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Walang Plastikan: As plastic use increases under the new normal, how can stakeholders work out a solution?

With many cities in the Philippines placed under varying degrees of quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a surge in single-use plastic use has been observed due mainly to the increase in packaged goods deliveries to locked down households.

“We are seeing a shift in consumption patterns. More people are opting for deliveries and that will only mean that there is more plastic packaging usage to be expected, especially for food packaging,” said Crispian Lao, President of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS).

PARMS is a non-profit multi-stakeholder organization that aims to develop and implement a comprehensive waste management program to increase resource recovery, such as plastics and other packaging materials, and reduce landfill dependence leading towards a zero waste Philippines.

Lao was one of five speakers during the recently concluded online panel hosted by media organization and sustainable development advocate, Eco-business, entitled “Walang Plastikan, An honest conversation on plastic packaging in the Philippines’ food industry.”

The high-level virtual dialogue was the first of its kind to bring together a panel of experts to tackle the issue of plastic waste in the food industry amid the pandemic.

Experts at the panel agreed that the use of plastic packaging is not a problem per se. Plastic has long proven its usefulness in various applications, including in protecting food from contamination. Aside from an increase in plastic packaging use for food, the pandemic has also caused a sharp increase in plastic-based medical and healthcare materials for hospitals’ use. “What we should be alarmed about is how these wastes, plastic or not, is being managed,” Lao said.

“If we look at waste management under the new normal, we can’t highlight enough that waste avoidance should be top priority and segregation at source is critical to any form of waste management programs,” explained Lao.

The PARMS President also touched on ways industries should confront the issue of plastic waste going forward. “We need to design packaging under the new normal focused on waste avoidance and make a decision on whether a product should be reusable, recyclable, durable, repairable, have less packaging, or have no packaging at all.”

In the Philippines and anywhere in Asia, the pandemic has caused recycling activities to slow down. Edwin Seah, Head of Sustainability and Communications of Singapore-based Food Industry Asia, raised concerns against hastily and indiscriminately banning all forms of single-use plastic like those used in food packaging.

“The fundamental purpose and function of food packaging is to protect the contents, to keep it fresh, to keep it safe, especially in a climate like the Philippines—the humidity, the diverse networks, and the challenges of distributing food, and getting it stored safely,” said Seah.

“You can’t just invent food-grade packaging overnight. It takes a lot of time and research. You have to pilot it, scale it, and you have to go through a regulatory process,” Seah adds. “In the Philippines, plastic waste collection is not a problem. It’s probably the highest in the region but the problem is what happens after it’s collected.”

Experts pointed out that plastic is not a problem, rather, waste management is. A study revealed that almost 74 per cent of the marine litter or plastic waste in the oceans are waste materials that have already been collected but have not been properly disposed of. Moreover, experts noted that this highlights a deeper problem in the overall management of solid waste in the country.

The panelists agreed that plastic packaging and waste management is a challenge that needs a holistic response involving various stakeholders, including government, private sector, and consumers themselves.

In the Philippines, a growing number of local and international companies has incorporated reducing plastic use and increasing recycling of plastics in their corporate sustainability agenda. One such company is Mondelez Philippines, which has taken strides in developing an alternative to plastic-based packaging for its own products and in deploying upcycled materials from recovered plastics back to the community.

“The problem really is in terms of the facilities of waste management,” said Toff Rada, Country Manager of Corporate and Government Affairs for Mondelez Philippines. “So, after it’s collected, what’s next? That’s the imperative for us to craft solutions. Not looking at plastic as the problem but in taking plastic waste management as a potential solution to this problem that we’re facing.”

Based in Parañaque City, Mondelez Philippines works closely with the city’s local government to help improve waste collection and has already invested P2 million for the construction of a plastic waste recycling plant together with PARMS and its member companies. “We have a PARMS pilot recycling facility that we have put some investment in and that we hope will be a showcase if we finally get it at full scale.”

“We hope that it will be a showcase also for other cities and local governments to emulate and to see that it is something that can be done and can help improve the entire recycling infrastructure in the country,” he intimated.

And as a company globally renowned for its portfolio of snacking brands which uses plastic to keep its food safe and secure, Mondelez Philippines acknowledges its responsibility to its stakeholders and the environment at large.

“As a company, we are putting our stake in the cause. We have made commitments to try and reduce our carbon footprint, and we’re going to make all our packaging recyclable by 2025. And in the short term, we’ve also committed to reduce the amount of total packaging material that we use for our products by 65,000 tons by the end of this year.”

Other speakers during the online panel included Usec. Benny Antiporda of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Usec. Antiporda expressed the need for waste segregation to begin at home to ensure easier recycling at dump sites. The Plastic Flamingo, represented by CEO Francois Lesage was also present during the talk to share how social enterprises like themselves are working to reduce plastic waste by channeling materials towards recycling and finding a market for recycled products.

The question now is, do we avoid plastic? Or do we lessen plastic use and ensure we contribute to recycling and segregation? That’s something to think about as we endeavor to enter a new normal and hopefully, a more mindful way of life.

“We cannot just be working alone as an industry. We have to work together with the government, the private sector, and with ourselves as individuals,” said Rada

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