Investing in the circular economy for sustainability

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Before COVID-19, pollution and the improper disposal and management of solid waste were already among the main concerns of developing economies in terms of sustainable development. Not only do these issues contribute to environmental degradation, but these wastes also contaminate the food chain and eventually put at risk the health of humans and animals alike over the long term.

Last Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that access to a healthy environment is a human right.

In the case of the Philippines, data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB) tell us that waste generation in the country is projected to continue increasing over the next few years, from 21.4 million tons in 2020 to 23.6 million tons by 2025. With the expected increase in population — and therefore, number of consumers — waste generation is not likely to go down in the foreseeable future.

Despite the passage of Republic Act No. 9003, otherwise known as the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 two decades ago, gaps in solid waste management remain.

Plastic waste is of particular concern among environmentalists because it will not chemically break down for hundreds of years and has been documented in studies to have already contaminated the food chain. Burning plastic waste is even worse because of the toxic fumes that will contaminate the air we breathe. As a result, there has been heightened clamor, especially from environmental groups, for the banning of single-use plastics as a first step to slow down, if not put a stop to, environmental destruction.

Plastics became a necessary industry for the growth of economies around the world. It made life convenient for people in terms of distribution and packaging of food and other goods and democratizing the costs of many products. What used to be available only in the form of glass, tin cans, paper, and even wood, became available at much lower cost when plastic was introduced. Also, more people have enjoyed the convenience of consumer appliances and gadgets that have become part of daily life. Taking these plastics out of the modern-day life equation will cause an unnecessary global economic crisis that in these times, will be the last thing we need.

In the Philippines alone, most people rely heavily on food products packaged in plastic because of their affordability and convenience. To date, there is yet no viable alternative to industrial plastics, so we need to reduce, repurpose, or recycle our plastic waste on a grand scale until we find a better option.

According to a recent position statement of the Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship, an environmental advocacy group partnered with Stratbase ADRi, “For a developing nation like the Philippines, a just transition needs to address the prevailing old linear models centered on throw-away mentalities where goods are immediately disposed of after use. A just transition needs to manage and reduce all forms of waste and continuously innovate on ways to design circular systems and processes that will aid the country’s solid waste management.”

Fortunately, some big businesses have stepped up with their efforts to achieve this and to contribute to addressing the plastic waste problem in the country. A notable example is PETValue Philippines, a P2.28-billion multi-phased joint venture between Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines, Inc. (CCBPI) and Indorama Ventures that will be the country’s first food-grade bottle-to-bottle recycling facility. Expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2022, this facility — which was granted “Pioneer Technology Status” by the Board of Investments (BoI) for its green technology — aims to develop the country’s domestic recycling capabilities and to drive a circular economy for recyclable PET plastic bottles.

This kind of investment not only contributes to the reduction of plastic waste, but also creates jobs and linked livelihood opportunities for Filipinos covered by its sphere of operations. This is actually a good model of an Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) scheme espoused by environment advocates that manufacturers can pursue.

An issue as big and critical as the plastic waste problem cannot be solved by a single player alone. Plastics per se are not the problem. Rather, it is the improper and inefficient management and disposal of these products. Discipline, especially on the part of consumers, in proper waste disposal, or simply by not littering will already drastically reduce the tonnage of garbage in our waterways.

Government should craft holistic and balanced policies that are operationally viable for businesses and manufacturers, while maintaining the safety, convenience, and the affordability of goods for consumers. EPR projects and other sustainability interventions by the private sector should be incentivized by government to realize this vital component of a closed loop, circular economy.

There is no simple approach to solving the plastic waste problem. As it was innovation that created plastics — which we must recognize is indispensable to the world’s technological advancement — it will also be private enterprises that can take the lead in creating new technologies to manage our environment.

As individuals, we just need to stop littering and be responsible in disposing our garbage.

Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute.