Taking on the plastic problem

by Yanna Mallari & Rexie John Mangabat

We Filipinos are always proud to see our country place high on lists — beauty pageants, sports events, you name it. However, the Philippines has recently also been topping global charts we shouldn’t be proud of: in 2020, the Philippines was found to be the fifth largest contributor to marine plastics. Albeit an indication of some progress coming from third to fifth, we still can’t seem to let go of being part of the top ten, producing 1.01 million metric tons of mismanaged plastics annually, and of this 0.28-0.75 MMT/year leak to the oceans. As one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change and environmental disasters, pollution only makes our situation worse. So why do we continue to contribute to this issue?

It’s no surprise, really. A report about the top five plastic pollution contributors released a few years ago by the Ocean Conservancy said, “As rapidly developing economies, these countries [China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines] are now passing through a typical stage of economic growth as consumer demand for disposable products grows more rapidly than the waste management infrastructure.” It’s true that plastic has paved the way for economic growth as it caters to the profit-centered business model, enabling the big companies and corporations to continually mass produce unsustainable products and services for a low cost, effecting more affordable prices and higher profit. This then overshadows any other option consumers could have, but all the profits of all the big, polluting companies in the world won’t be able to pay off the enormous debt of consequences down the road if nothing changes. It’s time to switch lanes.

First, why exactly is plastic such a problem? When taught about pollution in schools, it would usually be divided by pollution on land, water, and air, so it should definitely raise concern that the plastic pollution encompasses all these. 

Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, and though mostly made for single-use, takes decades to degrade, meaning that they take up towering amounts of space and stay there longer than human lifespans (and keep in mind, all land combined makes up only 29% of the planet). To top that, plastic doesn’t actually “decompose” or degrade in the same way biological products do. It only disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which ironically becomes a bigger problem as these invisible contaminants go to our soil and our waters. Wide and varied sources of microplastic are constantly polluting the planet and some research has shown that microplastics in the soil affect soil health and function, and even migration in the food chain. Microplastics and the chemicals along with it eventually also find their way to groundwater when dumped in landfills, and enter into aquatic ecosystems.

Like cancer cells originating and accumulating in one organ then spreading to the next, microplastics, first produced on land mainly as larger pieces of plastic, have been detected in our marine and freshwater ecosystems. Studies estimate there are now 15 to 51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans — from the equator to the poles, from Arctic ice sheets to the sea floor. Not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on Earth seems to be free of plastic pollution as even in the third-deepest point on the planet, Emden Deep, plastic bags were found.

This poses several dangerous threats that ripple into catastrophic waves. One of these obvious threats is on wildlife. Entangling themselves in it, eating it, mistakenly feeding it to their young, aquatic wildlife have suffered immensely from the plastic pollution. Researchers say that by the year 2050, our oceans will have more plastic than fish by weight. In addition to that, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration hassaid that plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually. Now put this into perspective: our Earth is 71% water, and of that water, more than 80% is still unexplored. Plastic pollution is so immense that even with so much of the hydrosphere still unknown, the effects of pollution are so prominent even in just the relatively small percentage we were able to study. It’s as if we were only given a keyhole to look through to see what plastic has done to our oceans, and we could already tell how extensive the damage is.

But why should it matter to people that it affects wildlife? Well, this is precisely what we mean by catastrophic waves. Earth’s waters are not only a home for its inhabitants, but also a main source of oxygen and food for those on land like us humans. Photosynthetic microorganisms in the ocean produce oxygen, and unfortunately a study by an international team of researchers has shown that ocean plastics interfere with the growth and photosynthetic function of these microorganisms therefore potentially affecting earth’s oxygen supply overall. Moreover, plastics are also affecting the ocean as a source for human food. Numerous studies have shown microplastics entering the food chain in our salt, fish, oysters, mussels, and many others. Ocean plastic pollution has made its way into the food web, directly affecting human health, as well as the health of other terrestrial animals, which we can also end up consuming. More studies are needed to pinpoint exactly how plastic affects plants, but we can only expect the worst. 

As microplastics have entered into our food chain, microplastics have actually also gone into the air we breathe. A study made in the mountains of the French Pyrenees — an area far from civilization — to investigate the amount of microplastics that falls from the air to the ground found that on average, 249 plastic pieces were found per square meter per day. It was also concluded that wind can carry microplastics over far distances, over land and water, further amplifying the effects of plastic pollution. 

Before plastic degrades to microplastics, before plastic is discarded and mismanaged, before plastic is consumed, first, it’s produced. Even at the production stage, plastic already yields great damage on the environment, more specifically on the climate. Most plastic is derived from fossil fuels, and the process of acquiring fossil fuels, as well as producing plastic itself, releases billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases which contribute to the climate crisis. Unfortunately, unless things change, this will only continue to grow in the future as the fossil fuel industry plans to increase plastic production by 40% over the next decade.

Furthermore on plastic and the climate, when plastic waste is mismanaged by poorly-regulated incineration, monumental volumes of greenhouse gases are also emitted. Globally, in this year alone, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic will pump more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes. Because of the greenhouse gas emissions by plastics, the climate further warms, and the sunlight and heat will react with massive amounts of existing plastic waste to break them down and release more greenhouse gases, thus creating a deadly cycle.

How does plastic pollution fare in the Philippines? Well, the Philippines is luxuriously rich in the natural world, meaning we have the potential and resources to be environmentally resilient against this crisis, but it has been greatly hindered by continual mismanagement and continual contribution to plastic pollution which not only affects the wildlife and ecosystems, but also human health and livelihood. The effects of plastic pollution are not just — and never were — hollow words or scientific jargon with numbers. Take, for example, the extreme weather events we faced in 2020 — we are already experiencing the harsh repercussions on a large scale, and it is only growing by the year. To make matters worse, our farmers, fisherfolk, and our indigenous communities, who have all been historically marginalized in our society, have borne the brunt of this crisis for the longest time. And yet, even until now, their calls for reparations and justice have been met with  blind eyes, deaf ears, and closed palms.

So what now? First, be wary of greenwashing or false solutions. Promoting an “eco-friendly” product, donating to “green” causes, and claiming to promote sustainable practices while still investing and practicing environmentally harmful “business-as-usual” ways — these are just some of the many ways greenwashing has taken shape by corporations and companies. Greenwashing measures include, but are not limited to, ecobrick initiatives and recycling projects of companies that still, at the end of the day, actively decide to use and produce plastic products.

Second, be part of the solution. Raise awareness, educate, participate in events, and clamor for change in local and national policies. For example, in the Philippines, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 has faced challenges in implementation, despite being recognized as an exceptional law on paper. Despite being over two decades old, Filipinos have not seen a release of a list of Non-Environmentally Acceptable Products and Packaging (NEAPP) by the National Solid Waste Management Commission as mandated by the law. Including single-use plastics in the NEAPP list is one way of mitigating the plastic problem on a national scale.

If you can, you can also shift to sustainable products, support eco-friendly services and stores, and pursue other ways of reducing personal waste.  With these initiatives, start with yourself, your room, your home, your community, your school. The ideas and habits you have and practice may only be the size of one person, but it could ripple to towering and far-reaching waves. However, we must recognize that changing one’s lifestyle and behavior is often dictated by one’s economic situation; in places like the Philippines, a zero-waste way of life can be expensive and inaccessible to many. As such, those who are able to change our individual lifestyles must also call for changes in local and national policy to make eco-friendly lifestyles more accessible.

So what now? Fueled by passion, ambitious goals, and support from our community, it’s time to act. Not “act” like  how world leaders have been role-playing, as Greta Thunberg pointed out in the Austrian World Summit 2021, but act with real solutions to be part of change: learning, unlearning and relearning roots to correct the mistakes of the past and to innovate the next step, to change, and to return the balance. Filipinos have a rich and beautiful country, and a wonderful planet, all of which is worth fighting for. In the face of our environmental crisis, it’s time for real leadership, one that is intersectional and intergenerational. After all, for our generation and those that would come after us, there is too much at stake. Let’s make the decision to act today, collectively, as we fight for a better present and future for all.

This article is part of the Spotlight series by YACAP’s Education Committee which talks about various issues related to climate and climate action.

Published by yacaphilippines

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines is an alliance of individuals, youth organizations, and student councils that advocate for immediate youth-led global climate action. The Fridays for Future of the Philippines.

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