Single-use plastics: Convenience isn’t worth it

Published August 17, 2021, 1:51 AM

by Ellson Quismorio

• Plastic management is the main problem for single-use plastics because it does not decompose, causing havoc in other ecosystems
• The Philippines produces 1.01 million metric tons of mismanaged plastics annually
• Plastic, made of fossil fuels, emits a significant amount of greenhouse gases from production to disposal
• Banning these items is easier said than done because RA No. 9003 states that before we ban any item, we need to come up with an alternative and it should not exceed 10 percent of the cost of the banned item
• That provision in the law is a legal strait jacket on the government, which aims for the total stoppage of single-use plastics

As the name implies, single-use plastics (SUPs) are made so that they may be thrown away after just one use.

But it’s not that simple. Environmentalists swear it creates a complicated problem.

Dr. Deo Florence Onda, a marine scientist at the Marine Science Institute in University of the Philippines (UP)-Diliman, said the Philippines is the fifth-largest contributor of marine plastics in the world. Just ahead of the Philippines are Indonesia, India, US, Thailand, and Brazil.

By marine plastics, he means discarded plastic that end up in the ocean. “Plastic management is the main problem, specifically on single-use plastics. These are hard to recuperate, use[d] only once and does not degrade/ decompose causing havoc in other ecosystems,” he said during a Facebook Live event last June dubbed, “Walang Plastikan.”

Onda said the Philippines produces 1.01 million metric tons (MMT) of mismanaged plastics annually. Of this, 0.28-0.75 MMT per year leak to the oceans.

Plastic bags, plastic utensils (spoons, forks, knives), plastic bottles, plastic food containers, and plastic straws are among the SUPs that are used frequently.

Coleen Salamat refers to SUPs as a “bane” to humans. He is the plastic solutions campaigner of environment and toxics watchdog EcoWaste Coalition.

“Plastic is made of fossil fuels. At each of its lifecycle, it emits a significant amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs). From production to disposal, a single-use plastic adds to the already alarming state of climate crisis,” she said.

Climate change is accelerated when high volumes of GHGs accumulate within the atmosphere and trap heat close to the earth’s surface.

“When discarded, it breaks down into tiny pieces called micro or nano plastics that have found its way not just in the seafood we eat but the water we drink. Scientists are also studying traces of nano and microplastics in the air we breathe.

Salamat doesn’t believe that the convenience brought by SUPs counts as a positive. “Single-use plastic is cheap and convenient. These products are only used once for a few minutes but lasts forever. Its convenience and cheapness does not equate as a ‘positive trait’ when it actually pollutes during its entire life cycle,” she said.

But what if a piece of plastic, say a plastic shopping bag, is reused? Is this a way of diminishing its threat to the environment as an SUP? The answer is a big, fat no.

“Once it [SUP] is manufactured, it already has a negative effect on the environment. We need to broaden our view on the plastic issue. GHGs are emitted during the extraction, manufacturing, and distribution of plastic,” said Xian Guevarra, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP) national coordinator. “If we really want to address the climate crisis, we really need to stop all the stages of the plastic life cycle, which is cutting it at the source.”

Oceana Philippines campaigner specialist Mae Chatto agrees. She also emphasized the innate permanence of plastic that make such a profound problem.

“We should look at the whole picture of the SUP problem. Using plastic twice does not count. Plastic, once it is produced and released into the environment, stays there forever. That’s what most of our countrymen don’t realize. It is ingested by marine animals and eventually, it ends up on our plates. We have to contend with it forever. So we really have to stop it at the source,” Chatto said.

Every discussion on SUP and waste management in general have involved comments on Republic Act (RA) No. 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.

At the heart of RA No. 9003 is the list of non-environmentally acceptable products and packaging, or NEAPP. NEAPPs are defined as “products or packaging that are unsafe in production, use, post-consumer use, or that produce or release harmful products.”

The law mandates the National Solid Waste Management Council (NSWMC) to prepare, within one year from effectivity of the law and in consultation with stakeholders concerned, to create the NEAPP and ban the items that would be listed there.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Undersecretary Benny Antiporda, alternate chairman of the NSWMC, is not one to sugarcoat the existing “plastic menace.”

“Banning these items is easier said than done because we have a law [RA No. 9003] saying that before we ban any item, we need to come up with an alternative and it should not exceed 10 percent of the cost of the banned item. That provision in the law is a legal strait jacket on the government, which aims for the total stoppage of single-use plastics,” Antiporda said.

Sources said that, while the government has found possible alternatives to SUPs, these products are between 200 and 300 percent more expensive than the items to be prohibited.

Last July, Antiporda began an attempt to work around this “legal strait jacket” by proposing to the NSWMC a definition for “unnecessary” plastic products. He hopes that this would achieve a “common ground” with the SUP issue, and more importantly, result to the outright ban of harmful plastic items.

“As provided by law, we need alternatives for the items being banned; [but] those that are deemed to be unnecessary need no alternative and can be declared as [NEAPP] already,” he explained.

Asked what his notion of unnecessary plastics are, the DENR official mentioned plastic straws, stirrers, balloon sticks, and cotton earbud stalks as few examples. “These are the plastics that we can live without. Those have a lot of alternatives that don’t have to go through the long process of life cycle assessment. We need to come up with a realistic solution.”

It was February 2020 when DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu, the NSWMC chairman, signed a resolution implementing a ban on the use of SUPs by national government agencies, local government units, and other government-controlled offices. The banned items include plastic bags, straws, and spoons and forks.