Scale 360 PH

What’s the problem in plastic waste?

Recent years have seen the boom of the plastics industry, growing twenty times in the 50 years between 1964 to 2014. Globally, the total mass of plastic is now twice that of all living organisms on the planet. While plastic is a useful material that has played a major role in the development of modern society, it also poses many problems, and the outlook is concerning. As the rate of consumption grows along with our dependence on plastics, more so on single-use plastics, we face substantial economic losses and congested urban infrastructure as a result of inadequate plastic waste management.

Despite plastics being hypothetically easy to recycle, regulation and management of plastic waste is inadequate and leads to a broken recycling system. Recycling plastics is difficult and not cost-effective, so much of the waste is shipped to low-income countries where they lack the capacity and technology to properly manage it. This results in large amounts of plastic ending up in the environment through illegal incineration, informal dumping, or being lost at sea. In fact, plastics were found to make up 75% of all debris entering our oceans.

In our country alone, Filipinos average 20 kg of plastic consumed per capita annually, with 77% of that becoming waste. The Philippines is facing a major issue with plastic waste and marine pollution. Single-use packaging waste is the leading contributor to this problem, with the country using almost 60 billion sachets per year. The World Bank estimates that our country produces 2.7 million tons of plastic waste each year, and about 20% of that ends up in the oceans. It was estimated that 0.28 to 0.75 million tons of plastic enter oceans from coastal areas in Manila Bay each year. Despite high collection rates (40 to 85% nationwide), WWF Philippines estimates that 74% of plastics ending up in the ocean come from waste disposed at poorly located dumpsites situated near waterways. The country also faces inadequate waste facilities due to constraints in funding and manpower, with only 31.3% of barangays in the country being served by an MRF (materials recovery facility).

Plastic’s distinct characteristics of being versatile and durable, making it the choice material for single-use packaging and various other applications, have unwittingly led to the many problems we face today. Taking at least 50 years to decompose, plastic has led to major marine pollution. This poses not only an environmental threat, but also an economic one for a country that derives significant value from its coastal industries. The Philippines’ coastal economy contributed 7% of the country’s overall GDP in 2015. The fisheries and aquaculture industry alone added $2.37 billion in value to the economy in 2016, employing 260,000 Filipinos in this sector. Meanwhile, coastal and marine tourism contributed around $3 billion in value, creating employment opportunities for 900,000 Filipinos.

An over-dependence on plastics creates problems beyond those caused by improper waste management. More than 99% of all plastics are derived from hydrocarbons extracted from oil, gas, and coal. This means that the production of plastic results in the emission of greenhouse gases. Studies have shown maintaining the status quo, the manufacture of plastic alone will account for more than 10% of the entire remaining carbon budget by 2050. Despite these issues, fossil fuel companies continue to see hydrocarbons as a primary growth sector, projecting a 30% increase in global capacity for producing virgin plastic polymers in the next five years. At this rate and if these problems continue to go unaddressed, the country faces to lose significant environmental and economic resources long-term, affecting its productivity and ability to sustain future generations.

How did Scale360˚ Philippines tackle the problem?

Scale360° Philippines’ plastic pillar revolves around uniting resources and communities to foster sustainability, proper segregation, and stimulating the circular economy in the Philippines. The initiative provides a resource toolkit that offers practical guidance for organizations and businesses, accelerating the adoption of circular economy practices.

Why make plastic circular?

Problems caused by plastic pollution have gained momentum in the past years, with the solution to these focused around improving collection and recycling. With a focus on extended producer responsibility, most major brands with a high reliance on plastic packaging and products have announced commitments to increasing recycled plastic content in manufacturing. However, a new study analyzing actual impact on marine debris of plastic pledges from five major beverage brands found that if recycled content targets are met, this will only lead to a 7% reduction in the aquatic pollution caused by non-alcoholic ready to drink (NARTD) PET bottles. This is mainly due to the high possibility that waste streams for these recycled PET bottles will be coming from already collected and managed waste, rather than mismanaged waste streams.

Plastic recycling in the Philippines is further compounded by the country’s sachet economy. While initiatives like zero waste stores and refilling stations are gaining popularity, these are very limited in number compared with the magnitude of the plastic problem we face today. Most efforts to control this problem are focused on collecting and recycling, but these sachets are not easily recyclable. This leads to single-use sachets often being downcycled, compromising its quality, functionality and market value. A popular method of recycling sachets is incorporating this into roads and construction materials. While this temporarily keeps plastic waste from ending up in oceans, these plastics will eventually degrade and enter our ecosystems as microplastics — a form that is much harder to recover.

Moreover, plastics cannot be recycled indefinitely without degrading its quality, as opposed to glass or paper. This means that a sustained reliance on plastic will inevitably lead to the need for virgin plastic materials, and petrochemicals as a consequence.
While recycling plastics has created livelihood for waste workers and is still a better option than plastics ending up in the landfill, it is ultimately a stop-gap solution for the problem we face today. The plastics problem is bigger than creating a recycling system that works, and needs to be addressed at the source. Recognizing this, GAIA has developed a circular economy framework, allowing the value of plastic products, materials, and resources to be maintained for as long as possible. A circular economy focuses on addressing the problem at the source, by eliminating unnecessary plastic, designing plastic to be easily recyclable, and ensuring that all these are circulated back into the economy. This impacts the problems that recycling tries to keep up with, but fails to address if done alone.

A circular economy focuses on addressing the problem at the source, by eliminating unnecessary plastic, designing plastic to be easily recyclable, and ensuring that all these are circulated back into the economy.

A circular economy focuses on addressing the problem at the source, by eliminating unnecessary plastic, designing plastic to be easily recyclable, and ensuring that all these are circulated back into the economy.

How do we make it circular?

Creating a blueprint for shifting the plastics industry towards a circular system in the Philippines, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) developed a plastic-focused zero waste hierarchy for the Philippines. This framework aims to develop a circular economy for plastics, allowing the value of products, materials, and resources to be maintained as long as possible. Looking beyond recycling, the hierarchy recognizes that there are several levels to a system that allows waste to be designed out and the use of resources to be minimized. Overall, the framework highlights the need to invest on zero waste products and services, altering consumption habits towards sustainable practices, and ensuring compliance from businesses through legislation. The zero waste hierarchy is shown in full below:

In line with the path envisioned by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, this framework highlights the primary role of eliminating plastic at the source whenever unnecessary. Subsequently, enabling a circular system necessitates product and design innovation to ensure that plastics are easily reusable, recycle, or compostable. Lastly, ensuring circulation of plastics back into the economy means putting proper infrastructure in place for recovery and collection.