ELEVENTH HOUR: The whys and hows of the plastic crisis

Plastic is the inescapable material that wraps or makes up almost everything we buy—plastic utensils, balloons, shampoo bottles, even the packaging of our favorite chips. It’s highly likely that every single person has used a plastic bag, a plastic straw, plastic containers, and other forms of plastic that may be easily thrown away after use. But why is plastic everywhere? And how has it taken over our lives?

One word: convenience.

Plastic is easy to produce and easy to use, so there’s a high demand for it. However, in exchange for short-term convenience, plastic costs the world serious long-term effects on the health of both people and the planet.

Three things, in particular, make the problem of plastic production and consumption so complex and difficult to solve: first, how people can be unaware of plastic’s harmful consequences; second, how people can be aware but not have the ability to choose eco-friendly alternatives; and third, how people continue to choose plastic despite being aware of its harmful effects and having the ability to switch to more sustainable options.

The 'Mag-ASUP Tayo!' campaign series, a partnership between Ateneo de Manila University’s Climate’s Eight and The Climate Reality Project Philippines, feature zero-waste and sustainability champions and their insights and experiences in the different stages of the life cycle of plastics—from creation up to disposal (Art cards by KC Bello and Polly Javier).

The plastic life cycle

About 99 percent of plastics in use are actually made of petrochemicals that are derived from fossil fuels such as crude oil, which are broken down into resins to create plastic. Once plastics are manufactured, they are then sold to markets and households, after which, more often than not, they end up in our landfills or the open environment.

Unfortunately, the chemicals found in plastic make them difficult to break down and be regenerated. Thus, from the beginning, in the extraction of materials needed to manufacture it, until the end of its life cycle when it becomes a huge waste management problem, plastic poses a problem not only to our environment but to the climate as well.

Plastic waste, more likely than not, ends up in our oceans or in landfills. Plastic also poses a significant threat to people whose jobs or means to survive directly involve plastic. Waste collectors, the urban poor, and even a simple dweller living near or beside landfills or open dumps are at risk from the potential harms of plastic wastes.

The linear life cycle of plastic is unnatural since everything in nature is regenerable. Unfortunately, plastics are seen as necessary due to their convenience and affordability, which is something many anti-single-use plastic advocates are trying to change (Art cards by Polly Javier of Climate’s Eight).

Addressing the root cause of plastic pollution

While it is our individual responsibility to keep our environment healthy and free of pollution, advocates agree that governments and companies have a larger responsibility in preventing plastic waste and pollution.

Republic Act (RA) No. 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Law sets the role of government agencies and local government units in proper waste segregation, recycling, composting, and disposal. However, its provisions, such as the issuance of the list of non-environmentally acceptable products (NEAP), are yet to be promulgated today, 22 years after the law was passed.

If a tap overflows, do you tell yourself to stop using the water? Or do you turn off the faucet? In the same vein, it’s time to stop plastic pollution at the source. However, majority of the solutions available right now are temporary fixes and fail to address the root causes of plastic pollution.

There is limited access to sustainable and good quality alternatives for many Filipinos like sari-sari store owners Lisa Corrales and Sofia Cabalhao. Both manage their local family businesses in their respective neighborhoods, and plastics play a big role in packaging their products (Art cards by KC Bello, Monique Galutera, and Polly Javier of Climate’s Eight).

As anti-single-use plastic advocates, we are also called to go beyond personal lifestyle changes and to engage others to be part of the movement.  At the end of the day, consumers shouldn’t feel bad or pressured. Instead, be reminded that the solution to the plastic crisis goes beyond living a zero-waste lifestyle. No matter how much we want to change our ways to be more environmental-friendly, it can almost seem impossible to do so when the rest of our society continues to incorporate it into our way of life.

But difficult as it seems, one should still try to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. As activist Chuck Baclagon puts it: “It’s not a reason to stop pursuing a world that’s ecologically sustainable and just.”

Apart from finding ways to reuse plastics as individuals, we must also find ways to engage governments and corporations to improve waste management solutions and shift production systems. We must keep in mind that while recycling and upcycling are needed to manage existing waste, the real solution is to stop the tap on the endless production of plastic.

About the authors:

Andrea Ong (top left), Trisha Cruz (top right), and Polly Javier (bottom left) are members of the Climate’s Eight, a group of AB Development Studies students from the Ateneo de Manila University behind 'Mag-ASUP Tayo!'—an anti-single-use plastic campaign in partnership with the Youth Cluster of The Climate Reality Project Philippines.

Danielle Madriaga (bottom right) is one of the youth coordinators of Climate Reality Philippines, head of its writers pool, and project co-lead for What’s SUP. She also belongs to the Sustainable Industries Cluster of Climate Reality Philippines, being a civil engineer and green building professional.