Impact of COVID-19 on Plastic Waste Management in the Philippines

By Jazmin Jabines, UN SDSN Youth Philippines Volunteer | Published on December 16, 2020 2:28:45 PM

The vast majority of Filipinos live in a seemingly permanent alliance with plastic waste. Walk along the streets of Metro Manila and notice the canals brimming with plastic debris. Observe how almost every sari-sari store owner drapes their multi-colored sachets of brands known all too well at the front of their store. Rip open the plastic packaging of whatever it is you decided to buy from e-commerce, then dispose of the waste without a second thought into your nearby bin.

Plastic Waste Crisis and Extended Producer Responsibility
As Plastics Exposed writes, “single-use disposable plastic is the greatest obstacle to sound waste and resource management”. Just because something is out of a person’s sight does not mean that the person is absolved of any responsibility in what happens to the plastic after it is disposed of. The end-of-life of products with plastic packaging, which is plastic’s largest application at 26% of the total volume, is an all-too-neglected aspect of their value chain. Globally, 40% of plastic packaging is landfilled, and 32% leaks out of the collection system. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there is an estimated 150 million tons of plastic in the ocean today and that number grows by approximately 8 million tons a year -- the equivalent to a garbage truck unloading every minute.

By 2050, about 850 to 950 million tonnes of plastic will be in the oceans by 2050. The growth of plastic flows in the ocean is projected to increase because global plastics consumption has historically outpaced GDP growth, and a significant portion of the growth in plastic consumption is expected to grow in high-leakage and high-growth countries, such as those in South-East Asia. Hence, 80% of mismanaged plastic waste in the ocean comes from Asia, with the Philippines being the third largest contributor to ocean plastic waste, behind Indonesia and China. The Philippines is followed by Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Companies too should take a proactive approach when dealing with post-consumer plastic waste. According to the The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) “is a policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products”. Following the principle of EPR, companies should implement and encourage systems that allow proper waste management. For instance, companies should invest in research and development that incorporates the principles of the circular economy into their product packaging such that waste is designed out of the product. The principle of EPR also means that companies have a responsibility to support public systems for the proper management of their post-consumer products.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Plastic Waste Management
Circulate Capital, an “investment management firm dedicated to financing innovation, companies, and infrastructure that prevent the flow of plastic waste into the world's ocean while advancing the circular economy”, commissioned a report entitled Safeguarding the Plastic Recycling Value Chain: Insights from COVID-19 impact in South and Southeast Asia to assess how the global pandemic affected the capacity of recycling value chains to collect, clean, and process plastic waste. The study decided to focus on five countries - Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and India. These countries are among the top 15 countries responsible for plastic waste leakage into the oceans.

According to the report, the six major impacts of COVID-19 on plastic recycling value chains are:

Firstly, many recycling companies have either closed or reduced their operations, because of government-imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus, and/or lack of essential service status. A significant proportion of recycling companies that continued to operate did so at a loss.

Secondly, the sales prices for recycled plastics have decreased, because of low crude oil prices which make virgin resin plastics more price-competitive compared to recycled plastics.

Thirdly, there has been a lack of demand for recycled plastics, not only because of the reduction in the sales price of virgin resin plastics but also because COVID-19 lockdowns have reduced consumption of products that make use of plastics. Other impediments to recycling companies include the fear of catching COVID-19, which has halted or reduced the collection of plastic waste, as many workers in the value chain refuse to handle the plastic waste.

Fourthly, the most vulnerable have been affected, especially those in the informal sector who perform an invaluable role in the value chain as they perform the day-to-day operations of collecting recyclable plastic waste. In all the 5 countries of focus, the informal sector from the backbone for recyclable collections. In the Philippines, these are the mambobote at mambabakal. Unfortunately, because of the reduced demand and price for their recycled plastic, many plastic collectors in the informal sector have been forced to search for alternative livelihoods, or are unable to work at all because of the lockdowns. Moreover, these workers often lack personal protective equipment (PPE), placing them at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Fifthly, recycling companies lack confidence in a swift recovery, as they are aware that even after the global pandemic, its economic impact will continue to be felt, particularly low crude oil prices, which they project will persist until the foreseeable future.

Lastly, the value chain struggles to continue operating as they suffer from poor financial health. Recycling companies expect bankruptcies and further closures. One recycler in the Philippines said:
“We have depleted 100% of our savings and we were forced to apply for a bank loan. Our employees received government assistance, but businesses didn’t receive any assistance. Because of our bank loan and low sales, we are losing money at the moment. If demand doesn’t pick up or if there is another lockdown, we will go bankrupt.”

Without a doubt, the pandemic has seriously set back the global movement to tackle plastic waste. As a result of the impacts to the plastic recycling value chain, more plastic waste is leaking into the oceans and landfills.

To address the impacts, the report recommends a 3-phase approach (immediate, 2021, and beyond one year). These approaches involve providing financial and logistical assistance to recycling operators, support capacity building programs and educational programs to formal and informal sector workers in the recycling value chain, and mandating household segregation respectively.

Why Filipinos Should Care About Plastic Waste Management
Filipinos should acknowledge the devastating impacts that improper plastic waste management wreaks on the environment. As Annie Leonard, the Executive Director of Greenpeace US, said: “there is no such as ‘away’. When we throw something away, it must go somewhere”. In the Philippines, these “somewheres” are landfills and our precious oceans where plastic waste accumulates, causing ecological harm to the most vulnerable. As you receive your delivery from Shopee, Lazada, or any e-commerce store, think about where your plastic packaging ends up. Wonder where its next destination will be, and how you become responsible for its impact to the environment.

Sources:
Circulate Capital (2020). Safeguarding the Plastic Recycling Value Chain: Insights from COVID-19 impact in South and Southeast Asia. Retrieved from http://pemsea.org/sites/default/files/Safeguarding%20the%20Plastic%20Recycling%20Value%20Chain.pdf./

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2016, January 19). The new Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics./

GAIA. (2019, March 7). Plastics Exposed: How Waste Assessments and Brand Audits are Helping Philippine Cities Fight Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from http://www.no-burn.org/plastics-exposed/

Jambeck, JR., et al. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. 347(6223), 768-771. DOI: 10.1126/science.1260352.

OECD. (n.d.) Extended producer responsibility. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/env/tools-evaluation/extendedproducerresponsibility.htm/

Pennigton, J. (2016, October 27). Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans. This has to stop. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/every-minute-one-garbage-truck-of-plastic-is-dumped-into-our-oceans/

Data Churner:
Sabrina Carlos
Program Intern, UN SDSN Youth Philippines

Graphic Designer:
Alleya Era
Volunteer, UN SDSN Youth Philippines