The problem with plastics | The Manila Times

I WAS in college in the 1960s when I saw the critically acclaimed movie “The Graduate.” Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) was constantly asked what he wanted to do with his life. A businessman, Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke), told him to remember one word: “plastics.”

Since then, plastic use in a dizzying array of products has become a fact of life. I cannot remember the last time I bought something without it being wrapped in the material, often with the brash colors of its brand proudly printed in neat fonts. Shampoo. Toothpaste. Detergent. Chips. Biscuits. Chocolates. Mineral water. Soft drinks. Everything is in neat lightweight containers. Sari-sari stores and groceries seem like they were built with a kaleidoscope of plastic walls.

Even the food I buy in carinderias, or from little carts here and there, would be handed to me inside a plastic container — whether or not I asked for one. The same goes for take-outs from fast food outlets and restaurants.

Easy to handle, these plastics are. Easy to dispose of, too.

Ideally, these cheap plastics are as effortless to recycle as they are advertised by large companies who often tout their “corporate social responsibility” to the world by including “recycle me” in their packaging. This effectively tells the public that they are using recyclable materials, environment-friendly, they say, reassuring those conscious of their consumption that they are buying the right choice and doing Mother Earth some good.

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But alas, we do not live in a perfect world. Not all plastics can be recycled or repurposed.

And now, plastics have become one of the most serious environmental threats. Unfortunately, as much as we want to take pride in everything Pinoy under the global spotlight, it is a shame to be notorious for being the third-largest contributor to plastic waste worldwide, which amounts to an estimated 2.7 million metric tons of plastic annually. Twenty percent of it, or 521,000 tons, end up in the oceans. Tell me you also almost instantly thought of poor pawikans tangled in takeout cupholders and choking on plastic straws.

Because of these plastic products, as well as their improper disposal, our environment is being made to suffer. It is especially felt by our country folks in the coastal areas making a living by fishing. These big corporations are raking in millions in profits while leaving behind a toxic trail of pollutants that disrupt our biodiversity. If our environment suffers, we do, too. And most of the time, the low-income population feels the brunt of it.

Like what we say in Filipino, “Ang basurang itinapon mo, babalik sa’yo.” Remember the floods of filth regularly thrown back at us after heavy downpours? Now think of marine animals living among the floating debris of your regular conditioner and instant noodle packets. Fisherfolk are taking less and less catch because of this, too. And we have yet to dive deep into the issue of microplastics seeping into our food.

I wanted to do something about this problem. A nongovernment organization I belong to, the Community Legal Help and Public Interest Centre Inc. has taken legal steps that would hopefully make a difference.

Similar to the story of David and Goliath, 32 Filipino consumers are currently waging war against seven gigantic corporations — Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, Nestlé, Unilever, Procter and Gamble, Colgate Palmolive, and Universal Robina Corp. (URC) under the watchful eye of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The complaint was filed last Nov. 15, 2022.

We are holding these companies accountable for violating our consumer rights to safety, a healthy environment, and information upon finding out that these products have dangerous packaging and are unrecyclable — even as they have the printed words “recycle me,” “recycle,” “recycle ready” “recyclable” and other recycling marks or symbols on their plastic packages.

With the exception of URC, these corporations are unfortunately known to be global plastic polluters, as their product brands have been found in collected and audited wastes in the Philippines and the world since 2018.

Instead of making products more affordable to the poor, they exploit the “tingi” culture and package their goods in single-use sachets, costing the consumer a few pesos for their daily needs. With the insufficient solid waste management infrastructure trying to keep up with the unsustainable production and consumption of plastics, the manufacturers should instead step up and take responsibility and not pass the buck to consumers.

If the problem with plastic continues to go unchecked, it will end up in dumpsites, landfills, streets, and various bodies of water, or burned up, causing health, safety, livelihood, and environmental problems to people. This is why every citizen should be concerned and do something as the next generation’s future is at stake.

Dr. Jorge Emmanuel of Silliman University, a scientist specializing in environment, renewable energy, public health, and climate change, said that “recycling of plastics should be viewed in the context of the life cycle of plastics, a transition towards a circular economy model, the global climate crisis, and protection of public health and safety.” Just because the material is cheap, durable, and accessible does not mean its negative impact should be disregarded.

Plastics take forever to decompose completely, so while multimillion corporate empires are being built on it, the 9 billion tons of plastic that have been produced globally since the 1950s are still somewhere on this planet — in our land, in our waters, and in the air we breathe.

They may already be in our very bodies — we are just not aware of it.


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