Freedom Island is drowning in garbage.
The last coastal frontier in the Philippine capital provides refuge to migratory birds and a thick mangrove forest there serves as a natural typhoon barrier for millions of city dwellers.
Yet empty plastic water and soda bottles protrude from the sand, tattered clothes and plastic sheets hang over mangrove branches, and heaps of shampoo, toothpaste and soy sauce sachets litter the coastline.
The trash offers a filthy contrast to the tantalizing sunsets Manila Bay is famous for. It also illustrates strikingly the enormity of the garbage problem facing this developing nation of more than 100 million people. An archipelago of over 7,100 islands, the Philippines is the third worst ocean plastic polluter in the world, after China and Indonesia, according to a 2015 study in the journal Science.
Globally, plastic pollution, especially of the ocean, is drawing increased attention as mounting research reveals the danger it poses to lifeforms across the food web.
The Philippines generates an estimated 43,684 tons of garbage daily, including 4,609 tons of plastic waste, according to government data, and proper disposal facilities are lacking for much of it.
The trash is piling up on land, clogging coastlines, spilling into the sea, and travelling to remote corners of the globe as the country fails to meet targets for improved waste management that it signed into law 18 years ago.
The central government claims it’s done all it can, and that the onus is on local governments to get their trash in order and on the Philippine people to dispose of their garbage more responsibly. But environmental advocates disagree, saying the government could do more, including pressuring multinational corporations to change their products.
Metro Manila’s trash problem
Freedom Island, a patch of mangrove forest and salt marsh spanning 30 hectares (74 acres) in Metro Manila, forms part of the 175-hectare (432-acre) Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA).
A briefer for the area describes it as an “important resting and refueling stop” for about 41 migratory bird species, including the Chinese egret (Egretta eulophotes), black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus), and Siberian rubythroat (Calliope calliope).
All the garbage swept ashore by the waves at Freedom Island threatens not only the birds, who might mistake it for food, but also the fish and other marine life.
During the summer monsoon, LPPCHEA employees collect a daily average of 500 sacks of garbage from the island’s 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) coastline, according to Ronnie Cafe, one of the garbage collectors.
Most of it is non-recyclable and non-reusable, he said, and a lot of it is single-use sachets that once contained shampoo, vinegar, soy sauce or other consumables.
“Most of the wastes piling up here are coming from the households living along the riverbanks,” Cafe said. “They lacked discipline for wantonly dumping their garbage at the river.”
The situation, he said, is “disheartening.”
Fishermen are catching less nowadays due to the coastal filth, he added. Indeed, the island’s air reeks of decaying fish.
For the nearly 13 million residents of Metro Manila, garbage has become a major headache, second only to the horrendous traffic.
The metropolis generates almost 10,000 tons of garbage daily, according to data from the Solid Waste Management Division (SWMD), part of the national Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“It’s really a big daily challenge, how to manage that volume of garbage,” said Juvinia Serafin, a senior environment specialist at SWMD.
The problem arises largely from poor segregation of reusable, recyclable and compostable waste by households, compounded by inefficient waste collection by the metropolis’s 17 local government units (LGUs), she said.
At the rate Metro Manila is generating trash, the city’s three sanitary landfills will be full in 20 years, according to a study released last year by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, a policymaking and regulatory body.
Strong law, weak implementation
In fact, the Philippines has quite a strong law addressing solid waste.
Republic Act 9003, also known as RA 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, mandates that all open dumpsites must be converted into sanitary landfills by 2004, four years after the law was passed.
But 14 years after that deadline, government figures are gloomy. There are only 139 operational sanitary landfills servicing just 308 of the country’s 1,634 LGUs, and at least 425 illegal dumpsites still operate across the country.
RA 9003 also mandates that every village or cluster of villages must set up a materials recovery facility (MRF) where biodegradable waste is converted into fertiliser, recyclable material is recycled or sold to junk shops, and residual waste is collected for transport to sanitary landfills.
But as of last year, government data show that only 24 percent of the country’s 42,036 villages had operational MRFs.
“We should not wonder why we have a voluminous garbage problem; the compliance rate for MRF facilities in the villages is very dismal,” said Serafin.
The failure to meet those targets and comply with RA 9003 arises from a lack of political will on the part of local leaders as well as a lack of discipline regarding proper garbage disposal on the part of the public, according to Eligio Ildefonso, executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Commission Secretariat, the government agency tasked with implementing RA 9003.
“We have a very good law in the form of RA 9003 that we can be proud [of] to the world, but we sorely lack implementation,” Ildefonso said.
To push erring local leaders to reform, Ildefonso said his agency has lodged complaints over violations of RA 9003 with the national ombudsman’s office, an agency that investigates abuses of public officials and workers.
So far it has lodged complaints against 50 LGUs involving 600 mayors, vice mayors and councillors, and is currently preparing charges against 100 additional LGUs, this time including village officials.
“If found guilty, these local officials can be disqualified from seeking public office, besides the usual fines,” Ildefonso said.
The national government claims to be doing all it can to curb the garbage menace facing the country.
Serafin said that in addition to the usual push to recycle, reuse and reduce, especially when it comes to plastic products, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has trained and deployed over 300 individuals to capacitate local environment officers across the country to enforce RA 9003.
The government, through its environment department, is also providing financial assistance to LGUs to build sanitary landfills to replace their open dumpsites.
But environmental groups say the government could do much more to curb the country’s garbage problem, especially by pressuring Western multinational companies to reduce their production of single-serve plastic packaging that finds its way into Philippine seas and coastlines.
Advocates particularly blame the companies for pushing the so-called “sachet economy” in the Philippines. Shampoo, bath soap, toothpaste, cooking oil, soy sauce, vinegar and many other low-cost consumer products come in small, single-use plastic packages that are affordable for the country’s bulk of poor and middle-income families.
“These big manufacturing companies failed to give an option for poor consumers,” said Angelica Carballo-Pago, a campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia based in the Philippines.
“What they offer are single-use plastic products.”
Last year, a consortium of environmental groups, including Greenpeace, conducted a weeklong waste audit at Freedom Island.
It showed that single-serve plastic packaging made up the bulk of waste collected in the area and that products manufactured by Switzerland-based Nestlé and Netherlands-based Unilever were the most represented.
A related audit of trash from five Philippine cities released this summer showed similar results.
Those companies and other multinationals have pledged to find better solutions to curb pollution.
But Carballo-Pago said that as part of their corporate social responsibility commitments, they do so by focusing on recycling and not by reducing the amount of plastic packaging they use.
That approach “will not even make a dent on the problem at hand,” the Greenpeace campaigner said, asserting that many single-use plastic packages are still not biodegradable.
For its part, Nestlé claims on its website to have “made considerable progress in minimising the amount of packaging” for its products, and it announced in April its ambition to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025.
Unilever similarly vowed that all of its plastic packaging “will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.” The company has also publicly committed to invest in finding a way to recycle multi-layered sachets, and to share the solution with the industry.
Carballo-Pago noted that Philippine authorities are slowly realizing how bad the country’s trash problem is, and said some lawmakers are planning to propose measures banning the sale of single-use plastic-packed products nationwide.
However, she stressed that what the government really should do is regulate the companies that market their products in single-serve plastic sachets and ask them to provide better alternatives.
A bright spot
Two hours north of Manila, San Fernando City, the capital of Pampanga province, bucks the trend in Philippine waste management. Environmentalists laud the local government’s effort to address its garbage problem.
San Fernando City is home to around 307,000 people living in 35 villages or barangays, the smallest administrative unit in Philippine society.
In 2007, it created the City Environment and Natural Resources Office, primarily to address its trash problem. The city extended PHP150,000 (about US$3,000) to each village for the construction of materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and the purchase of pushcarts and rickshaw bicycles to collect waste.
Since 2012, the Manila-based advocacy group Mother Earth Foundation (MEF) has provided technical assistance in setting up the MRFs.
Today, over 100 MRFs exist across the city, including in schools, subdivisions and public markets, according to Sherma Benosa, a communications officer with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an international consortium of NGOs to which MEF belongs.
As a result, the city’s spending on tipping fees for waste disposal came in nearly three-quarters under projections for 2017: just PHP18 million (US$334,000) instead of PHP70 million (US$1.3 million).
“These achievements were made possible because the city implemented a multi-pronged and ambitious solid waste management program, with strategies designed to encourage and incentivize participation from local officials and citizens,” Benosa said.
San Fernando is also one of the few LGUs in the country that has an active solid waste management board with representation from relevant sectors, including waste workers and youth. The board meets regularly and acts promptly to create or adjust the city’s waste management program.
The city’s mayor, Edwin Santiago, attributed San Fernando’s effective garbage collection to the active participation of his constituents.
“We are involving all sectors because waste is everybody’s problem,” he said. “It cannot be done by the government alone. People’s participation is important.”
A stark contrast
If San Fernando City is managing its garbage well, the coastal town of Malapatan in the southern Philippine province of Sarangani is doing the opposite.
Like most LGUs across the country, Malapatan has failed to comply with RA 9003.
The town, with around 80,000 residents spread among 12 farming and fishing villages, still operates an illegal open dumpsite at the base of a rolling hill on its outskirts. There, trash of all kinds is mixed up together.
With just one serviceable garbage truck manned by a few individuals, Malapatan only collects trash from half its villages. The rest, located remotely in the mountains, are left on their own, with residents burying their trash in their backyards or burning it and contributing to air pollution.
The town has no office dedicated to managing garbage or other environmental issues.
Jay Oliver Eda, the town employee tasked with handling such matters, acts mainly as the town’s agriculture officer.
“We have been preoccupied with other matters and the garbage problem has not been on top of them until only recently,” Eda said.
But Eda said the town is now working to set up a sanitary landfill after getting warnings from the national government about its illegal dump. He could not say when it would open, though, noting that the town is still looking for an appropriate location.
At the town-operated open dumpsite, things looked messy during a recent visit. Garbage of all kinds was mixed up: biodegradable, recyclable and reusable alike.
Empty plastic bottles, sachets, paper, broken tree branches, food leftovers and coconut shells were among the refuse piled up at the dump, dampening the sight of the rolling greenery in the distance.
As at other open dumpsites across the country, scavengers were picking through the mounds, looking for reusable and recyclable plastics, or whatever materials of value they could salvage. (Metal doesn’t usually end up in Philippine dumpsites because enterprising individuals regularly go from household to household buying scrap to sell at junk shops.)
“Men usually take the sacks and reuse them to pack charcoal produced from our farms,” said one of the trash pickers, a tribal father of four named Rommel Senon.
“The women pick recyclable plastic bottles [and sell them] to the junkshops. We’re helping the environment [and] at the same time earn a small amount of money.”
Unless and until the political will of LGU officials and the discipline of ordinary citizens changes significantly, the Philippines’ garbage and plastic problem will remain a clear and potent danger to the oceans, officials and environmentalists interviewed for this story agreed.
In early August, a young whale shark was found dead in Davao del Norte province in the southern Philippines.
The likely cause of death? Plastic it mistook for food. A biologist retrieved a cup, wrappers, and other plastic items from the 4.3-meter (14-foot) fish’s stomach.
The whale shark wouldn’t be the first majestic marine creature to die from ingesting plastics in Philippine waters. Media reports indicate that no fewer than 50 whales and dolphins have met a similar fate in recent years.
This article was first published on Mongabay.