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Are PH consumer goods companies doing enough to tackle plastic waste?

Mar 17, 2023Mar 17, 2023

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Smol, the 50-something owner of "Smol Mart" in Barangay Little Baguio in San Juan in the country's capital, has kept his sari-sari store open despite prolonged lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Restaurantworkers and residents of the neighborhood have kept his business afloat, as hisusual patrons, children from the nearby school, have been forced to stay homeand attend online classes.

Onewould think the lockdowns have led to reduced consumption and therefore lesswaste. But Smol's trash bin is always filled with used sachets of 3-in-1instant coffee from Nescafé, Kopiko, Great Taste, and San Miguel, replacingempty bags of children's snacks.

Evenin online shopping, which saw an exponential rise amid the pandemic,fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) continue to experience high demand.

MetroMart,a grocery delivery service launched in 2017, saw its customer base grow 10times during the pandemic. The company operating the app has since expanded itsservices to more areas and now delivers to all cities in Metro Manila, parts ofCalabarzon, and Cebu City.

Operationsdirector Evreem Al-Shatti Fortich said MetroMart clients shopped at least twicea week through the app. "[The cost] of the basket size [of our clients] rangefrom P4,500 to P5,000," Fortich said.

InAugust, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said solidwaste collected in Metro Manila alone increased during the pandemic. This wasalso partly due to the increase in online shopping shipments.

"In2019, we had about 9,333 tons per day [of] solid waste collected here in theNCR (National Capital Region). But now, in 2021… the collection is about 11,953tons per day," Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda said in a newsconference.

Environmentaladvocates are calling for drastic measures as the plastic waste problem is onlybound to worsen. In every part of its lifecycle, plastics contribute togreenhouse gas emissions, from the extraction of fossil fuels for itsproduction to when it leaks into oceans and releases methane when it breaksdown, according to a 2019 report of the Center for International EnvironmentalLaw.

It was already a crisis even prior to the pandemic.

In2015, the Philippines was named one of the top producers of marine waste in thereport titled "Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean." The report,written by a group of academics and published in the journal Science, has beencited more than 6,300 times. It estimated that the Philippines had leaked 0.75million metric tons of plastic into the ocean in 2010 alone. Two years later, anongovernment organization called Break Free From Plastic* (BFFP) launched aglobal campaign aiming to identify the brands producing plastic wastes in 42countries.

The following were identified as the top plastic-polluting corporations in the country from 2018 to 2020: Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines Inc., Colgate-Palmolive Philippines Inc., PT. Mayora Indah Tbk – Kopiko Philippines, Monde Nissin Corp., Mondelez Philippines Inc., Nestlé Philippines Inc., Liwayway Holding Corp., Procter & Gamble Philippines Inc., Unilever Philippines Inc., Universal Robina Corp., JBC Food Corp., Republic Biscuit Corp., WL Foods Inc., San Miguel Corp., and Philippine Spring Water Resources Inc.

These companies, which have figured in the top 10 list of brand and waste audits conducted in the Philippines, have mostly adopted waste retrieval and co-processing to reduce plastic waste.

An investigation by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has found, however, that these "solutions" are temporary and among the least preferred solutions by experts.

Sofar, 12 out of the 15 FMCG companies named in the BFFP brand audit havecommitted to a recycling program.

Mostcompanies have focused on waste retrieval efforts, wherein a third-partypartner collects as much of the plastics they had produced for a specificperiod. The plastic wastes retrieved would then be recycled to other uses, suchas construction materials. They may also be sent to cement companies, whichfeed them into their kilns as alternative fuel.

Elevenof the companies are members of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling andMaterials Sustainability (PARMS). The alliance adopted a waste retrieval systemthat aims to collect at least 20% of the plastic produced by its members by2023.

"Weaim to achieve zero waste to nature, where none of our products would end up inthe environment… We will do this through a waste retrieval system thatcomplements the existing waste management programs of local government units,"said PARMS chairman Crispian Lao. He is also the private sector'srepresentative for recycling at the National Solid Waste Management Commission.

Thisyear, the group released a 64-page report detailing its members’ plasticgeneration capacities and how they intend to reduce waste and prevent them fromleaking into the environment. The report was shared with PCIJ by arepresentative of Monde Nissin, a PARMS member, after PCIJ asked about thecompany's recycling initiatives.

Thereport estimated that the Philippine FMCG industry yielded 603,000 metric tons(MT) of plastic in 2019, about 150,000 MT shy of the volume estimated to haveleaked into the oceans in 2010.

Thenumber was derived from the data provided voluntarily by PARMS members andsales estimates from consumer behavior consulting firm Nielsen IQ. The estimatetook into account 47 product categories that can be broadly classified intothree: rigid plastics, and high-diversion value (HDV) and low diversion value(LDV) flexible plastics.

Typicaluses of rigid plastics include cosmetic and soap bottles and PET beveragebottles. Flexible plastics are mostly used in sachet form.

Beforethe pandemic struck, PARMS had started collecting plastic wastes in Parañaque,where it has seven partner schools. Each school segregated plastic wastes atthe source, making it easier to collect them for processing by recyclingcompanies.

"Wedesigned the project in a way that each school can benefit as they can receivea recycled chair for 30 kilos of plastic for example," Lao said. "Although somepreferred other products, like washing stations."

Theentire project draws from the concept of "plastic neutrality," which has grownin acceptance as manufacturers find ways to achieve sustainability in theiroperations. Lao said his team introduced the concept in talks withstakeholders.

Ina position paper published in January 2021, the World Wide Fund for Nature(WWF) defined plastic neutrality as the"ability to completely offset a plastic footprint (whether an individual,company, organization, etc.) by directly investing in projects that collect orrecycle plastic, or more indirectly by purchasing credits from a third-partyorganization that is tied to projects which collect from nature and/or driveadditional recycling."

Wastesretrieved by PARMS members are turned over to Green Antz Builders Inc., whichprocesses plastic waste laminates by shredding, cleaning, and drying thembefore mixing them with sand, cement, gravel, water, and an additive to produceconstruction materials like eco-bricks and pavers.

Thecompany was founded by a former Nestlé Philippines employee, Rommel Benig, in2013. In an interview with BusinessWorld, Benig said his connection with thecompany allowed him to "create demand" for Green Antz. Some facilities ofNestlé Philippines are now partly made of eco-bricks.

Thatpartnership has allowed Green Antz to ink deals with more FMCG companies.Colgate-Palmolive Philippines Inc., for example, has partnered with the companyfor its Closed Loop Plastic Waste Management Program with five local governmentunits (LGUs) in the province of Bulacan in 2021. The LGUs collect plasticwastes from their respective constituents, which will be retrieved by GreenAntz. The wastes will then be used to build handwashing stations for schools.

Anotherpartner, Plastic Credit Exchange (PCEX), is a third-party organization thatawards plastic credits to companies that want to achieve plastic neutrality. Onits website, PCEX says a portion of plastic wastes it collects for companieslike Nestlé Philippines and NutriAsia Inc. are fed to the kilns of cementmanufacturers like CEMEX Philippines.

Thecement kiln is the heart of the production process of concrete, as it heatslimestone into powder. This process needs extreme heat, reaching between 1,400to 1,500 degrees Celsius. To reach this temperature, cement manufacturers usefuel, usually diesel, to power the kilns.

Thisis where the plastic wastes from partner companies come into the picture.Alternative fuels such as plastic wastes have been used since the turn of thecentury to power these kilns.

Plastic wastes are sorted and cleaned up to be burned either on their own or in combination with other wastes like rubber tires to serve as energy sources for cement kilns. This process is called co-incineration, or what some refer to as "co-processing." Big cement companies like Republic Cement and Holcim Philippines use this process.

Environmentalistshowever doubt the sustainability of the waste retrieval and treatment effortsof FMCG companies, pointing out that plastic waste retrieval rates remainedlow.

A2021 World Bank report found that only 28% of the four key plastic materials inthe Philippines, PET4, PP, HDPE and LLDPE/LDPE, were recycled in 2019. PET4plastics, the key material used in bottled water drinks, were found to have thehighest retrieval rate of 48%.

"We’veonly recycled a small fraction of what we have produced. The collection ratedepends on the material… If there's value in the materials then there's abigger chance they can be recycled.

Butunfortunately, the recycling infrastructure in the Philippines is not thatmature [so most items don't get recycled]," said Miko Aliño, programcoordinator of the Asia Pacific office of the Global Alliance for IncineratorAlternatives (GAIA).

Ininterviews with PCIJ, representatives of two companies that collect plasticwaste, Plastic Flamingo and Trash Panda, admitted that their waste retrievalrates remained low and slow.

Thecollection of wastes is only guaranteed in regions with a high rate of urbanization,according to environmental campaigners.

Only13,612 out of 42,000 barangay (villages) in the Philippines have materialsrecovery facilities or MRFs as of 2018.

"Rightnow, these waste collectors and the current efforts of corporations are beneficialin dealing with the problem. But as the global population increases, naturallymore and more people would mean more and more waste," Gregorio Rafael Bueta, anenvironmental lawyer, said. "It doesn't seem like a sustainable solution."

Buetasaid transparency was needed to make private companies’ recycling effortscredible to consumers. "If we are to solve this plastic waste crisis, open,transparent data is very crucial. This can give the general public a goodenough, accurate picture of the plastic production of the companies [by whichwe can hold them accountable]," he said.

Laowas unable to share how much waste PARMS has collected so far, but maintainedthat wastes sent to partner recycling centers were processed into otherproducts like furniture and construction materials.

Inthe 2021 report by PARMS, the group also admitted that waste retrieval of LDVflexible plastics, usually in sachet form, was low, as recyclers tended toreject them due to their low quality.

Some companies like Nestlé Philippines have voluntarily pledged plastic neutrality. The company said it collected 27,000 metric tons of plastic waste from August 2020 to July 2021, the same amount of plastic it produced during the same period.

TheWWF is against the use of terms "plastic neutrality" and "plastic neutral."Efforts to retrieve residual wastes must be treated as "additional" measures incurbing the plastic problem and not the sole solution, it said. Plasticcrediting systems, it warned, were being used to continue producing plasticsand there is no standard in their accounting practices.

"Bysimply purchasing plastic credits, companies could make claims such as ‘plasticneutral’ while still polluting from their own supply chain and operating underbusiness-as-usual conditions," the organization said in its January 2021position paper.

Forexample, companies can earn plastic credits by collecting plastic bottles, butcontinue to produce sachet products.

Forits part, Nestlé said "plastic neutrality" was an "intermediate solution,"adding that it was taking a "holistic approach to address the urgent andcomplex issue of plastic waste."

"Weare taking a holistic approach in tackling plastic waste—from our use ofpackaging, collection and diversion of waste, to consumer education," said AnneMichelle Pador, vice president for corporate communications of NestléPhilippines.

Anotherissue raised by the WWF is the lack of transparency in how wastes were processed.

Someplastics retrieved by PCEX end up burned as part of cement companies’co-processing activities, a practice frowned upon by experts.

In2018, British think tank Chatham House reported that cement production was thethird largest source of global carbon dioxide emissions in the world at 8%,following the agricultural industry at 12%.

Whilethe practice is allowed by law in the Philippines, regulation is lax and someexperts find the practice unsustainable.

"Whenyour recycling method is achieved by burning, you release carbon dioxide. So,for a cement company, if you are using plastics, for me, you are only reducingfuel costs, since you are no longer solely relying on coal [to operate thecement kiln for clinker production]," said Christian Orozco, a professor at theUniversity of the Philippines College of Civil Engineering.

UnderDENR Administrative Order No. 2010-06, companies operating cement kilns mustkeep records of their operations, which may be checked by authorities whenneeded. These records are not shared with the public.

"Fornow, it (co-processing) may be a token scheme… but it can't accommodateeverything [that we need for proper management of plastics]," Aliño said."Burning plastics also have impacts on human health and the environment."

Unileverand Nestlé, which had signedpartnerships with cement companies, also admitted that co-processing was an"interim" and "intermediate" solution.

"Ourpartnerships with Cemex and Republic Cement for co-processing plastic wasteprovides a safe interim solution until a circular recycling alternative becomesavailable in the future," Ed Sunico, Unilever vice president for communicationfor Southeast Asia, said in an email to PCIJ.

Orozco,who had studied cement production in the country, said the environmentalbenefits of co-processing had yet to be extensively researched. Still, hecontended that the operation of kilns in cement production was one of thebiggest contributors to the carbon emissions of cement companies, reaching ashigh as 80%.

Inthe hierarchy of solid waste management strategies under the Basel Conventionon the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, an internationaltreaty, treating wastes for energy recovery is the second to the last favorableoption, next only to total disposal. Prevention and minimization of wastes arethe top two options.

This hierarchy of waste management options was adopted by the Philippines's Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act passed in 2001.

Aliñoand Bueta said that instead of plastic neutrality, companies should adopt the"circular economy concept," defined by the UK-based Ellen Macarthur Foundationas based on the principles of "designing out waste and pollution, keepingproducts and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems."

Underthis scheme, what is produced must be returned to the producer so the item maybe reused again. It mimics the process of the natural world where living thingsend up as another key material in the creation of new living things once theyreach the end of their lives.

Theexisting production system follows a linear approach, where products are madethen disposed of. When items are recycled, they are only downgraded to otheruses, but still end up as waste.

"Wekeep downcycling the plastics but the end product still ends up in landfills.We just degrade the quality of the plastic. That is not sustainable since we’restill going to bulk up waste," Aliño said.

Orozcosaid there were also no extensive studies on the durability and longevity ofplastics processed into or added as a material in the production ofconstruction materials.

"Weneed to ask: When the infrastructure made out of these materials reaches theirend of life, are we going to melt them again to be used for other uses? How dowe dispose of them?" he said.

GAIA'sAliño mentioned Coca-Cola as an example of a company pursuing a circularproduction.

Thebeverage giant is set to launch the Philippines's first food-gradebottle-to-bottle recycling facility by 2022. This means retrieved plastics,like used PET beverage bottles, will be processed into PET bottles again. Thecompany has also committed to make 100% of its packaging recyclable by 2025.

However, Aliño said he would have preferred Coca-Cola to go back to using glass bottles as its primary distribution system, and reintroduce its deposit-return system. "Things started to go downhill when Coca-Cola switched to PET bottles. The recycling facility can help process used PETs, but would still need virgin plastic materials to produce rPET (recycled PET). Moreover, PET bottles have some value in scrap markets that encourage recovery, it's not the case in rural or island settings where recovery is more expensive because of transportation costs and low volume of recyclable plastics," he said.

While experts commend corporations’ proactive approach to curbing the waste problem, more should be done to solve the plastic crisis, they said.

For Bueta, the plastic problem would require a "whole-of-society" approach.

"I think a good question to ask now is: Why are we not acting as urgent about this plastic crisis as the health crisis that we have now? Even when we already know the waste crisis can affect our lives. Why are we not doing enough? That [question] is for all of us [consumers, manufacturers, and the government]," Bueta said.

Properimplementation of waste management laws is also needed, experts said.

RA 9003 was expected to implement an exhaustive and comprehensive plan for the proper management of wastes in the country with the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) as the main facilitator. The law requires:

Thelaw is routinely violated. RA 9003 requires wastes to be segregated at source,starting from households and establishments. Avoidance, reduction, reuse, andrecycling of wastes are preferred over treatment and disposal.

Thisprovision is not followed in most households, the source of 57% of waste,according to a study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies(PIDS), the state think tank.

Ina discussion paper titled "An Analysis of Regulatory Policies on Solid WasteManagement in the Philippines: Ways Forward," the PIDS said the law's mainfacilitator, NSWMC, had failed to properly delegate to LGUs their critical rolein the implementation of RA 9003.

"Theoverly simplistic transfer of responsibility [of solid waste managementimplementation] to local government units, even just to complement the localgovernment code, have resulted [in] two decades of mediocre policy grounding,"the paper noted.

PIDSfound the waste management strategies in four LGUs to be "far from ideal."

"Although commendable islands of successes were seen in the case study sites, no ideal holistic solid waste management set-ups were manifested: illegal dumpsites still exist, waste generation is still unabated, material recovery is suboptimal, technology and facility investment is subpar, and public and private participation are wanting," PIDS said.

Evenas waste management practices remain far from ideal, lawmakers are not so keenon eradicating the source of much waste altogether.

Atotal of 388 bills and resolutions addressing solid waste or phasing outsingle-use plastics have been filed in Congress since 2010, but not one made itto the priority list.

House Bill 9147, which consolidates 41 other bills and resolutions previously filed in the chamber, was approved on third and final reading in July 2021, the farthest stage reached by such a measure. The bill has yet to be tackled by the Senate.

Themeasure aims to phase out single-use plastics like drinking straws andlow-quality plastic bags within a year after the measure becomes law.

Italso proposes that producers and importers "recover or off-set and divert intovalue chains" at least 50% of their single-use plastic product footprint withinthree years of the law's effectivity.

HB9147 adopts the policy on Extended Producers’ Responsibility (EPR) of theOrganization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in whichproducers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical –for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. The concept was firstintroduced by academic Thomas Lindhqvist in 1990 to the Swedish environmentalministry.

TheEPR however will only work with cooperation from the private sector. A recoveryscheme will only be successful if private companies are willing to declare thevolume of plastics they are producing, according to environmental campaigners.

Mostmembers of PARMS aren't keen to do that for now, said Lao.

"Weare supportive of EPR, on the condition that the targets are achievable. Wehave to be grounded with [our goals]. We are an archipelagic country… if youset an ambitious target as early as now, the [current] infrastructure will notbe able to catch up," he explained.

Whilea national legislation on single-use plastics is pending, local governments aretaking charge. At least 500 cities and municipalities in the Philippines havepassed ordinances banning single-use plastics, according to Greenpeace.

BacolodCity has prohibited business establishments from using plastic bags since 2011.In November 2018, the city government added plastic straws and stirrers to thelist of prohibited single-use plastics. Only plastic packaging without handlesfor the storage of fresh food like meats and vegetables is allowed.

Alsoin 2018, Baler town in Aurora banned "non-biodegradable" plastics andcellophanes for packaging goods. But plastic bags declared "oxo-biodegradable,"or manufactured with more synthetic materials that break down easily whendisposed of, may still be used for packaging fresh food.

QuezonCity, the country's largest in terms of population, passed two ordinancesin 2019, banning plastic bags in retailstores and disposable utensils in food and hotel establishments, includingpaper or plastic cups, plates, straws, and styrofoam.

Hotels are also prohibited from distributing soap and shampoo sachets to guests, while food establishments may no longer offer ketchup or soy sauce packets and condiment cups with lids.

Stakeholdersare calling for admittedly radical but necessary interventions to solve theplastic waste crisis.

PlasticFlamingo, also known as the Plaf, a social enterprise that collects plasticwastes from partners like schools and villages and sends them to recyclingcenters, has collected 110,000 tons of plastic, after setting up 140 recyclingdrop-off points since it launched in 2018. It believes its role should betemporary.

"Ithink our mission should be where we don't need to exist because, in the end,we don't want any plastics recycled because we want to find proper alternativesto it… But in the meantime, as we have created a big backlog of plasticscreated anyway, [so] we deal with it," Anne-Sophie Zwarteveen-van der Spek,chief product officer of Plastic Flamingo, said.

Buetasaid manufacturers should invest in technologies to redesign their packagingand help them achieve EPR standards. This may also mean banning the use ofplastic sachets for packaging.

Therewas no mention of any plastics ban in the 2021 PARMS report, but it saidmembers might be able to reduce their LDV packaging materials to as much as 21%of their 2019 estimates, "in a fully implemented strategy scenario."

Bueta,the environmental lawyer, said "companies would have to allow change."

"They need to refocus their goals and reduce their desire for profit. Think they will have to invest millions of pesos to shift their production patterns," he said.

Not all plastics needed to be eradicated, said Aliño of GAIA. "But single-use plastics that we can do without should be totally banned," he said. –

This piece is republished with permission from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

This report was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism had full editorial independence. Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines, their officers, and employees accept no liability for any loss, damage, or expense arising out of, or in connection with, any reliance on any omissions or inaccuracies in the material contained in the report.

*BFFP is a global movement. Greenpeace Philippines is an associate member.


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