agency was mandated to prepare a list of non-environmentally acceptable products and packaging (NEAPP). 

But it was only in February last year—two decades since the law took effect—that a resolution from the NSWMC labeled plastic coffee stirrers and plastic straws as damaging to nature. 

The NSWMC said it has been unable to complete the list because of the lack of plastic alternatives in packaging.

“If plastic is removed from the system, there needs to be a viable substitute to ensure the safe and cost effective packaging and delivery of goods and services, most of which are considered as essential commodities,” Crispian Lao, vice-chairman of NSWMC, told Eco-Business.

Lao said that potential plastic alternatives in the form of paper, most of which are wax or plastic coated, cost twice as much as plastic and likewise end up as waste at the end of its useful life.

For plastic substitutes, there should also be no transfer of environmental impacts such as shifts to equally disposable packaging materials, and adequate waste water management for reuseables, he added.

“While we cannot stop advocacy groups from filing cases, the key to solving the problem is collaboration among stakeholders towards identification of viable alternatives with lower environmental impacts and costs, and the recycling, treatment and resource recovery of the plastic currently in use while substitutes are not in place,” he said.

“It should be noted that developed countries like those in the European Union that are pushing for the global plastics agreement have yet to identify these substitutes despite their capablilty to absorb the increased cost of more expensive alternative packaging.”

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