Southeast AsiaEnvironment

Western-made plastic trash is killing Asia’s oceans

Multinational consumer goods giants like Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble are under rising fire for their ocean-polluting one-use throw-away packaging

Manila, August 12, 2018 12:53 PM (UTC+8)
Plastic waste on the edge of a beach on the Freedom island critical habitat and ecotourism area near Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Manila Bay is choking with plastic rubbish, a sordid legacy of the disposable packaging major Western multinational corporations use to wrap their widely used consumer products.

But as the waste piles up and takes a rising environmental toll, local groups are fighting back with demands that the companies pay for their polluting ways.

At Freedom Island, the last remaining mangrove forest and salt marsh spanning 30 hectares in Metro Manila, plastic sachets and other plastic garbage tossed away by this metropolis of over 12 million people have transformed its shores into a virtual trash dump.

Residents from slums living along the capital’s riverbanks and other waterways have been blamed for randomly tossing the rubbish that ends up in the ocean and is then swept back to Manila’s seashore by tidal currents.

“It is impossible to dig up all the plastics that piled up in the bay for a year,” said Sonny Malubag, an officer of the Unified Marketing and Services Cooperatives at Paranaque Fishermen’s Wharf.

“Because of the plastic pollution, the fish near our shorelines are going farther and deeper into the ocean, into cleaner waters,” he added, speaking about the impact on local livelihoods.

Last year, the Break Free from Plastic Movement, an umbrella environmental group composed of the Mother Earth Foundation, Ecowaste Coalition, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Health Care Without Harm, conducted a week-long waste audit at Freedom Island. Greenpeace Philippines also contributed.

Their research found that single-use plastic products manufactured by multinational firms Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, among other local and regional companies, were the biggest contributors to Manila Bay’s mounting garbage problem.

Children walk on a garbage-filled bay in Manila, in May 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

According to the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental advocacy group based in Washington, the Philippines is the third worst plastic polluter of oceans in the world, trailing only China and Indonesia. Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia were also included on its list of the world’s worst plastic polluters.

Asia accounts for around 80% of all ocean plastic pollution worldwide, according to various groups’ estimates. Due to their lengthy coastlines and high plastic usage, Southeast Asian nations are among the primary sources of marine plastics globally.

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that the cost of plastic waste to the region’s tourism, fishing and shipping industries was US$1.2 billion last year.

Greenpeace, meanwhile, believes that the Philippines mismanages around two million tons of plastic waste annually. Consumer products in single-use plastic sachets dominate Philippine markets due to huge demand, mostly from the middle and poorer segments of society, that multinational companies profitably supply.

At a recent plastic pollution forum organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, Angelica Carballo-Pago, the media manager for Greenpeace Southeast Asia in the Philippines, said corporations that manufacture sachet products are the “missing pieces” in the global fight against plastic pollution.

“They must be held responsible for coming up with plastic products that pollute the environment,” she said. “Filipino consumers don’t have other choices because what’s available in our market, in as far as sachets are concerned, are those wrapped only in non-reusable and non-recyclable plastics.”

A Philippine sari-sari store selling one-use throw-away packaged goods made by major multinational corporations. Photo: Flickr

While the large multinational companies that manufacture plastic products have pledged to find solutions to curb their pollution, it is “mere lip-service” that will not change the situation for at least another decade, claims Sherma Benosa, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ communications officer for the Asia-Pacific.

Improved waste collection and curbing consumption of single-use plastic consumer products “are not the ultimate solutions,” she says.

“The most important interventions should be upstream, not at the end-of-pipe, when all the growing amounts of plastic have already been produced. But, unfortunately, this message is being drowned out by louder calls for countries to improve waste management and for people to stop using straws and plastic bags,” she said.

So plastic pollution will only get worse unless multinational companies reduce their use of plastic packaging, environmentalists said. Because of the enormity of plastic pollution and its rising impact on oceans, the movement to reduce single-use plastics is now going global.

In January 2018, the European Commission (EC) announced a Europe-wide strategy to reduce plastic pollution and ensure that all plastic in Europe is recyclable by 2030. Data from the EC showed that Europeans generate 25 million tons of plastic waste annually, but less than 30% of that volume is collected for recycling.

Tourists walk among trash washed up on Bali’s Kuta beach pushed to shore by seasonal winds. Photo: Reuters/Wira Suryantala/Antara Foto

Worldwide, plastics make up 85% of beach litter. And plastics are “even reaching citizens’ lungs and dinner tables, with micro-plastics in air, water and food having an unknown impact on their health,” the EC said.

In June, a group of 25 investors handling global assets worth more than US$1 trillion urged multinational consumer goods companies, namely Nestle, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, to reduce their use of plastic packaging.

Organized by “As You Sow”, a non-profit advocacy group based in the United States, the initiative dubbed “Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance” includes major investors Hermes Investment Management, Impax Asset Management, NEI Investments, Walden Asset Management and Aviva Investors.

The group noted that plastic production has grown exponentially for many years without sufficient regard to its environmental impacts. It projects global plastic production will triple by 2050.

The group urged the multinational companies to disclose their annual plastic packaging use and transition to using recyclable, reusable or compostable plastic packaging materials.

“Some 25% of plastic is made into packaging, making it the largest single use category, and one where much negative impact has occurred,” the investor group recently said.

Reputational damage: Greenpeace activists campaign against multinational companies’ plastic pollution in the Philippines, 2018. Photo: Greenpeace

“These materials can persist in the environment, partially degraded, for hundreds of years, which, as well as causing damage to marine life, could also have a material impact by exposing companies to reputational damage.”

Some scientists have predicted that oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050 without a radical course shift. Nearly 700 marine species are believed to have already been affected by marine trash, mostly plastics.

Plastic, when exposed in seawater for a long time, can become toxic, experts said. “Toxins can become concentrated in degrading plastic in water, and may be transmitted to marine food webs. With more than one billion people depending on protein from the ocean, the potential human health implications are concerning,” the investor group said.

Whether this rising outcry manifests to potentially punitive global legal action against major multinational consumer goods companies is yet to be seen. But the call for corporate accountability and change is audibly rising in the Philippines.

Malubag, a Filipino fisherman, says that the production of single-use plastic should be minimized, if not eradicated altogether, to help restore the health of Manila Bay and oceans in other parts of the world. “[All] our livelihoods are affected by plastic pollution in the ocean.”

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