The Holy Week came and went, souls repented and were forgiven. But from Baguio to Cagayan de Oro, streets and waterways were littered with all sorts of plastic waste in the wake of the long weekend. And it’s not just an eyesore. The excessive dependence on plastic in the Philippines and the irresponsible disposal of it have far more severe repercussions than we realise.
Within its thousand-year life span, a plastic item can spoil natural habitats, injure animals, pollute bodies of water, and join a floating garbage pile in the ocean. But we should already know all of these from grade-school science lessons and National Geographic campaigns we’ve been seeing for decades.
Perhaps the reason we remain indifferent is that we don’t see how plastic products harm us humans directly. But now, scientists have seen how. Various recent studies discovered that microscopic particles of plastic are in our air, drinking water, and food. These particles make their way into our body and potentially cause insidious illnesses like cancer.
We are enveloped in plastic. Our food is wrapped in it, our homes are filled with items made of it, even our clothes are woven with it. While these all seem inevitable in our current way of life, what’s truly horrifying is that our mindless use and disposal of plastic products rapidly bury us in an everlasting plastic garbage pile.
There are now 80,000 tonnes of plastic floating beside our archipelago in the Pacific – that’s about 80 million kilograms. And the Philippines is one of the only five countries that contribute to much of this waste.
If there is one “sin” we can – and should – immediately give up, it’s our negligence when it comes to plastics.
The emphasis of environmental advocates today is minimising our reliance on single-use items, or items that are meant to be used just once and then disposed. Examples of these are disposable utensils, single-serve plastic cups, plastic wrappers, disposable toiletries, and garbage bags. Handfuls of people have been consciously refusing to use such items for years, but the movement has really taken off lately, likely due to the alarming and palpable increase of nonbiodegradable pollution.
But the efforts of individual citizens would be futile if greater institutions – particularly businesses and the government – are unwilling to help.
On a global scale, businesses are starting to join the movement to curb the amount of plastic thrown away. Restaurants such as the McDonald’s chain in the United Kingdom recently decided to phase out plastic straws. Of course, it’s possible to see such moves as mere PR manoeuvres, but at the rate the plastic problem is growing, we’ll take whatever mitigating actions we can find.
Leading all these should be government bodies. There need to be updated environmental regulations that are science-based, concrete, and aimed for long-term sustainability.
A few years ago, my city imposed a special tax for using plastic shopping bags, yet consumers didn’t even blink at the slight addition to their receipts. The tax didn’t exactly work as an incentive against plastic; if anything, it made it feel like we could just pay off our plastic indulgence at a peso apiece.
It’s hard not to compare that law to those that are actually making a difference, particularly the ban on certain plastics in countries such as France, Italy, Kenya and Rwanda. We don’t even need to look far: One of the most internationally hailed governmental actions against plastic waste is fully enforced in San Fernando, Pampanga. The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act is known nationwide, but San Fernando is deemed the best implementer of this law. And as of 2017, the city has been recycling or composting a whopping 78 per cent of its garbage.
These examples show that it is possible for governments – regardless of incomes and inclinations – to bare teeth on the plastic issue and see results.
The plastic problem has quietly grown under our noses into a colossally harmful situation. A number of organisations, such as the Dutch-led The Ocean Cleanup, are deploying solutions to reduce the size of the Greater Pacific Garbage Patch.
These efforts are coming from as far as the other side of the world, while we on these Pacific islands continue to be oblivious to what we are dumping in our own backyard.
Perhaps now that the pile is looming and our very lives are threatened, we’ll finally think twice about our irresponsible addiction to plastic.