AT a Cabinet meeting this week, President Rodrigo Duterte “floated the idea” of imposing a ban on plastic as an environmental measure, according to his spokesman Salvador Panelo. Although it is difficult to imagine a world without plastic, we think it is an idea worth studying.
President Duterte apparently did not offer any specifics apart from acknowledging that such a move would require Congress to pass a law, which may have been a comment intended to signal the President’s support for a bill currently being debated in the Senate that would ban so-called single-use plastics.
Senate Bill 40, or the “Single-Use Plastics Regulation and Management Act of 2019,” authored by Sen. Francis Pangilinan, would ban the importation, manufacture and use of single-use plastics such as grocery bags, food packaging, water bottles, straws, expanded polystyrene (better known by the brand name Styrofoam) cups and containers, sachets and plastic cutlery.
The proposed law would also offer incentives for consumers who use reusable bags or containers while shopping, and those who reuse or recycle plastic products.
The need for such a measure is visibly obvious to anyone passing a waterway in a populated area, or viewing the shore of Manila Bay after a storm; the country is practically choking on plastic waste. We have our own bad habits as consumers to blame for it: a study conducted by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives found that Filipinos use about 60 billion plastic sachets; more than 33 billion plastic grocery or food bags; and 1.1 billion disposable diapers per year.
Removing that much plastic waste from the environment would be a significant step, but the only way to ensure that it could be successfully carried out — meaning, both firmly enforced and fully accepted by the public — is if reasonable alternatives are offered to consumers. Thus, any measure intended to ban commonly used plastics should be accompanied by an equal level of support for research and development into plastic alternatives.
In terms of existing alternatives to plastic products like grocery bags and drinking straws, paper substitutes have been developed and are in use in places where the corresponding single-use plastics have already been banned, but the problem is they are almost universally hated by consumers, and may be as environmentally unfriendly as plastic, although in different ways. Paper is made from a renewable resource (trees, other kinds of plants, or recycled paper) and does decompose quickly when discarded, unlike plastic. On the other hand, it uses large amounts of water – a resource that is becoming scarcer in this country — in its manufacture, and may contain harmful chemicals such as inks, dyes and acid. Paper waste also weighs five to seven times more than plastic waste, which increases the volume of solid waste that must be handled by cities and municipalities.
Fortunately, there are even better alternatives being developed, such as plant-based plastics; reverse-refining of plastics using chemicals that break the material down into its basic molecules, which can then be used as fuel or to make new plastic items; or manufacturing plastic from other waste gases. In Canada, for example, most plastic grocery bags are made from ethane, which would otherwise simply be burned off during the natural gas refining process. Researchers and construction engineers have also experimented with using recycled plastic to make things like paving blocks, or as an additive to asphalt. There is a great deal of opportunity in all these areas, and researching them would breed even more potentially good ideas. Filipinos certainly have the capabilities to pursue them, and if the government would support and encourage work in these areas, the country could become a leader in a fast-growing new industry.
We simply cannot use plastic the way we have been using it until now, we welcome moves by our leaders to change that, and we hope those initiatives continue. But while it must be understood that reducing environmental impact inevitably requires everyone to make some lifestyle changes, it practicality dictates that every effort be made to minimize those changes as much as possible without defeating the purpose for them. That is a challenge, but one we think the country can successfully overcome.