by Christopher Joyce. Originally posted in NPR.
Try this: Write a list of every piece of plastic you touch in a day.
I did it. I stopped counting at 56 items.
Plastic is to our time what wood was for millennia. But unlike wood, most plastic doesn’t go away. It ends up as trash in streets, rivers, lakes and oceans. It breaks down into microplastic — particles a tenth of an inch or smaller — and gets into our food and water. The health effects are largely unknown.
News stories feature dead whales and turtles with stomachs full of plastic. Activists built a huge floating net to collect it (which recently failed). Concerned citizens clean up beaches.
But that’s not helping much. Eight million tons of plastic wash into oceans every year.
This line of garbage extends all the way around the shore of the Navotas neighborhood in Manila. Jez Aznar for NPR
What’s the alternative? Is it feasible to persuade the wealthiest, most profitable corporations in the world to completely change the way they make plastic and package consumer goods?
There’s a group of people in a very unlikely place who are aiming to do just that. Their story starts in 2001, in Southeast Asia.
“Island Boy” on a mission
Froilan Grate doesn’t come across as a fire-breathing revolutionary. At 35 and just maybe 5 feet tall, with a wispy goatee, he has the kind of sincerity you might expect from someone who once wanted to be a priest. He carries a backpack and could pass for a college student.
He grew up in a village in the province of Iloilo in the Philippines — a self-described “island boy” who loved the feel of hot sand on his bare feet and swimming in the ocean. But the city beckoned. He was accepted by one of the country’s best universities in the capital. He chose school instead of the priesthood. At age 18, he took a 19-hour boat trip to Manila.
Froilan Grate at his home in the province of Iloilo. He came to Manila at 18 for college — and found his life’s work: fighting the tide of plastic. Courtesy of Froilan Grate.
Grate remembers grabbing his suitcase and rushing up on deck as the captain announced their entry into Manila Bay. “It was just excitement,” he says. “And then slowly, as you come closer to the port … I see … garbage.”
He felt sick. “The contrast of where I grew up, beautiful white sand beaches, clear water, and arriving in Manila where it’s black water with countless plastic,” he says, “that was shocking to me.”
His first thought at the time, he says, was that his own island would someday end up strewn with plastic as well. His next one was: What can I do to stop it?
Credit: Alyson Hurt/NPR
The trash that trash pickers won’t pick
Now, Manila Bay is much worse. With a growing economy and a swelling middle class, people are consuming at a torrid pace — electronic devices, packaged foods, fancy toiletries — goods either made of plastic or wrapped in it. In fact, that’s the story of many Southeast Asian countries.
But waste management is rudimentary and often nonexistent. In many places, informal cadres of waste pickers collect what they can sell to recyclers. But much of the plastic cannot be recycled. So no one collects it, and it drifts. Everywhere.
Children fill sacks with plastic trash from Manila Bay that they intend to sell to recyclers. Jes Aznar for NPR
The islands that dot Manila Bay are like doormats for plastic trash that floats in from the ocean. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Neighborhoods like Dampalit, which lie along the bay, are like doormats for floating plastic trash. I talked to Dampalit’s newly elected supervisor, Carlo Dumalaog. He is a neatly dressed businessman in a neatly kept office.
“My characteristic is, I am an obsessive-compulsive person,” he says. He takes me out to the balcony of his office, where he can steal a smoke and look out on the nets of the village fishponds and the corrugated rooftops of shanties built along the water. “That is the Pacific Ocean,” he says, pointing to Manila Bay and beyond. “All the trash from Manila Bay washes here,” he sighs. “I clean the trash and plastics, but it comes over from the other cities.” And, he says, it also comes from the Pacific, from other countries.
Dampalit, a fishing community in Manila Bay, has to contend with a constant influx of trash that it can’t keep up with. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Saying no to plastic
At university, Grate did what he could as a citizen. He stopped using plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic anything, whenever he could. He studied sociology but found it boring — too theoretical. After college, he decided to become a community activist.
He got involved in teaching about environmentalism, what he called “giving tools to change-makers.” But he wanted faster change. “You don’t actually save a marine turtle by speaking to 1,000 students at a time,” he says. He joined an environmental group, the Mother Earth Foundation, and worked with waste pickers to get them formally employed by communities and to improve their working conditions.
Froilan Grate publicizes the logos on plastic trash to encourage manufacturers to find alternatives. Above, he speaks to foreign visitors who face a similar dilemma. Jes Aznar for NPR.
But it still wasn’t enough. “You realize that despite everything that you do, you really aren’t solving the problem,” he recalls.
With the foundation and backing from international environmental groups like GAIA, Grate helped teach communities to collect their own waste and segregate out the plastic. The goal was “zero waste” — impossible to fully achieve but an aspirational goal.
In the zero-waste neighborhood of Hulong Duhat, waste workers were hired to roll carts through a warren of alleyways, collecting bags of trash. They have a monitor, too, who charges fines if residents don’t separate out the plastic. Those were the rules. “First offense, 500 pesos,” says Dahlia Sequita, a community trash monitor, with some relish. “Second offense, 1,000. And third — going to jail!”
Alex Fruelda, 59, has been a garbage collector in San Fernando city, north of Manila, for nearly 10 years. Officials say the city recycles or composts 85 percent of its waste. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Even so, it’s still hard. Says the neighborhood supervisor, Nenita Labiano: “Sometimes I do get overwhelmed with the big problem of plastic.” Some people don’t cooperate. “We want people to follow the rules,” she says, “and yet they don’t and it can be sad.”
Sixteen neighborhoods signed on to the zero-waste goal nonetheless, with varying degrees of success. The same problem besets them all — it’s not just too much plastic but it’s the stuff that can’t be recycled. There’s nowhere to put it, except in landfills, which are few, and from which plastic eventually migrates, by wind or water.
The Baritan neighborhood in Malabon city has adopted a “zero waste” policy that requires citizens to sort their trash and separate out the plastic. Above, trash collectors at work. Jes Aznar for NPR.
The life span of plastic
In the late 1940s, plastic was newly popular and shiny and amazing. Consumer goods companies advertised its cleanliness and durability. What they didn’t talk about much was its permanence.
At the first national conference on packaging waste held in California in 1969, some executives wondered where all this plastic was going to end up. One marketing consultant said that wasn’t their problem. Difficulties with plastic waste “are not the responsibility of those who produce materials, fabricate packages and package goods,” he wrote in “Proceedings: First National Conference on Packaging Waste.” Rather, he said, it’s the consumer’s responsibility.
What manufacturers did was urge people not to litter, as they had for years, by funding the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. And they continued pumping out new kinds of plastic with yet more uses.
A profusion of packets
In the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, the problem was compounded by a new kind of plastic packaging that took flight in the 1980s — the sachet. It was a plastic pouch but often bulked up with layers of aluminum or paper for shape or durability. Think of ketchup packets at a fast-food restaurant.
Sachets are cheap, flashy and convenient. An Indian company used them to sell shampoo or soap or snacks to the poor, who might not have enough cash for a larger purchase.
There are millions of sari-sari stores throughout the Philippines. Sachets, which are not recyclable, are a big part of their stock in trade. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Other big companies followed suit with the same marketing strategy: a product the poor could afford, a day’s supply of what they needed.
Eventually, sachets went viral.
The big drawback, though, is that they cannot be recycled easily. That may not be such a problem in wealthy countries with efficient waste management. But in poor parts of Asia, the packets have created an epidemic of trash.
Because the plastic sachets that hold food and other consumer goods can’t be recycled, independent waste pickers don’t collect them and they end up everywhere. Jes Aznar for NPR.
You can’t drive into Maysilo, a poor neighborhood in Manila near the edge of Manila Bay. You have to walk through narrow alleys. The place greets you with a burst of boombox music, the shouts of children, and barking dogs. People live elbow to elbow in shacks elevated a few feet above ankle-deep water from the neighboring swamp. Below their shacks, you can’t tell whether it’s dirt or water because it’s all literally covered with a uniform carpet of plastic debris, most of it empty sachets.
Nimfa Manlabe runs a sari-sari store (sari means “varied” in Tagalog) out of her tiny home. It’s a Filipino tradition; women selling consumer goods from their homes. “Sunsilk, Palmolive, conditioner,” she says, showing off her racks of sachets.
Nimfa Manlabe, 46, boosts her income by selling consumer goods in sachets from her sari-sari store in her home in Manila. This is a common way for Filipinos to get their daily supplies. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Her customers “come back here every day and buy these small amounts because that’s what they can afford,” she explains.
Because the sachets aren’t recyclable, trash pickers ignore them. And even if the packets were recyclable, Grate says, most places in the Philippines don’t have the infrastructure to actually recycle them.
Sachets like these, developed to market consumer goods to the poor, have become ubiquitous all over Asia. Jes Aznar for NPR.
But sachets and other plastic packaging do have their supporters — like Crispian Lao, who used to be in the plastics industry and is now head of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability. The group represents recyclers as well as companies like Unilever, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and others that make and package consumer goods.
Lao praises the sachets for bringing quality products to consumers in a market where counterfeit goods are common. “There’s also the health issue,” he says: Sachets don’t pose health risks to the consumers in places where water to wash reusable containers might be contaminated.
Lao notes that the world’s biggest consumer goods companies like Unilever and Nestlé have pledged to make all their packaging recyclable and have even set a date — 2025.
But Grate says that recycling can’t wipe out the barrage of plastic in the Philippines. It’s a country of more than 7,000 islands. Neither the national government nor local authorities can afford to put up recycling centers everywhere. And would recyclers pay enough to motivate waste pickers to collect the trash?
Grate says talk of future recycling still puts the burden of cleanup on the consumer. “The problem,” Grate says, “is that most companies … feel their responsibility ends the moment they sell it. That’s one of the biggest injustices here.”
A lesson from a letter
After several years of community work, Grate says he changed. He realized that cleaning up plastic at the local level wasn’t going to stop the tide. “It would take several lifetimes,” he recalls thinking. “At some point you have to change the entire system.”
The citizens of the neighborhood of Navotas participated in a brand audit, where household trash was collected and the brands were listed and publicized. Jes Aznar for NPR.
One incident stands out in his memory. In 2006, he appealed to a big Western company for help. He and his colleagues at the Mother Earth Foundation and Greenpeace wrote to McDonald’s to urge it not to use plastic foam packaging. He took the letter to the corporate offices in Manila. No one would come down to talk to him. Eventually a security guard agreed to take the letter.
“That very moment really crystallized for me the imbalance in the power dynamics,” Grate says now. ” We were not violent. We just wanted to give a letter requesting them to stop using Styrofoam in their stores.” And they simply ignored him.
Blaming Southeast Asia
In 2015, a paper in Science magazine shocked the world with extraordinary revelations about the extent of the plastic tide. Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia, an engineer and waste expert, calculated how much plastic waste was going into the ocean every year. She is the one who came up with the 8 million-ton figure.
The research also opened up a wound. It showed that the biggest sources of plastic waste washing into the oceans are in Southeast and South Asia.
Freedom Island is typical of so many islands in Southeast Asia that become magnets for floating trash. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Manila vies for the title of most densely populated city in the world. At the city’s crowded markets, like the one above, increasing income has boosted the sales of consumer goods packaged in plastic. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Fingers were pointed. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., laid it out loud and clear in a Senate hearing: “Over 50 percent of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Their upland waste management systems are a failure.”
People in the Philippines were angry — among them, Grate. It was blaming the victim, not the manufacturers. “They know the problem, the s*** they’ve been giving to the country and oceans,” he says. “They know this problem, but they can get away with it. We have to make sure that ends.”
A group called Break Free from Plastic came together in 2016. Its global coordinator is a Filipino, Von Hernandez, formerly of Greenpeace. The plan was to challenge companies. Says Hernandez: “If we cannot recycle it or compost this material, then you should not be producing them in the first place.”
Volunteers sort trash items in a brand audit of plastic waste in Navotas, Manila. They keep track of the brands they find and publish results on the Web. Their goal is to pressure companies to change their plastic packaging. Jes Aznar for NPR.
But how to make that happen? The consumer brands were billion-dollar companies. And the companies that make the plastic for all that packaging were giants of the oil and gas industry.
As for the pledge for 2025, no one knows how companies will do it and how much it will cost to set up a huge recycling system across the islands of the Philippines.
In 2016, Grate and other local activists in the Philippines proposed a novel action, something no one had done before: brand audits.
These environmental groups did regular beach cleanups, which helped bring attention to the problem even if the beaches were covered with trash again a few months later. But now they wanted to compile a list of the brand logos emblazoned on the plastic trash and publicize them for all to see.
Workers collect and sort garbage on Freedom Island. Jes Aznar for NPR.
“They feel there is value in brand,” Grate says of the companies. Consumers trust brands. “We wanted to use it against them.”
The activists targeted Freedom Island in Manila Bay, probably the most notorious pit of plastic in the country, for a brand audit. Plastic not only surrounds the shore but piles up knee-deep on beaches. Plastic bags hang from trees like some kind of surreal Dalí painting. The activists collected trash for days and published online the brand logos printed on each package.
And they waited to see what would happen.
Is anyone watching?
Not much did, actually. Word spread among conservation groups that this “brand audit” was a new strategy. It was naming and shaming. But was anyone else paying attention?
Grate and his team didn’t know, but they kept at it. Along with GAIA and Break Free from Plastic, they’ve now done more than 20 brand audits in the Philippines and several in other Southeast Asian countries.
Last September, I saw one in a village called Navotas, a poor neighborhood of cinder block dormitory-style buildings on Manila Bay that floods twice a day, carrying plastic back and forth like some sort of oceanic seesaw. For the audit, volunteers sift through piles of trash, in this case collected from homes. The idea is to see not just what floats onto shorelines but what’s coming from onshore.
It’s dirty work — eight days of community trash spread in piles on the concrete floor of a fenced-in outdoor basketball court. It stinks; workers wear masks and gloves.
Froilan Grate calls out the brand names of plastic trash in a waste audit. Jes Aznar for NPR.
Grate dives in, sorting trash into different types of plastic and reading off labels while a colleague takes notes. “Colgate toothpaste sachet,” he says. “Colgate-Palmolive Philippines.” And another: “Sunsilk shampoo sachet, Unilever.” It will take all day to go through all of it.
He says the companies should be part of the solution. “So who are the companies?” he asks. “That is why we do brand audits.”
Lao, with the Philippine industry group, says the brand audits are a distraction. “There’s a lot of very loud noises out there” about corporate responsibility, he points out. “Does it affect brand image at this point? No,” he says of the audits, adding, “It has not affected actual performance of these brands in the market.”
He says the major consumer brands are already committed to reducing plastic waste. He notes the well-publicized pledge by the brands that by 2025 they’ll use only plastic packaging that can be reused, recycled or composted. In fact, Unilever has a new chemical process to recycle sachets and a pilot plant in Indonesia to test it. Other companies have committed millions of dollars in research funds to find recyclable alternatives.
In the Philippines, Lao’s industry group is planning a research and development effort there to make more plastic recyclable. “The idea right now is that how can we now together, with the global partners, redesign the product so it becomes more recyclable, [and] look at recycling the existing products that are there?” he asks, “because [they’re] not going to disappear overnight.”
Activists are skeptical.
A surprise invitation
But Grate’s name-and-shame approach appears to have had some effect. Late last year, he got a call out of the blue. A mediation group, the Meridian Institute in Washington, D.C., invited him to come talk to people in the U.S. who were concerned about plastic waste. It was a surprise to him. He didn’t know how far news of his audits had traveled. And even more surprising: The people in Washington wanted him to talk with corporate executives from some of the very companies he had been targeting.
I met Grate in Washington, D.C., on a cold sidewalk in December. “I love this weather,” he said. “It’s like free air conditioning.” He said he felt he had to come to the meeting because there was only one other Asian invited. When he got there, he found himself sitting across from senior executives from the oil industry, the chemicals industry and the consumer goods industry. Not just any companies — some of the world’s biggest. He was asked not to name them; one attendee told NPR that anonymity was guaranteed so everyone could speak freely.
Froilan Grate in Washington, D.C., in December. He was invited to meet with industry representatives about the plastic tsunami in Asia. Madeleine Cook/NPR
I asked Grate if the brand audits made the meeting happen? “They weren’t happy about it,” he said of the audits. “And they have questions,” he added, about how his group does them. “But I would say this: The brand audits contributed to the pace of the discussion that’s happening right now.”
I asked how he felt about that. “It’s great,” he said, beaming. “I was made to feel that I have a voice, and people would want to listen to what I have to say. People were actually interested.”
After 18 years, says the island boy from Iloilo, things are looking up.
NPR’s radio stories on plastic in the Philippines were produced by Rebecca Davis and edited by Geoff Brumfiel. Wilma Consul helped with translation and voiceovers.
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Washington, DC – In an effort to preserve their ability to produce cheap single-use plastics, several fossil fuel companies and a fast moving consumer goods company united to launch the Alliance to End Plastic Waste today. The group, which includes Exxon, Dow, Total, Shell, Chevron Phillips, and Procter & Gamble, will look to commit $1.5 billion toward keeping plastics out of the environment, rather than prioritizing the reduction of single-use plastic production.
“The plastics empire has struck back with an initiative that seeks to justify and further entrench the continued production of fossil-fuel based plastics for years to come. By aggressively promoting and financing false solutions in Asia, they think they can continue flooding our markets with their problematic sachets and packaging. Industry cannot continue living in their alternate universe where sky is always the limit – the planet is already suffocating in plastic waste and the times call for real solutions, not illusions,” said Von Hernandez , coordinator of the global #breakfreefromplastic movement.
Statements from #breakfreefromplastic member organizations The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Zero Waste Europe, The Story of Stuff Project, Upstream, Oceana, and Greenpeace follow:
Christie Keith, GAIA International Coordinator and Executive Director
“We can’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution. Instead of coming up with increasingly complicated, unproven, and expensive ways to deal with plastic waste, we need industry to stop making such large quantities of disposable plastic packaging and products in the first place. It is simply absurd to continue using the longest lasting substance for the shortest uses. The answer to this problem is simple – we need to reduce plastic use dramatically. Forward-thinking cities and communities across the world are showing leadership on this front by moving toward zero waste, and it is their efforts that need to be applauded for truly showing us the way of the future.”
Delphine Lévi Alvarès, #breakfreefromplastic movement European coordinator at Zero Waste Europe
“Fossil-fuel producers treat plastic pollution as a waste-management issue in yet another attempt to distract from the real problem. Instead, this investment should be used to scale the alternatives to unnecessary plastics globally. However, this would mean less oil & gas extraction and less plastic manufacturing something that industry is reluctant to accept despite it being the clear solution.”
Sam Pearse, The Story of Stuff Project Plastics Campaign Manager
“Unfortunately these plans look like they were designed to maintain business as usual on plastic production. At a time where plastic is entering our food and drinking water, we need to focus on real solutions: producing less single-use plastic.“
Miriam Gordon, UPSTREAM Program Director
“Using plastic, a material designed to last forever, for products that are used in a matter of minutes and then discarded, will never make sense for people or the planet. Even if the plastics industry spends billions to develop new recycling technologies, there will still be significant pollution impacts associated with the recycling. By using recycling to legitimize the continued extraction of fossil fuels, the plastics and consumer goods industries continue to doom the planet to rapid climate change. These companies should be making pledges to sell and use plastic only for durable materials, not single-use bags, containers, wrappers, bottle caps, lids, utensils, and straws that will escape recycling systems and end up in the environment. The real solutions to plastic pollution are to stop using plastic as a throw away material.”
Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana Chief Policy Officer
“We are at a pivotal moment. The industry’s insistence on producing and using more plastic is simply not sustainable. Plastic-filled bellies of marine birds, sea turtles and fish is beyond acceptable and we may be next. Companies must commit to significantly cut single-use plastic use immediately.”
Graham Forbes, Greenpeace Global Plastics Project Leader
“This is a desperate attempt from corporate polluters to maintain the status quo on plastics. In 2018, people all over the world spoke up and rejected the single-use plastics that companies like Procter & Gamble churn out on a daily basis, urging the industry to invest in refill and reuse systems and innovation. Instead of answering that call, P&G preferred to double down on a failed approach with fossil fuel giants like Exxon, Dow and Total that fuel destructive climate change. Make no mistake about it: plastics are a lifeline for the dying fossil fuel industry, and yesterday’s announcement goes to show how far companies will go to preserve it.”
About Break Free From Plastic:
#breakfreefromplastic is a global movement envisioning a future free from plastic pollution. Since its launch in September 2016, 1,400 groups from across the world have joined the movement to demand massive reductions in single-use plastics and to push for lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. These organizations share the common values of environmental protection and social justice, which guide their work at the community level and represent a global, unified vision. www.breakfreefromplastic.org
Shilpi Chhotray, Break Free From Plastic Senior Communications Officer, P: 703-400-9986
Perry Wheeler, Greenpeace Senior Communications Specialist, P: 301-675-8766
Claire Arkin, Campaign and Communications Associate, GAIA, P: 1-510-883-9490 ext: 111
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Written by Zhang Yu. Originally posted in Global Times.
○ A campaign 10 years ago to charge for plastic bags has been very successful, but that effort is being undone by online shopping
○ Consumers currently have no option but accept wasteful plastic packaging when they order
○ Governments, consumers and the companies themselves are struggling to find ways to deal with this large-scale problem
A woman is arranging bags from a food delivery on September 20 in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Photo: VCG
Cathy Dong (pseudonym), a 32-year-old office worker in Shanghai and a frequent user of new retail and food delivery platforms like Hema Fresh and Meituan, noticed a significant rise in the amount of plastic bags in her daily life recently.
“When I order groceries or fruits from online supermarkets, they often come with a large plastic bag which is free of charge. I have a drawer that stores these plastic bags and it fills up really quickly these days,” she told the Global Times.
In June 2008, China implemented a nationwide ban on free plastic bags in supermarkets, shopping malls and markets. After the ban, supermarkets and retail stores started to charge 0.1 to 1 yuan for each plastic bag, and as a result many Chinese consumers started to take their own reusable bags when they visit shopping malls.
According to a report by the National Development and Reform Commission in 2013, in five years, the ban cut consumption of plastic bags by at least 67 billion and saved the equivalent of 1 million metric tons of plastic.
But as e-commerce and food delivery platforms mushroomed in recent years, and as shopping moved largely from offline to online, experts say the ban’s focus on brick-and-mortar stores is outdated and they are calling for an upgrade of the regulation 10 years after its implementation.
“The use of plastic bags by vendors on e-commerce platforms is now a grey area, as the 2008 regulation didn’t specify whether plastic bags can be provided for free in online stores. Regulations on plastic bags and boxes by food delivery platforms is also a blank area. However, these platforms contribute enormously to the growth of plastic waste in China. The authorities should promptly adjust the regulations and include the platforms in the ban,” Mao Da, founder of Break Free From Plastic China, a nonprofit group devoted to the reuse and recycling of plastics, told the Global Times.
E-commerce is a major area which sees an alarming rise of plastic bag use in China.
An e-commerce package usually consists of a paper box, plastic fillers, a plastic bag and plastic tape to wrap the box. A report by China’s State Post Bureau in 2017 showed that in 2016, China’s couriers used 14.7 billion plastic bags and 330 million rolls of plastic tape.
“Only less than 20 percent of the packaging used by couriers can be recycled, and the plastic components in the packaging, such as fillers and plastic tape, are almost non-recyclable due to their low value,” Zhu Lei, vice director of the Qingdao Institute of Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication, told china.com.cn. Currently, landfill is the main way to deal with plastic waste.
The issue has alarmed Chinese authorities. On December 17, the State Post Bureau issued a trial regulation on environmental packaging. According to the regulation, the courier industry should standardize, reduce and recycle packages and gradually cut the number of packages. The regulation encourages companies to consider biodegradable plastic bags when they purchase and use plastic packages, and gradually enhance the percentage of plastic bags that meets requirements. It also encourages companies to avoid single-use plastic bags.
More harmful than plastic bags is the rapid growth of single-use plastic boxes and cutlery provided by China’s expanding food delivery platforms.
China’s food delivery platforms and apps have significantly changed the way Chinese people eat. A report by iiMedia Research this year shows that in 2017, the total number of users of food delivery apps amounted to 300 million, up 19.1 percent from 2016. More than 200 billion yuan’s worth of meals were ordered in 2017. In 2018, that number is expected to reach 243 billion.
According to another report by China’s Zero Waste Alliance, a non-profit group that has been promoting waste reduction, Chinese consumers use 40 million plastic boxes each day through various food delivery platforms, which adds up to 14.6 billion plastic boxes a year.
Dong says she sometimes receives five to six plastic boxes for a meal she orders. The boxes hold rice, the main dish, soup, sauce and side dishes respectively. “Sometimes I feel guilty for generating so much plastic waste,” she said.
Plastic meal boxes are difficult to recycle. “Compared with Western food, Chinese cuisine is more greasy, and this has greatly affected the recyclability of these meal boxes,” Mao told the Global Times.
In September 2017, the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, a non-profit organization, sued China’s three major food delivery platforms Meituan Waimai, ele.me and Baidu Takeout, for harming the environment by providing single-use plastic cutlery and plastic bags. The volunteer group said the platforms fail to provide options for users to waive single-use cutlery, resulting in a huge waste of resources, according to the website of Beijing No. 4 Intermediate People’s Court. The case is still awaiting a verdict.
Following the lawsuit, all these food delivery platforms started to offer an option allowing customers to waive single-use cutlery. However, many users found that even though they ticked the option, restaurants still sent them cutlery, fearing complaints.
Looking for solutions
Experts say the single-use cutlery and boxes used in food delivery will result in huge damage to the environment, and food delivery platforms need to put as much emphasis on environmental protection and social responsibility as they do on pursuing profit.
A spokesperson for Meituan told the Global Times that the company has been working on ways to adapt the growth of food delivery to environmental development. Since August 2017, the company rolled out a series of measures to cut down plastic use.
For example, through a trial program, the company is now encouraging restaurants in Changning district, Shanghai, to replace plastic bags with paper bags to hold the meals. It is also working with partners in the recycling industry to recycle and reuse certain plastic boxes.
Ele.me is tackling plastic waste by rolling out edible chopsticks, made of flour, butter, sugar and milk. The chopsticks can last 10 months and are degradable in one week.
Baidu Takeout says it will award restaurants that use environmentally friendly packaging by boosting their ranking in search results.
However, experts still doubt whether these measures will be able to reduce the massive scale of China’s food delivery waste problem. Mao, of Break Free From Plastic China, said food delivery platforms should disclose the amount of plastic waste generated through their platform every day, and set up a target on cutting plastic waste according to their sales revenue. They can also launch trials to encourage a reduction of plastic waste.
In the meantime, some local governments has been working with food delivery platforms to promote the use of environmental friendly food packaging. The Shanghai Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau, for example, launched a trial program this April requiring food delivery services to use environmentally friendly food packaging in Shanghai’s Changning, Pudong and Putuo districts.
Restaurants that fail to follow the rule will be punished through a point system, and the measure is expected to cut plastic waste by 75 percent, according to the Shanghai Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau.
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Container vans containing misdeclared mixed wastes from South Korea are set to be repatriated by the Bureau of Customs today, 13 January 2019, from Misamis Oriental, The Philippines. A total of 51 container vans will be sent back to South Korea, and is just part of the xx trash-filled container vans illegally sent by Verde Soko, Inc. to the Philippines last July and October, 2018. Greenpeace lauds the quick and decisive action of the Bureau of Customs in resolving this issue. This action sends a very strong message that the Philippines is not a dumping ground and the broken system of recycling puts developing countries, like the Philippines, at risk. Photo: Geric Cruz/Greenpeace
Manila, Philippines (January 14, 2019) — Philippine members of Break Free From Plastic (BFFP), a global movement campaigning against plastic pollution, laud the swift and decisive action taken by the Philippines’ Bureau of Customs (BOC) to repatriate the illegal shipments to South Korea.
The said shipments arrived at the port of the Phividec Industrial Estate Authority at the Southern part of the country last July and October 2018 for locator consignee Verde Soko Philippines Industrial Corporation.
After investigating the controversial waste shipments, the BOC concluded that this was a clear case of waste dumping by Korean company, Green Soko Co. Ltd., especially as the shipments of mixed wastes totaling 6,500 tons were misdeclared as plastic flakes, and without proper importation permits.
“Developing countries like the Philippines are not dumping grounds for the wastes of developed countries. Exporters of these mixed waste shipments typically mis-declare their cargo or hide behind the veil of recycling to circumvent national laws and agreements that prohibit waste dumping. By returning these shipments to South Korea, the Philippines is sending a strong message against unscrupulous waste traders that our shores are off limits to plastic trash imports,” said Abigail Aguilar, Greenpeace Philippines Campaigner.
The controversial Korean shipments were declared as “plastic flakes” but upon inspection by the BOC, the shipments yielded a mix of plastic wastes, paper, metal, rubber, and other materials. The first shipment that arrived in July as break bulk cargo (i.e. not in shipping containers) still sits in an open field in the yet unfinished Verde Soko facility. An additional 81 containers of waste were supposed to be shipped but was stopped before it reached Philippine shores after the news of the first two shipments broke.
Plastic pollution has reached crisis proportions globally. With China closing its doors to plastic imports starting January 2018, developed countries have been scrambling to find countries that will accept their waste. Southeast Asian countries are fast becoming leading destinations for the world’s plastic waste. Recent reports have shown an increase in plastic waste import in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Malaysia and Vietnam have since banned the importation of plastic waste, but implementation has been lacking.
“We call on Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their safeguard against importation of plastic waste and to strictly enforce their policies against transboundary waste shipment,” said Beau Baconguis, Regional Plastics Campaigner, GAIA Asia Pacific and Break Free From Plastic. “It is unfair for these developed countries to export their waste to Asia and then have the gall to call Asia as the world’s biggest plastic polluters,” she added.
As the Philippines hails the repatriation of the South Korean waste, local eco-groups are also calling on Canada to take back their waste that have been in the country far longer.
In a statement released earlier by the Philippine watchdog, Eco Waste Coalition, Aileen Lucero said, “By saying ‘no’ to garbage dumping from Korea and other countries, we say ‘no’ to the derogation of our country’s dignity and sovereignty, ‘no’ to the disrespect for national and international laws, and ‘no’ to the harm they will bring to our communities.”
“While we laud the move of the Philippine government to repatriate this illegal shipment of waste from South Korea, we are closely monitoring until the entire process of repatriation is completed. We also urge the public to remain vigilant of future illegal waste shipment in the country. Asia is not any rich country’s dumping ground. We are not their “away,” added Baconguis.
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Oakland, CA—Jan. 10, 2019—As You Sow is challenging three of the world’s largest plastic resins manufacturers to disclose actions taken to prevent and remediate spills of pre-production plastic pellets into waterways during production or transport. Plastic pellets are estimated to be the second largest direct source of microplastic pollution to the ocean by weight.
After attempts to engage the companies in dialogue were unsuccessful, shareholder proposals were filed recently with Chevron, DowDupont, ExxonMobil, and Phillips 66, which own large petrochemical operations that produce plastics. The proposals ask for annual reports disclosing spills and measures taken to prevent and clean up any spills.
Most plastic products originate from plastic pellets, also known as pre-production pellets, or nurdles. Billions of plastic pellets are swept into waterways annually, adding to harmful levels of plastic pollution in the environment.
The chemical operations divisions of the four companies are members of Operation Clean Sweep, an industry initiative with a stated goal of reducing pellet spills through adoption of best practices to prevent spills, but this initiative has provided no public reporting in more than 25 years of existence.
“The industry’s effort to deal with pellet spills, Operation Clean Sweep, provides no transparency on the scope and nature of spills or efforts made to clean up,” said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow. “Given what we know about the alarming rates of plastic leakage into oceans, companies can no longer hide behind vague pledges of best practices. They need to provide prompt and detailed disclosure about specific actions taken to prevent spills, and when spills occur, information on spill size, and actions taken to clean up.”
Pellets are similar in size and shape to fish eggs and are often mistaken by marine animals for food. Plastic pellets can absorb toxins such as dioxins from water and transfer them to the marine food web and potentially to human diets, increasing the risk of adverse effects to wildlife and humans.
Eight million tons of plastic leak into oceans annually, impacting 260 species, causing fatalities from ingestion, entanglement, suffocation, and drowning. Plastic does an estimated $13 billion in damage to marine ecosystems annually. If no action is taken, oceans are expected to contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
One recent study estimated that up to 53 billion pellets may be spilled annually in the United Kingdom alone. Another study concluded that continuous leakage from one major industry production complex in Sweden releases up to 36 million plastic pellets annually. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined at least four companies in the last two years for spilling pellets into waterways in Southern California.
DowDupont and its subsidiaries reported 120 material spills in 2016 and 2017, but company information lacks specificity as to which may have involved pellets, whether spills occurred on land or waterways, and the extent to which spilled materials were recovered. In 2017, joint venture SCG-Dow disclosed four high-severity spills that may have released up to 11,000 pounds of plastic powder or granules. No information was provided as to what extent of that spill was recovered and what action was taken to prevent similar spills in the future.
For more information on As You Sow’s work on ocean plastics, click here.
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