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Plastic problem

October 6, 2017

In environmental circles, plastic waste is a much-talked about issue, but a recent beach clean-up in the Philippines revealed big businesses have to play a bigger role in cutting down on the ubiquitous packaging.

A man collects garbage along the coast of Manila bay by swimming through garbage
Image: Reuters/R. Ranoco

Plastic facts are staggering. There's the one about the 500 billion plastic bags used — for an average of just fifteen minutes — around the world every year, the one that declares it takes an average of 500 years for a plastic bottle to biodegrade, the one that says enough plastic is thrown away annually to circle the world four times.

And then there's the mind-boggling nugget of information that tells us we now dump more than eight million tons of the oil-based material into our oceans every year, thereby inadvertently lining our stomachs with tiny particles of the very wrappings conceived to protect our food — and thereby our health.

Read: Is marine plastic pollution a threat to human health? 

The irony is as screeching as it is bitter. Not least for the marine life and eco-systems that have no choice but to try and thrive alongside the trash.

Time for big-scale solutions

And though countless small-scale and innovative upcycling, collection and recycling ventures have emerged in a bid to help solve the problem, it seems unlikely that their efforts, even combined, will be forceful enough to turn the tides. 

Graphic: Where does the plastic in the oceans come from?

A recent waste audit conducted by Greenpeace Philippines and#breakfreefromplastic across a 30 hectare area in plastic polluted Manila Bay highlighted the place of cheap and easy but environmentally damaging packaging.

Having analyzed the branding on a total of 54,260 items of waste, the environmental groups involved in the audit revealed the majority to be Nestlé, Unilever, and Indonesia's PT Torabika Mayora products. The trash collected included footwear, single-use plastic bags, bottles and straws, but the biggest offender were sachets.

"These corporations are the missing piece in the global fight against plastic pollution," Abigail Aguilar, Campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines said. "Citizens are burdened with the social and environmental impacts of plastic waste, rather than those that are responsible."

Sachet economy

A fisherman while removing a fish and crab trap in the fishpond that full of garbage in Obando,Philippines on June 5, 2017
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/G. B. Dantes

The Philippines, which according to the Ocean Conservancy is the third largest plastic polluter after China and Indonesia, has a lively "sachet economy", so-called because people with limited incomes are encouraged to buy single-use small quantity sachets of food and toiletries.

Typically made from thin layers of plastic and aluminum, they are of little recycling and therefore monetary value, so are left untouched by waste pickers. The fact that they litter landscapes, waterways and the ocean, does not prevent people from buying them.

Read: Six data visualizations that explain the plastic problem

Greenpeace is among those calling on companies such as Nestlé and Unilever to think  innovatively in terms of packaging. Whether or not they will, when their existing products are so readily consumed, is debatable. What is not, however, that it is time to tackle this problem from the top.