Filipino private sector steps up to tackle marine pollution

It takes a village to win the battle against marine litter.

Marine litter, being one of the world’s worst environmental problems, is also a big problem in the Philippines. The proliferation of marine litter, especially plastic trash, seriously affects biodiversity, sensitive ecosystems, and people’s livelihood. Marine litter also threatens food safety and quality, human health, and coastal tourism. Finally, it worsens climate change and its effects.

Plastic users and producers are starting to show concern for the contribution of plastic to marine pollution. The newly-formed Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS) launched the Zero Waste to Nature: Ambisyon 2030 Packaging Strategy and Roadmap with the aim to gather the private sector’s support.

Crispian Lao, the group’s founding president, led the presentation of the roadmap even as the group admitted that the Philippines is the last to develop a National Plan of Action on Marine Litter.

“The program we developed is comprehensive and focused on the principles of circular economy (CE) and sustainable consumption and production (SCP), and recycling and market enhancement,” he said.

The new marine litter strategy as led by PARMS in the Philippines is focused on programmatic clusters. Focal agencies have been tapped to implement activities on the ground to solve the problem of marine litter. 

The program, in nutshell, comprised activities to reduce waste generation through packaging design. Partners in the private sector are called on to increase the recyclability of product packaging put out in the market and voluntarily phase out non-recyclable products for packaging materials where environmentally sound alternatives exist.

The declaration to fight marine litter through better packaging products was made in the year 2020 and the roadmap was released in October 2021. The projected timeline for the diversion rate is the next 10 years.

Lao explained that the group conducted a study with an initial focus on packaging waste.

“We established the volume of the study and had it cross-checked with market data.  One part of the plan is to remove color and text from packaging materials. We want to establish labeling or identification of materials used in the labeling with an initial focus on existing materials. The identification of actual materials used for packaging materials will help identify how to treat the said materials,” he explained.

The PARMS also identified other enabling policies and mechanisms that private sector players – manufacturing companies and producers – can implement, such as national recycling labeling standards for packaging. It is also calling for economic incentives to drive investments in recycling and waste processing, as well as instruments to drive market uptake of products from waste.

“All these efforts will benefit people and the environment, but we need PHP15.1 billion (US$280.8 million) in infrastructure investment for new recycling and waste diversion facilities. A minimum of 4,000 green jobs can be created, and the fees that will be generated can support waste recovery and will generate approximately PHP 5.2 billion of annual additional income for the informal waste sector and   Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs),” Lao said.

The environmental advocate also highlighted the value of incentivizing correct packaging waste collection and recovery.  

“If the collection of flexible along with the rigid kinds of packaging is incentivized, they can be properly collected, recycled, and treated. This is also a reason why it is important to support the activities of enterprises and non-government organizations that are coming up with innovative means to recycle plastic packaging,” Lao said.

The PARMS has 11 Fast-moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies as members, half of them are global companies, and the other half local brands.  Lao admitted that it is not easy to get everybody to agree on a single system, but it was made possible through piloting.

Lao said: “We first focused on companies with equipment that needs to be translated locally. There will be the implementation of some pilots on the ground and bring in other stakeholders to participate. 

“Lacking the direct mandate of the government, we still developed the Roadmap that we hope will feed into the National Plan of Action for the Prevention, Reduction, and Management of Marine Litter (NPOA-ML) and the Philippine Development Plan (PDP). Once this happens, the whole industry and citizenry can be steered in one direction.” 

Mountains of waste

Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, waste materials directly connected to efforts to fight the virus have worsened the marine litter situation. According to a 2020 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PINAS), more than 25,000 tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have entered the world’s oceans as the pandemic generated eight million tons of said type of waste.

Hospitals generated massive amounts of plastic medical waste. This was apart from the trash from personal protection equipment and online-shopping packaging materials.

14 Titanic ships of plastic waste 

In a separate survey by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), it was found that in the Philippines alone, plastic waste now amounted to what could be contained in 14 Titanic ships. It was found that 35 percent of 2.15 million tons of plastic manufactured annually ended up polluting the natural environment. Plastic waste enters the oceans through high-traffic ports and shipping industry activities.

Katherine Custodio, Executive Director of WWF-Philippines, said that Filipinos should be more aware of the importance of taking care of the ocean.

“Plastics do not belong in our oceans. We forget that we’re part of a world that is a living, breathing organism on which our well-being and survival depend,” she said.

Custodio said that there is an urgency to address the plastic pollution problem in the country.  She said that as a start, society should cut the amount of plastic it produces, and make sure that the loop of plastic use is closed by implementing effective recycling, reusing, and redesigning processes for the plastic.

The WWF is now working with the Grieg Foundation and Grieg Group of Companies on a three-year project called “Clean Ports, Clean Oceans: Improving Port Waste Management in the Philippines”. The aim is to reduce plastic waste in the country by 50 percent in three Philippine ports: the Manila North Port, the Port of Batangas, and the Port of Cagayan de Oro.  It is hoped that the project will contribute to the national plan of action on marine waste.  

Baseline study paints a dire picture

An important part of the project was the “Solid Waste Management Baseline Study” in Philippine ports. The study found that approximately 114,927 kg of plastic waste was generated at the ports and 128,970 kg of plastic waste was generated from vessels.

“The amount of plastic pollution to garbage leakage from ports during collection and disposal is related to cities’ waste management systems. Ports, of which there are at least 552 in the country, are a possible route for plastic garbage to enter the oceans,” Custodio said.

The study was conducted in collaboration with the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), terminal operators, communities, and concerned local government units (LGUs).

The Philippines has a total of 552 ports that are managed by 25 port management offices (PMOs). Thirty-six of these are classified as base ports, while 93 are terminal ports under terminal management offices (TMOs), and 152 are other government ports. The remaining 271 are private ports, which included ports serving roll-on, roll-off (RoRo) vessels.

From the baseline study, the WWF-Philippines then formulated intervention policies based on the findings, working with the PPA – Port Management Offices (PMOs) in Manila North Port, Port of Batangas, and Port of Cagayan de Oro. 

No material recovery facilities, only garbage collection

Based on the findings of the WWF, in general, not all ports have material recovery facilities (MRF). Recyclable wastes are either recovered informally by janitors or collected by the waste service providers and then taken to the nearest community MRF and/or junk shops. Unfortunately, not all communities are equipped with a properly functioning MRF or worse, not equipped at all.

There are also instances wherein the port has a designated MRF but the MRF is used more as a receptacle of wastes and not as a recovery facility where sorting, segregation, and utilization of wastes are being done.

The residual wastes, including Covid-19 face masks which should be treated as healthcare wastes, from the ports are to be disposed of in sanitary landfills.  However, there are concerns.  For example, the distance of sanitary landfills from ports can affect the quantity of transported solid wastes leaking into the environment, the gravity of leakages depends on the quality of the collection services during the transportation of wastes, at the disposal facilities, and at the storm drains.

The results of the baseline study showed that with these factors considered, the port-generated and vessel-generated wastes from the Port of Batangas, Port of Cagayan de Oro, and Manila North Harbor significantly contributed leaked wastes to the water environment at 15,722.36 kg per year and to the terrestrial environment at 11,164.35 kg per year in 2021, even with the decreased in ship calls, container traffic, passenger traffic, and RoRo traffic because of the pandemic.

The three ports contributed 2.87 percent of the total waste generated from all ports in 2021 with the Port of Batangas contributing the most among the three.

The study also found that domestic vessels tend to disregard marine protection and/or circumvent policies, regulations, and programs more than foreign vessels.

Among the WWF’s recommendations are stricter implementation and review of existing plans, programs, policies and laws governing garbage disposal in port areas, better coordination and teamwork between stakeholders, better data management, monitoring and utilization of plastic wastes, and installation of properly designed and fully functional MRFs, and the popularization of information on how the Philippines can implement a sustainable solid and plastic waste management system especially in its ports.

Marine litter in the Philippine Seas

Plastic waste is directly connected to marine pollution.  Engineer Voltaire Acosta said that among many factors, economic growth combined with enhanced production and consumption, is leading to higher waste generation in the Philippines.

Acosta is an expert in cleaner production, industrial environmental management, and pollution control engineering. He has worked with various local government units on local environmental governance and policy development and advocacy.

“In 2010, around 275 million metric tons (MMT) of plastic waste was generated globally.  That year, 4.8 to 12.7 MMT leaked into the oceans. At the time, it was determined that the Philippines is the third largest marine plastic contributor. This is ironic given that the country also has one of the highest trash collection rates in Southeast Asia,” he said.

Citing data from Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA, March 2020), Acosta said that the Philippines is one of the world’s worst offenders of marine plastic pollution, with 0.28 – 0.75 million tons per year of plastic entering the oceans from coastal areas in Manila Bay.

The GAIA report also said that the massive use of sachets was a concern. Filipinos used almost 60 billion plastic sachets a year: shampoo sachets, condiment packs, and other single-serve products.

As of 2016, the plastic market in the Philippines was above US$1,283.71 million, with a compounded annual growth rate of 6.11 percent (forecast for the period 2018 to 2023).

Acosta said: “By 2017, the plastic used for packaging is about 48 percent, with packaging waste the major contributor to marine litter and plastic pollution.  The collection of solid wastes is mostly managed by the local government units. 

“In many areas of the country, local governments lack access to waste collection services and recycling facilities. Where they are available, inefficiencies in collection, transportation, treatment, and disposal systems affect wastewater and drainage systems further, leading to marine litter and plastic pollution.”

The country’s urban waste collection services cover a range of 80 to 100 percent of urban areas, while the ranges are lower from 40 to 85 percent at the national level. In the so-called “squatter areas” or informal settlement areas, waste more often than not goes uncollected, prompting people to do illegal dumping acts.

“Waste thrown into waterways contributes to frequent flooding in the Metro region. This eventually leaks into the marine environment and has negative impacts on revenue-generating nature-based tourism, as well as on the fishing industry. Fishermen have commented that plastics are smothering coral reefs, resulting in lower fish yields and ecosystem-wide impacts,” Acosta said.

Socio-economic trends also showed an annual population growth rate of 1.5 percent, forecast to grow to 125.4 million people in 2030, with more than 60 percent living along the country’s coastline. 

“The confluence of a growing population, rising incomes and consumption, inadequate infrastructure, and weak regulations combine to put the Philippines high on the list of nations with major waste leakage and plastic pollution problems,” Acosta said.

Stop marine pollution by ending plastic generation

The world marked Oceans Day early this June by holding various webinars and on-site beach clean-up activities. Included in the webinars were public briefings on how the increasing marine pollution is endangering fish populations which, in turn, has a negative impact on the capacity of oceans to absorb the planet’s heat, contributing to climate change. Many youth organizations and civic groups also conducted mangrove planting actions.

All these activities were well and good, but they were only mitigating the polluting actions, but the real causes of marine pollution are not being mitigated: continued reliance on plastic packaging, lack of trash disposal systems in port areas, and the weak implementation of local and national laws on the same.

If efforts to save our oceans are to succeed, the Philippines should do more to tackle the causes of marine pollution.  Ranking third in the international list of countries polluting the oceans is a cause of shame and should be immediately addressed.

Photo credit: iStock/ kotangens

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Silverio, our Philippine correspondent, is an award-winning investigative reporter. She is also the author of two books.

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