Plastic in the ‘Pines

The Philippines is getting a reputation for being the 3rd biggest polluter of plastics in the oceans. Although it seems easy to point a finger and say ‘how horrible’ there is more to this story that needs to be explored.

The Philippines is a developing nation where much of its people still live in poverty (25%+) and even still the average wages are hard to live off of when you have a family to support. And because making enough money to feed a family is a day to day struggle, household items are packaged to fit this struggle.

Almost everything toiletry or food related comes in individual, one-serving, single-use packets: soap, shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, lotion, hair serums, coffee, creamer, nuts, spices, even fresh garlic, or oil packets, the list goes on and on. Little sari-saris (convenience shops) have long strips of these items ready for customers to grab one or two off as they need. Bigger supermarkets have the single-use packets wrapped in plastic bags for ‘bulk’ buying; rarely does actual bulk packaging actually exist! But there is a reason for all these single-use packets: this is what people can afford. In a country where 25% of people live below the poverty line (not including the 3.1 million undocumented homeless in Manila) it has been well-ingrained in the culture to buy an item as you need it, when you have the money. Saving up to buy a bigger (long-term use) version of an item is uncommon and therefore bigger options with less-packaging are pretty much unheard of too. You make a couple of dollars for the day, you buy the necessities in single-use packages and you do it all again the next day. As long as people are struggling to make ends meet, single-use items will be all they can afford. So the root of the problem with plastic pollution in this country can be traced to another global problem: poverty.

Tackling the production of plastics in the Philippines will be both a bottoms-up and top-down campaign. It will involve an interest and desire from the general public as well as action within governmental institutions and large conglomerates in order to make a change. It won’t be easy, but there are already a handful of organizations speaking up for ocean conservation and against pollution (I will add some links soon!).

From the local government level, there is a lot of work to be done, as well. According to national ordinances, each municipality is responsible for its own Solid Waste Management plan – how trash is collected, where it goes, and the fines, rules and regulations around everything from littering to recycling. Some municipalities already have well-established plans whereas others are still working on theirs – think of municipalities as counties in America, there are a lot. Where I live, the SWM plan has been established for some years and there is regular trash pick up for the town center, but the coastal and island barangays (neighborhoods) are responsible for their own trash disposal. This gets pretty difficult when you live on a remote island or in a coastal community where transportation to the main town is rare. My municipality is just one example of a problem that is present all over the country. With no trash pick up locals burn, bury or toss their trash; neither option being ideal for the environment or people’s health.

Part of my goal as a volunteer, a conservationist, a lover of the oceans, is to try and help devise ways in which locals can create less plastic waste, reuse and recycle what there already is, and (ideally) get a bit of income off of it as well. It’s a slow process, but there are people interested in reducing their trash, people who realize that plastics aren’t good for them or the environment, and who are working to change their lifestyles just as I am working to better mine. Most importantly, there is hope and an increased desire to spread awareness. So I believe we can clean up the problem, one plastic bag at a time.

If you want a great summary on the Plastic Pollution Paradox written by another Coastal Resource Management Volunteer from my batch, Cara Simpson, click here.

For more information on the plastic problem, check out the Plastic Pollution Coalition. They are an in incredible organization helping to spread awareness on plastic pollution worldwide. The website provides free educational resources and pamphlets and guides on how to live plastic free (tailored for schools, eating out, events, and going about the town).

Plastic pollution on one of the remote islands in my municipality