Wed, Sep 04, 2019 - Page 6 News List

How poverty worsens Philippine plastics crisis

SLAVE TO SACHETS:Single-use sachets of shampoo, detergent and coffee give poor households access to daily household essentials as they cannot afford bigger quantities

Reuters, MANILA

A vendor accepts payment for sachet products in a public market in Manila, Philippines, on Aug. 1.

Photo: Reuters

Armed with gloves, rubber boots and a rake, “Mangrove Warrior” Willer Gualva, 68, comes to Freedom Island in the Philippines almost every day to stop it being engulfed by trash.

No one lives on the island, yet each morning its shores are covered in garbage, much of it single-use sachets of shampoo, toothpaste, detergent and coffee that are carried out to sea by the rivers of overcrowded Manila.

“We collect mostly plastics here and the number one type are sachets,” said Gualva, one of 17 people employed by the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources to help preserve the island and its forest.

The department calls them “Mangrove Warriors” and pays them slightly above US$8 per day.

Five days of coastal cleanup on the Manila Bay island last month yielded a total of 16,000kg of trash, department data showed, the bulk of it plastics, including the sachets made of aluminum and blends of plastics.

These packets give some of the poorest people in Asia access to everyday household essentials. For the multinationals that manufacture them, it is a way to increase sales by targeting customers who cannot afford bigger quantities.

Such sachets are sold in most developing countries, but the number consumed in the Philippines is staggering — 163 million pieces a day, according to a recent study by environmental group The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

That is almost 60 billion sachets a year, or enough to cover 130,000 soccer fields.

In Manila’s slum areas, which are inaccessible to garbage trucks, sachets and other waste are thrown in estuaries or dumped on the street, and end up clogging drains and waterways.

“Money is hard to come by, so I only buy sachets,” said Lisa Jorillo, 42, a mother of four who lives in a slum in Manila’s Tondo area, behind a beach blanketed by trash.

“It’s likely the garbage will still be there when my son grows up,” Jorillo said, referring to her four-year-old.

The Philippines’ law on solid waste is poorly enforced and the country does not regulate packaging manufacturing.

The country is ranked third in the world for failing to deal with its plastics, according to a 2015 study by the University of Georgia, which said 81 percent of plastics waste in the nation was mismanaged.

About 14 million people live in Metro Manila, one of Asia’s teeming mega-cities. Overall, the Philippines has a population of 107 million people, and one-fifth of them live below the national poverty line, described by the statistics agency as monthly consumption of less than US$241 per person.

Jorillo’s family earns about 2,500 pesos (US$48) a week from the construction work that her husband does, and she and her family buy about 80 sachets of coffee, toothpaste and shampoo each month.

In sea-facing Manila, much of the trash ends up in the sea.

The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and China account for 60 percent of the world’s marine plastic, or 8 million tonnes annually, the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy said.

Environmentalists say the main culprits are not governments or consumers, but the multinationals that churn out plastic packaging.

“They have money to do research that will remove the problematic packaging,” said Sonia Mendoza, head of the Mother Earth Foundation, which promotes waste reduction.

She said refilling stations could be one way to reduce the use of single-use sachets.

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