PHILIPPINES - The plastics industry in the Philippines has barked back against the growing howls of environmental lobbyists and politicians attempting to introduce a nationwide ban on plastics and expanded polystyrene (EPS), claiming that “local governments are in effect making global warming worse because more paper means less trees and therefore more carbon dioxide in the air; less water for people to use; and more power to be generated which produces more greenhouse gases”.
In recent years States and Municipalities in the Philippines have been steadily introducing local ordinances that prohibit the use of plastics bags at retail and disposable cutlery and EPS food containers in supermarkets and in schools, blaming plastics packaging for extensive flooding during the typhoon season.
According to a statement from Crispian Lao, president of the Philippine Plastic Industry Association (PPIA): “If the problem is flooding, a plastics ban is definitely not the solution. The floods during typhoons Ondoy, Pedring, Sendong were not caused by plastics but by global warming, which has generated more violent typhoons and unusually heavy rainfall.
“Even assuming that plastics products were to be blamed for lesser annual floods, the solution is still not a ban on plastics but in changing people’s ways of disposing waste.”
The environmentalist solution is based on emotion and a refusal to look at the real cause of the problem.
“All of this misimpression started with simple floods, and it was very convenient to blame plastics because it was more visible blocking the drains. But first of all, we have poor drainage systems. The plastics is there because we refuse to segregate waste. We must segregate and recycle. The solution is that simple,” he said.
Lao’s statement was in response to a recent order from the Ministry of Education (MoE) to food caterers and retailers not to use plastics bags, utensils and styrofoam containers in the preparation of meals for participating athletes in this year’s annual MoE sponsored national sporting event, Palarong Pambansa, which will involve at least 10,000 athletes, coaches and sports officials from the country’s 17 regions in the Philippines’ biggest sports spectacle.
Same ol’ ‘paper good’, ‘plastics bad’ populism
In a counter offensive against populist environmental claims that ‘paper is better than plastics’, Lao called for a scientific and enlightened approach to plastics, which has been demonised to the point that people now wrongly believe that paper really is more environmentally friendly.
The realities, according to Lao are that: “One tonne of paper requires the cutting of 17 trees; none are cut for plastics. It takes one gallon of clean water to make one supermarket paper bag, which is all that is needed to make 116 plastics bags. Paper uses as much as five times more energy than a comparable plastics production.
“This is the reason developed countries are taking a more balanced approached. People are given a choice between plastics and paper because both are needed, and each has its pros and cons,” he said.
Since 18 January 2011, when the city of Muntinlupa became the first major urban area to ban plastics shopping bags, more than 65 local governments in the Philippines have implemented some form of ordinance banning or restricting the use of plastics packaging products, promoting instead the use of brown paper bags and recycled newspapers to wrap food in local fresh produce markets where the majority of the country’s population do their shopping.
According to the plastics industry these plastics bans at street market level have unintended and costly consequences that deny the public a cheap, hygienic food-grade wrapping material: “Wrapping food products in brown bags and newspapers is a health hazard. Waste paper often leaches chemicals from its production that could contaminate food. That is why you will notice that if you order french fries or pizza in a fast-food chain, they are packaged in such a way that the food is not in direct contact with the brown paper or carton packaging.”
In his counter-offensive Lao added: “While plastics are more environmentally friendly than paper, the two must co-exist because each one is needed in the current world. In terms-of-use, plastics offer unmatched convenience because they can carry more weight, and both dry and wet contents. Paper, once wet, can carry even less and becomes unrecyclable.
“Paper cups, for instance, are lined with either wax or plastics to keep liquids in. Diapers; bottles used instead of glass for tea, soft drinks; sacks; eyeglasses; ball pens and just about anything we use every day contains some plastics.
“What we need to do is to be responsible users and disposers of plastics. To ban it is to deny ourselves unnecessarily a ready convenience in favour of paper which will cause a new set of problems.”
The environmental group EcoWaste Coalition disagrees, and fired back a standard-response to Lao’s arguments, calling them “inaccurate”.
Paeng Lopez, a campaigner for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, said: “Plastic bags were more dangerous to the environment than paper as they were made from petroleum, a dwindling natural resource requiring carbon-intensive extraction, transportation and refining.”
I first encountered this debate in Manila in 1996 when, Bernie Paco, then president of the Packaging Institute of the Philippines was called to join a government committee that was attempting to solve the city’s annual monsoon season flooding problems by introducing a plastics ban.
“We don’t have the money to create an efficient waste management system in the country,” he said. “So people just toss their rubbish into the street and sweepers just brush it into the drainage system. When the monsoon comes, the rubbish rises and blocks the underground channels, which overflow and the streets of our capital city flood. It happens every year, there’s no surprise, and every year we have the same discussion.
“But, it is easier and cheaper for the politicians to ban plastics than to change the people’s behaviour or invest in more efficient drainage or proper waste collection.”
Some 16 years later, the discussion continues.