Lessons from the Philippines – How Small Islands are Confronting Big Businesses

In recent years, our image of the Philippines may have become slightly conflicted. Where we used to envisage white sandy beaches nestled between a dazzlingly turquoise sea and rustling palm trees, we now often also associate these islands with tidal surges of waste, floating plastic objects and clogged river mouths. While many islands still retain that forgotten paradise backdrop, others near the ever-expanding cities sadly sway towards the other extreme. Yet did you know a lot has been happening in the Philippines to revolt against this plastic tide? Wherever we are in the world, we can take their simple ideas to challenge the big plastic players.

Islands of sand are turning into islands of rubbish in the Philippines for several reasons. Firstly, they lack the same number of safe landfill sites or recycling centres that are seen in more developed countries while the extraordinarily high population density in cities such as Manila means navigating rubbish trucks to all the houses, whilst contending with the vast seas of traffic, makes even collection a challenge. For those recycling centres that are up and running, most of the rubbish processed at them is actually foreign waste, with community refuge left abandoned on the streets outside locals’ doors. In 2018, three million kilograms of waste was shipped to this island nation from America alone. To add insult to injury, some of the discarded junk sent from overseas turned out not to be recyclable at all, with 1500 tonnes of unrecyclable waste returned to Canada. As China turns its back on foreign plastic waste imports, the Philippines and other Asian countries are likely to feel the strain whilst their own economy simultaneously starts to boom, increasing consumerism and, with it, wastage.

For many in poverty, garbage collecting is a popular mode of self-employment where salvageable objects and recyclable materials are sorted from general junk and sold on. Yet with plastic in many forms struggling to be recycled in developed countries let alone emerging nations, this synthetic offender is left lying on the ground by waste pickers as its value tumbles to rock bottom. However, education on the islands has meant the Philippines now has 16 zero waste neighbourhoods where waste workers are formally hired not only to collect plastic, but also to hand out penalties to those locals who have not separated out their household rubbish. From employing local workers to transport waste to central warehouses accessible to bin lorries, the city of San Fernando now recycles or composts roughly 85% of its waste. That’s on par with America’s most waste savvy city, San Francisco.

So with all these positive community-led movements cropping up around the country, the nation was left frustrated when a statistic appeared stating that 50% of global ocean plastic originates from only five countries: China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and you guessed it, the Philippines. From this moment of frustration a few locally prominent individuals on the waste scene decided it was time to highlight the true culprits in our plastic pollution conundrum. In response, a group named ‘Break Free From Plastic’ was created with the belief that if we cannot recycle or compost a material, then it should not be manufactured in the first place. This puts businesses in the limelight as many argue the problem is their own doing by selling products comprised of single use plastic in areas they know don’t have the infrastructure to handle the throwaway remains.

An example of this which comprises one of the greatest plastic sources in the Philippines is sachets. Now this is not usually the first offender which comes to mind, however these pouches made from plastic and aluminium are abundant in poorer nations, often sold from the living rooms or doorsteps of homes. For the population, sachets provide one day’s worth of shampoo, toothpaste, washing up liquid, soy sauce, ketchup and much more. This is therefore an affordable means of shopping as many households cannot afford the luxury of buying their essentials in bulk, instead only spending what they earn that day. For businesses, the innovation of tiny packets of food has allowed them to make incredible sales in poorer countries by creating an affordable product. Yet none of these sachets are recyclable, ignored by waste pickers and left to line waterways. In order to expose the contributions of large multinational companies, local beach cleaners developed a ‘brand audit’ which has now become a global movement with thousands of volunteers carrying out 239 audits last year. On the four kilometre coastline of Freedom Island, garbage collectors in monsoon season collect an average of 500 sacks of rubbish a day, so are in no short supply of incriminating evidence.

A brand audit involves collecting rubbish and logging which brand names the non-recyclable packaging derives from in the hope that enough public awareness and outrage will spark a change in product design for some of our business giants. This is a simple action targeting our biggest global companies and the powerful oil giants which back them. For so long we have been told that there is value in a brand, but now we are hoping to turn this against them by exposing unsustainable habits. While the movement in Manila didn’t impact the performance of brands on the market, representatives from some of the exposed brands were keen to meet the initiative’s leader, ramping up the pace of this essential discussion surrounding unnecessary product packaging. In the Philippines, 50% of all single use packaging recovered was from leading brands with 75% of this coming from food conglomerates. By getting these corporations to acknowledge their role in plastic pollution and accept accountability for both current and historical actions, we could take one of the largest and most influential steps to halting ocean pollution as unrecyclable, unbiodegradable items will be wiped from our shelves.

This new wave of brand audits has been described as giving tools to change makers or, in other words, giving us a way to make a difference. To get involved alongside thousands of other volunteers across the globe, you can download either a data collection sheet from the Break Free From Plastic website or get the Trashblitz app. Whilst out and about on your next beach clean, you can simply log the brand name and item type of each object you find and send it to a central database which forms the basis of their annual criminal report. To go one step further, you can share a photo of what you’ve found on social media whilst tagging in the offending brand or follow the footsteps of some outraged individuals by sending the sandy trash back to the HQ of the ocean villain. If enough people start taking part in these simple actions, global businesses will have to sit up and face the music or, in this case, a truck full of trash on their doorstep.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair