Plastic Packaging Waste in the Philippines: An Analysis

I recently took a 5-month break from my work as an environmental consultant to volunteer with Marine Conservation Philippines (MCP) on the issue of marine litter. During the first few months of my stint there, we undertook an intense programme of beach cleans across sections of a small sample of local beaches. The idea was to find out what kinds of material were most prevalent, to inform the types of local initiative we could set up to try and tackle the issues.

Consistently, the vast majority of the debris we found strewn across the beaches across the Philippines was plastic; a significant amount of that was soft plastics which can’t be recycled – plastic bags, sweet and crisp packets, and single use soap and detergent sachets. There were some variations, though: at one beach, we kept picking up a staggering amount of styrofoam.

During our beach clean work and engagement with local communities, it became increasingly apparent that part of the problem was the variability of waste management across the municipality of Zamboanguita, in the Negros Oriental province of the Philippines.

Despite national legislation, some areas received no formal waste collections at all. With the help of the local Coastal Resources Manager, Tony Yocor, we began to engage with the local municipality’s Solid Waste Manager with the view to supporting appropriate an affordable waste management practices.

We focused on solutions that have been successful elsewhere in the Philippines and in other emerging markets, such as the local collection and waste sorting approach developed by Mother Earth Foundation. Unfortunately, as with most places in the world, influencing the authorities to act takes time, and whilst we started to make some progress, Tony and the staff at MCP are still working on trying to get the full range of local solutions we identified implemented.

Materials and markets

We did, however, build our own ‘MRF’ (more of a community recycling centre in UK terms) at MCP’s base to improve the management of the waste we collected. The main aim of the site is to allow as many recyclable materials as possible to be segregated so that they can be sold to the local junk shops. We also hope that this can act as a demonstration site for the types of simple solutions that can be set up locally to improve waste management.

But ultimately, if we are serious about tackling this issue of marine debris, we have to reduce the amount of litter we produce, and many countries are making progress on tackling commonly littered items. Restrictions on single use carrier bags are amongst the most prominent and widespread anti-littering measures around the world.

England’s 5p carrier bag levy was introduced in 2015 and, despite its limitations, is reducing bag usage and (it would seem) marine litter. Last year Kenya hit the headlines when it joined the growing list of countries adopting a rather stricter line: it banned plastic carrier bags entirely, with offenders risking heavy fines or even imprisonment.

Although bans and restrictions are becoming increasingly widespread, they have not yet reached the Philippines at a national level and it seems no coincidence that a large proportion of the items we found littered on our sample beaches around Zamboanguita were plastic bags. One beach, close to where the largest ‘ghetto’ market is held weekly, had a particularly high incidence of plastic bag litter, and the quantity increased noticeably on, and just after, market day. Use wholesale tote bags to promote sustainable living in the Philippines.

Without national instruments in place, we explored what could be done with the policy powers available to the local government. Working with the local Markets Officer and Coastal Resources Manager we put the wheels in motion to propose and implement a local ordinance to introduce a charge on plastic bags, initially at the market as a trial, with the potential for a wider roll-out if successful. It’s a model that could be reapplied elsewhere in the Philippines if national legislation isn’t forthcoming.

Sachet and sea?

Plastic bags are a challenge, but because they’re distributed locally it’s relatively easy to change practices. Other forms of single use packaging contribute just as much to the litter problem afflicting many South East Asian counties, but are harder to tackle because their source is more remote.

The Philippines, like many developing and emerging economies, is a ‘sachet economy’, with a huge range of products sold in one-portion, single-use sachets. You see them everywhere, from small ‘sari sari’ stalls to large shopping centres. The producers’ perspective is that this form of packaging represents a form of social responsibility, allowing them to provide safe, long-lasting, affordable products that meet people’s needs. However, they have a wider cost.

Sachet society: one of the most common forms of litter in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Amy Slack.

I was involved in Break Free from Plastic Negros Oriental’s December beach clean and audit, and these sachets were the most common item we found. They accounted for a massive 25% of the items picked up from Dumaguete beach, beating plastic bags into second place (13%).

The waste management system in the Philippines simply isn’t geared up to dealing with this increasingly popular type of packaging – the composite materials of which they are made are impractical to recycle and so lack the economic value that engages the interest of the informal sector. So, what could be done to help?

The Best Foot Forward

There is no ‘silver bullet’ to instantly lay marine litter to rest. Even if there was a global ban on single use plastics today, it would take time for already littered material to blow or wash its way through the system.

However, introducing a compulsory extended producer responsibility (EPR) mechanism into policy could help end the blame game that currently impedes action: producers blame the general public for littering, the general public blame the government for inadequate waste systems, and government blames produces for manufacturing plastic packaging.

An EPR scheme would see government giving clear responsibilities to business, and ensuring that producers fund collection and reprocessing schemes to properly manage the waste from the products they sell in the Philippines. That would in turn incentivise producers to use more easily recyclable packaging, as the costs of managing this material would be lower.

The goal need not be to try to ape the waste management systems of the West, which may not be suitable in the circumstances. And in the Philippines, where labour is cheap and informal waste management thrives, it may take little more than giving a small value to packaging products to greatly reduce the amount of material that escapes into the environment.

Conclusion

Although countries like the Philippines currently struggle most to cope with the consequences of plastic packaging waste, with the right set of policies and determined volunteers to help organise local action, there is scope for them to catch up and overhaul the West in developing solutions that really do reduce litter.

Note: The article has been republished with the permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original version of the article can be found at this link

Pet Waste Management in UK – Prospects and Challenges

Pet waste is a growing public health and environmental risk. According to a report commissioned by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, 13 million UK households (45%) keep pets of some kind. Cats and dogs are each kept by 8.5 million households (these numbers are not additive, as some will of course keep both).

pet-wastes

Can those of us who want both the joys of animal companionship and waste minimisation, find ways to cut down, or better manage, the huge amount of pet waste generated in the UK every year? With so many cats and dogs in the UK, pet waste must represent a significant mass of organic matter within the residual waste stream.

Does this waste represent a floater in the residual waste stream by necessity—due to inherently unpleasant and possibly dangerous characteristics of the waste—or is it only there out of convention and squeamishness?

I’ve written before about the relationship between waste management and squeamishness, and talking about faeces really brings the point home. There are some undoubtedly nasty pathogens present in pet faeces, notably the parasites Toxocariasis and Toxoplasmosis. But might these be safely killed off by the temperatures reached in anaerobic digestion (AD). If so, provided any litter and bags were made of organic matter, might pet waste be collected along with food waste?

I began by contacting a local authority waste officer, but was told that no one had asked this question before, and that I might be better off talking to AD plant operators. This I did, but most seemed similarly baffled by my query. However, one mentioned that AD digestate goes through a pasteurisation process, where it is heated to a temperature of 70oC for one hour, in order to make it safe for land application. I also attempted to contact some technical specialists in the field, but to no avail.

There are some theoretical indications that this pasteurisation should be sufficient. Hanna Mizgajska-Wiktor and Shoji Uga’s essay Exposure and Environmental Contamination states: “Anaerobic waste treatment kills Toxocara spp. eggs at temperatures in excess of 45oC”, well below the 70oC mentioned by my operator. The susceptibility of Toxoplasma to heat is less clear, although numerous internet sources suggest this can be killed in meat by cooking at 66oC. So far, then, I haven’t confirmed or falsified my initial inkling, and so the collection of pet waste in the municipal organic stream remains a theoretical possibility.

Motivated dog owners can already turn their pet’s waste into a resource within their own home. The website London Worms explains how you can turn your dog’s poo into rich and useful vermicompost, although it warns that the results will only be suitable for use on non-edible plants.

Foul Pay

Household pet droppings may still be largely fated for disposal, but even when binned this waste is at least moving through proper waste management channels. Unfortunately, not all pet poo is binned, and we have real data measuring public perceptions of the disamenity resulting from dog fouling. For most, the presence of this unwelcome waste in our streets, parks and footpaths is of much higher concern than its diversion from landfill. Therefore, it is necessary to make use of biodegradable dog poop bags to keep our environment clean.

A 2011 Defra-funded study on local residents’ willingness-to-pay — via an increase in council tax — for improvements across a range of environmental factors found that dog fouling was the third most important issue out of the presented range (with litter and fly-tipping taking first and second place). Surveys were conducted in inner-city, suburban and rural/semi-rural areas around London, Manchester and Coventry.

In order to move from the current level of dog fouling to the best possible scenario, it was found that inner-city residents would on average be willing to pay £8.87 per month, suburban residents £7.79 per month, and rural residents £2.72. Combining these figures with population statistics allows us to place a disamenity value on dog fouling. National statistics only allow for an urban-rural split, but based on a 2012 Defra rurality study which found that 18.9% of the population lives in rural areas, we can calculate that across England we would collectively be willing to pay £462m per year to achieve best case scenario improvements in dog fouling.

This somewhat crude calculation gives an indication of the perceived disamenity of dog fouling. Presenting the matter in terms such as these may allow economically minded policy makers a means of engaging with this important street scene issue and evaluating the costs and benefits of interventions.

Food for Thought

Let’s wash our hands of poo (with plenty of soap and warm water) and look to the other end of the pet waste problem. According to a report published by WRAP, the UK uses around 75,000 tonnes of primary packaging annually. This holds 1,263,000 tonnes of wet and dry cat and dog food, of which 9,000 uneaten tonnes are thrown away. Although this wasted food constitutes less than 1% of the total sold (if only we were as careful with food for human consumption) the estimated cost to the consumer is still £21m a year.

WRAP examined a number of designs intended to cut to down on the amounts of both pet food and packaging thrown away. A major problem with packaging design is the need to account for portion sizes, which vary from animal to animal and change depending on age and level of activity. Single serve packaging may actually lead to regular food wastage if the portion provided is too big for a particular pet; indeed, this is a problem I am experiencing with my own cat, whose appetite seems to fluctuate wildly. Re-sealable packaging that allows owners to dish out meals in accordance with the changing appetites of their pets is therefore preferable.

The material that packaging is made of is also significant: for example, relatively heavy tins are recyclable, whereas lightweight plasticised plastic foil packets are not. Pet food and its packaging can be pushed up the waste hierarchy by simply choosing a recyclable and resealable container which will allow them to adequately provide for the appetite of their pet. However, these issues are likely to be given less weight compared with health, convenience and cost in the minds of most householders. The onus has to be on manufacturers to develop packaging which is both low cost and easily recyclable.

Love pets, hate waste?

People love animals, but are rather less keen to engage with pets as an environmental issue. Leaving aside questions of whether it is sustainable for so many of us to have pets at all, there are clearly ways in which we can reduce their impact. The convenience of single serving pouches of pet food seems to win out over more recyclable and waste-avoiding alternatives, although pet owners might be willing to change their choices if presented with a better option.

While worrying about recovery options for cat poo might seem somewhat academic, it may be easier to tackle than dog fouling. It might even help to tackle the common psycho-social root of both issues. Cultural distaste perhaps lies behind the lack of information available on dealing with household pet waste, and the persistence of dog fouling as a street scene issue. Things were very different in Victorian London when “pure finders” earned a living by seeking out doggie doo to supply the tanning trade. But for us this kind of waste is a disagreeable fact of life which we deal with as simply and with as little thought as possible. But as a nation of animal lovers, it’s our responsibility to engage with the waste management issues our pets present.

Note: The article is being republished with the kind permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be viewed at this link