Friday, August 13, 2010

Philippine plastic sachets and plastic bag pollution

My in-laws were victims of Ondoy floods last year.

Their house is Provident Village in Marikina City was buried in a thick layer of mud.  The house was virtually gutted by the strong currents and all their possessions were destroyed.

It is quite difficult to estimate the value of what they lost in terms of pesos.  How can you put a price on decades of memories and keepsakes that were destroyed?  How can you put a price on the sense of security they lost when they found themselves fearing for their lives inside the very home that was supposed to shelter them from harm?  How can you put a price on the trauma that they experienced?

In the terrible hours of Ondoy, when my wife and I knew for certain that the lives of her father, mother, sister, and household help were in danger, there were fleeting moments of lucidity in between spasms of absolute horror when we wondered about what could have caused the flooding.

La Nina and the deforestation of the mountains of Rizal came to mind along with images of esteros and sewers blocked with plastic garbage.

Perhaps it was the confluence of all these things that brought about Ondoy.

With the typhoon season now in full swing, perhaps one of the more doable things right now is to make sure that the storm drains and esteros in Marikina are free and clear.

The dredging and cleaning of storm drains and esteros only provides a temporary solution.

This becomes particularly evident hours or days after the first heavy rains fall as a fresh slew of garbage (mostly plastics) find their way again into storm drains and esteros.

Over the longer term, I think part of the solution to the perennial clogging of storm drains and esteros as well as the problem of overflowing land fills is the reduction of plastic waste.

Plastic waste such as plastic sachets, plastic pouches and plastic grocery bags.

In Ghana (as referenced to in the previous post), the government proposed a levy or tax on producers and consumers of products with plastic packaging.

Here is a short description of the problems caused by plastic packaging in Ghana:

In Ghana, per capita generation of plastic wastes stands at 0.016–0.035 kg/person/day, and plastics make up between 8–9% of the component materials in the waste stream (Fobil, 2000). Now most products are packaged in polyethylene films, which form about 70% of the plastic waste in the municipal waste stream. According to Fobil (2000), the plastic materials in commerce across the sub-region include low-density polyethylene (LDPE) commonly called polyethylene films, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and other plastics such as polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Effects of plastic littering in Ghana
The plastic wastes have virtually choked the drainage system in the urban centres of the country to such an extent that it takes only the slightest of rainfall to precipitate floods in major cities like Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi. Indeed, as captured in the Daily Graphic of March 16, 2005, “the recent rains in Accra exposed the havoc being caused by plastic waste. Just an average of one or two hours of rain in Accra on March 15, 2005 led to flooding in certain parts of the city. The same intensity and duration of rain, a decade ago, would not have resulted in flooding”. Although different factors, such as erection of buildings and structures in water courses, have contributed to the increased incidence of flooding, lately, the significant cause of flooding in cities in Ghana is linked to the tremendous deterioration in urban drainage systems, most of which is attributable to plastic wastes blocking the drainage systems.

I haven't as of yet found a formal study on how much plastic waste we generate here in Metro Manila, but I'd say that it is a lot.  Going by some rough figuring, here's something to consider....

Giant consumer goods manufacturer Unilever claims that every day, it sells 160 million products.  Assuming that the sales volume of the other manufacturing giants, Procter & Gamble and Nestle is in the vicinity of Unilever’s, that would be some 500 million products sold daily.
Let’s peg a conservative estimate that 10 percent of all products sold are in plastic sachets, then that’s 50 million.  That’s 50 million plastic sachets and pouches that will eventually find its way to our oceans, waterways, landfills and drainage systems ready to clog the free flow of water and trigger floods or kill marine wildlife.
But it is really reasonable to think that of the 500 million products sold daily by the three giants, only 10 percent of are in tiny plastic sachets?
This only means that each day, hundreds of millions of plastic sachets will find its way to dumps and waterways where it will impose its staggering environmental impact, even as the giant manufacturers laugh all the way to the bank and dilly dally on efforts to address the looming ecological disaster.
Cliche’ as it may sound, plastic sachets and pouches mostly used to package personal care products like Colgate, Safeguard, Axe, Sunsilk, Dove Creamsilk and recently, even food items such as Best Foods and Lady’s Choice spreads, and  Knorr are not biodegradable and because millions and millions of them are sold each day, the same number of empty packages add to the already mounting pile of deadly rubbish.
Those that are dumped into oceans become marine debris and are often ingested by marine species or pollute their habitat leading to a decline in their population.
Sadly, one of the manufacturers, Unilever found a way to make hollow blocks and other construction material out of sachets and other residual materials, but could not go the extra mile.
The British - Dutch firm said that while the project was successful, it could not find a way to effectively collect all discarded plastic sachets from households, while the proposal to encourage consumers to collect the same and surrender it to retailers in exchange for rebates and other rewards would be too cumbersome.
Such a shame.  Had the manufacturers been more concerned with the environment rather than just fat profits, the sachet menace would not have escalated.
A survey by Greenpeace a few years back brought to light the magnitude of the plastics problem. 
On a clean - up drive of Manila Bay a few years back, Greenpeace reported that 76 percent of all rubbish retrieved were plastic materials.  Of the number, 51 percent were plastic bags, 19 percent were plastic sachets and pouches and 6 percent were styrofoam and hard plastics.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) also came out with a report that almost  6.4 million tons of garbage are dumped into oceans each year, again with plastics making up the bulk.
In 2005, UNEP estimated that there are around 12,000 to 13,000 pieces of floating plastic debris per square kilometer in the oceans worldwide.  A year later, it reported that the volume of floating plastic debris has ballooned to 46,000 pieces per square mile or 18,000 pieces per square kilometer.
With the advent of more aggressive marketing of consumer goods in sachets, we can just imagine the current volume of plastic debris pollution our oceans and threatening one of our major sources of food and livelihood.
In the summer months, tens of thousands of Filipinos troop to beaches and coastal areas to enjoy the fresh breeze, cool down and recharge on lazy afternoons. 
Unfortunately, these people also bring with them sachets of their favorite Sunsilk, Creamsilk, Clear, Safeguard, Colgate,Cheezee and Best Foods mayonnaise and eventually leave them behind on the shores, open trash cans and will be swept away by winds to the sea where they will start wreaking havoc on marine life for years.
Reports or studies on the amount or volume of plastic sachets dumped into landfills are scarce, but the ones conducted by Greenpeace and UNEP on the growing volume of the sachets in dumps and oceans seem to jive with the environmental signs and symptoms.
Too much plastic sachets in our drainage systems and waterways will trigger killer floods and result in dwindling harvest of marine resources worldwide.  We already had Ondoy last year.  Pakistan India, China and pretty much the rest of the world reel from flash floods every now and then.
The catch of commercial and municipal fishermen have been steadily declining over the past decades, too. 
There is no exact headcount for all the plastic sachets disposed into our environment, but we know they’re there.  And the global signs and symptoms confirm it. 
A concerted and sustained effort by consumers, and especially manufacturers in efforts to reduce waste and recycle plastic sachets is the only way the world can dodge the an ecological disaster ironically induced by a product packaging innovation its proponents described as a life-improving innovation.   

1 comment:

Guest said...

 Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

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