Dozens of companies launch US$1 billion bid to end plastic pollution in Asia but environmentalists dismiss it as ‘greenwashing’ stunt

Dozens of companies launch US$1 billion bid to end plastic pollution in Asia but environmentalists dismiss it as ‘greenwashing’ stunt

  • Since China banned plastic waste imports in January 2018, Southeast Asia has become the world’s dumping ground

  • Thailand had a 2,000 per cent jump in the imports of US plastic waste in the first six months of 2018

A new oil and chemical industry-led global alliance founded to tackle Asia’s crippling plastic waste crisis has been slammed by environmental groups as a “greenwashing” stunt.

The “Alliance to End Plastic Waste” (AEPW) consortium of more than 30 companies launched last month, dedicating a combined total of US$1 billion over the next five years – aiming for US$1.5 billion if more conglomerates join – to develop better plastic recycling practices and infrastructure around the world.

Its founding members include companies such as Chevron, Dow, Formosa Plastics, Mitsubishi Chemical, Procter & Gamble, Sumitomo Chemical, and Shell.

A alliance of conglomerates led by oil and chemical giants, including Shell, says it is aiming to “end plastic waste”. Photo: EPA

The group said it would start in Southeast Asia – namely in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – the four countries that, along with China, are estimated by the Ocean Conservancy to generate more than 60 per cent of the plastic trash in oceans.

The alliance announced that it was partnering with the United Nations, the National Geographic Society and Project STOP in Indonesia, among other organisations.

These companies want to appear to be … concerned about plastic pollution, while they continue to churn out plastics


Speaking at the launch, Laurent Auguste, vice-president of the waste management company Veolia, said Southeast Asia was the first stop because the region’s rapid development and expanding middle class had “changed consumption patterns”.

“At the same time, there has been a lack of investment in waste management and infrastructure,” Auguste said. He added that the group would work with a project called Circular Capital to provide funding for Southeast Asian entrepreneurs willing to develop collection and processing sites for recycling plastic waste.

Almost at once, the alliance drew fire from regional environmental groups over the campaign’s intent and location.

“We have reasons to be sceptical with the newly launched Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which is led by chemical and plastic industries. The conflict of interest is obvious,” said Daniel Alejandre of the EcoWaste Coalition in the Philippines.

“Can we expect this alliance to ditch single-use plastics in favour of sustainable packaging and delivery systems that will conserve resources and stop chemical and plastic pollution of our oceans? The answer is probably not.”

He continued: “Also, we fear that their US$1 billion pledge will only be used for cosmetic waste management projects to conceal the real problem and block the real solution.”

A alliance of conglomerates led by oil and chemical giants, including Shell, says it is aiming to “end plastic waste”. Photo: EPA


Since China banned plastic waste imports in January 2018, Southeast Asia has become the world’s dumping ground. In just one example, Thailand had a 2,000-per-cent jump in the imports of US plastic waste in the first six months of 2018.

In November, Greenpeace Malaysia issued a statement: “The Malaysian plastic recycling industry is overwhelmed by the influx and cannot accommodate waste in a way that is sustainable and acceptable by the government’s own standards.” The group said that Malaysia had become a trash bin for plastic recycling from more than 19 countries, including the US, the UK and Australia.

“It seems that the illegal entry of plastic garbage from overseas in the guise of recycling has aggravated our woes,” said Alejandre of the Manila-based EcoWaste Coalition. “We have seen that plastic waste no longer allowed to enter China is now being sent to countries in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, for so-called recycling – but it is rarely retrieved or recycled.”

Data from the Korea Custom Service showed that waste exports to the Philippines increased from 4,398 tons in 2017 to 11,588 tons in 2018 after Beijing’s ban.

According to Greenpeace Malaysia, 90 per cent of plastic waste is exported from high-income countries, but only 9 per cent of it is recycled. Roughly 12 per cent is burned, it said, and the rest – roughly 80 per cent – ends up in landfills, oceans or the environment.

Southeast Asia government’s have started to react. In the past few months, the Philippines has twice shipped back exported plastic waste from South Korea. In July, Vietnam banned new licenses for the import of waste and took measures against illegal shipments. In October, Thailand said it would stop plastic waste imports by 2021, and Malaysia announced that it would permanently ban plastic waste imports in same timeframe.

The AEPW, which includes some of the biggest global plastics giants, said it was formed to fight the problem.

“Everyone agrees that plastic waste does not belong in our oceans or anywhere in the environment. This is a complex and serious global challenge that calls for swift action and strong leadership,” said David Taylor, the chief executive Procter & Gamble, and chairman of the AEPW, in a launch statement.

“This new alliance is the most comprehensive effort to date to end plastic waste in the environment.”

But environmentalists were having none of it.

“We consider this alliance a greenwashing operation. It’s like the firefighters who started the fire,” said Tom Zoete, a spokesman for the Brussels-based Recycling Netwerk, referring to the practice of an industry or company trying to appear to be more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

“As for Southeast Asia, there are two possible answers for why they are starting there. You could argue that you could make a bigger difference in the countries that don’t have developed waste-disposal systems.

“But we think there is another agenda: focusing on Southeast Asia is a way to tell the US and western Europe that this crisis is far away – it’s an Asian problem.”

Rubbish collectors clearing plastic trash on Kuta beach, Bali. Photo: AFP


Among the many critics of AEPW, the most vocal has been Greenpeace, the Amsterdam-based environmental watchdog.

Its Malaysia affiliate told the Post that many of the members who pledged US$1 billion to fight plastic waste also “invested US$186 billion between 2010 and 2017 into new facilities for plastic production”.

“These companies want to appear to be environmentalists concerned about plastic pollution, while they continue to churn out plastics for profit. Fossil fuel companies plan to expand plastic production by 40 per cent in the coming years, locking us into decades of worsening plastic pollution,” the group said in an email this week to the Post.

“Corporations are attempting to make themselves look green, but we know this is really about protecting their bottom line. The only way to keep plastics out of our environment is to stop producing so much to begin with.”

Graham Forbes, the head of Greenpeace Global Plastics, was even more direct when the AEPW was formed: “This is a desperate attempt from corporate polluters to maintain the status quo on plastics. Make no mistake about it: plastics are a lifeline for the dying fossil fuel industry, and today’s announcement goes to show how far companies will go to preserve it.”

Yet Laurent Auguste, the head of Veolia, was quoted as saying that the AEPW is not just about making “lofty commitments” before going back to the plastics business. And Peter Baker, chief executive of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, called the AEPW campaign “unprecedented in size, in scope, in positions in the sector and geographic spread”.

“History has shown us that collective action and partnerships between industry, governments and NGOs can deliver innovative solutions to a global challenge like this,” said Bob Patel, chief executive of LyondellBasell, and a vice-chairman of the AEPW.

“The issue of plastic waste is seen and felt all over the world. It must be addressed and we believe the time for action is now.”

Even so, amid the accusations of greenwashing, the AEPW has been quiet. It has made few public statements since its launch and multiple request for comment by the Post were ignored.

The silence has left some industry insiders wondering, what’s next?

About eight million tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the world’s oceans every year – over half of which comes from five China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Photo: AFP

Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, pointed out that industry-led campaigns such as this have been around for 30 years. This time, he said, the AEPW appears “aware of the situation in Southeast Asia, and the focus is pretty direct”.

“Tremendous anti-plastic sentiment that has percolated up. They are very aware of the situation,” Alexander said.

“What’s intriguing to me, is that the big brands have aligned themselves with the project. And though they won’t really be negatively affected if it doesn’t work, it make a big difference. They’re admitting it and are being the face of it: they put their chins out there.

“This is good start,” he said. “It sure as heck beats not doing anything.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Green groups slam industry bid to reduce plastic waste.
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A zero-waste Philippines is possible

A zero-waste Philippines is possible

Five years ago, Presidential Proclamation No. 760, signed by former president Benigno S. Aquino III, officially declared the month of January as Zero Waste Month. The proclamation defined “zero waste” as “an advocacy that promotes designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, and to conserve and recover all resources, and not indiscriminately dispose or burn them.”

Even before the issuance of the proclamation, various nongovernmental organizations in the Philippines have been trying to mainstream zero waste as a goal for our government. In fact, PP 760 traces its roots to the first-ever Zero Waste Youth Convergence organized by Mother Earth Foundation, in which 5,000 youth leaders issued a Zero Waste Youth statement calling for the celebration of a Zero Waste Month.

January was chosen as Zero Waste Month because this was the month when Republic Act No. 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, got signed. Many countries around the world have expressed admiration for this landmark Philippine law, as it calls for a decentralized waste and resource management system that also bans waste incinerators.

According to the National Solid Waste Commission, waste in Philippine cities and municipalities is mostly composed of organics (52 percent). Recyclables comprise 28 percent, and residuals (waste that can’t be reused, recycled or composted) 18 percent. Much of the waste (80 percent, which is organics and recyclables combined) can be safely returned to nature or industry without resorting to landfills and incineration.

Through proper segregation, organics can be composted in our homes, schools and offices. In a linear waste management approach, organics are wasted instead of being turned into a resource. Under a zero-waste approach, recyclables are reused and recycled and become a source of livelihood for waste workers as well.

Various cities and towns in the Philippines have shown leadership in implementing the law, hoping to transform into a  zero-waste city. A good model is San Fernando, Pampanga, which achieved a 78-percent waste diversion record (or the amount that was composted or recycled instead of going into the landfill) in 2017, from 12 percent in 2012. Tacloban City was also able to increase the coverage of waste collection but managed to decrease the volume of waste sent into landfills.

However, the work does not end at the local government unit (LGU) level. Many LGUs that have already been implementing zero-waste policies need strong support from national government agencies and legislators. They have the power to enable an environment that supports these policies by enacting laws and supporting the implementation of such laws that can scale up the successes of LGUs doing the zero-waste approach.

For instance, cities like San Fernando, Pampanga, that are trying to reduce nonrecyclable plastic waste through local ordinances cannot implement zero waste effectively unless there is a law at the national level to mandate businesses to stop the production of single-use disposable plastic packaging. Having a national law will ensure that materials such as disposable implements or throwaway sachet packaging are not produced in the first place. Thus, it removes the burden from LGUs to have to manage plastic waste that can neither be recycled nor composted.

With strong political will and robust policies in place, government leaders and an engaged citizenry can transform the Philippines into a zero-waste country. The coming midterm elections is an opportune time to ensure that we are on the right track.

* * *

Froilan Grate is the regional coordinator of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives Asia-Pacific. Jed Alegado is the communications officer for Asia-Pacific of #breakfreefromplastic. This article was originally posted in Inquirer.

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Berkeley isn’t just attacking plastic waste, it’s rejecting our entire throwaway culture

Berkeley isn’t just attacking plastic waste, it’s rejecting our entire throwaway culture

If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t immediately reach for a mop — you’d first turn off the tap. That’s what we need to do with single-use plastics.

Plastic was never recycled at a high level, and it’s even worse since 2018, when China closed its doors to imported mixed plastic waste. U.S. recyclers have shifted exports to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, but those countries lack the capacity to handle the volume we’re sending, which has brought them new environmental problems.

Moreover, despite our willingness to move plastic waste around the world, only about 9% of the plastic ever made has actually been recycled. We just keep making more of the stuff. If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t immediately reach for a mop — you’d first turn off the tap. That’s what we need to do with single-use plastics.

Berkeley recently passed a law that moves us a step closer to that, and it’s something that should be replicated across the country. The ordinance does not simply ban plastic foodware, leaving businesses to replace it with other throwaway materials: It rejects throwaway culture altogether.

Beginning immediately, Berkeley will require that accessory items such as utensils, straws, lids and sleeves be provided by request only and that food vendors have compost bins for all customers. In January 2020, the city will also require that all disposable takeout foodware be Biodegradable Products Institute-certified compostable and that vendors charge 25 cents for hot and cold takeout cups. If a customer brings a reusable cup, the charge is not applied. And by July 1, 2020, the ordinance will require that all eat-in dining be on reusable foodware.

These are groundbreaking shifts away from our culture of overconsumption. The Berkeley ordinance stands in stark contrast to a recently announced industry initiative calling itself the “Alliance to End Plastic Waste” and funded by companies including Exxon, Dow, Shell, Chevron Phillips and Procter & Gamble. The industry alliance has promised to invest $1.5 billion in its efforts over five years for things such as encouraging more recycling. But at the same time, the Guardian has reported, some of the companies involved are investing more than $180 billion in new plastic manufacturing facilities.

It’s not that there isn’t still a role for recycling in efforts to reduce trash. Cans, bottles, paper and cardboard are highly recyclable.

But we need to be more realistic about the kinds of plastic that can be effectively collected, processed and then reused. Single-stream recycling, which co-mingles different materials for collection, is convenient, but it leads to increased contamination and thus lower quality recyclables.

Even with increased investment in sorting, recycling will never be able keep up with all of the new types of plastics on the market or the ever-increasing flow of plastic waste. We need to prioritize reduction and reuse, making recycling the last option, especially for single-use items.

That’s why the Berkeley ordinance is so important. It recognizes the need for a fundamental shift in how the things we buy are packaged and served, and that’s the only way we can begin to make a dent in the plastic pollution crisis.

Annie Leonard is executive director of Greenpeace USA. Martin Bourque is executive director of the Ecology Center, which launched the nation’s first curbside recycling program. They are Berkeley residents.


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Berkeley City Council Poised to Pass Ambitious Ordinance to Curb Disposable Foodware

Berkeley City Council Poised to Pass Ambitious Ordinance to Curb Disposable Foodware

Press Release

[Berkeley, CA]  On January 22, 2019, the Berkeley City Council will vote on the Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, the most ambitious and comprehensive piece of municipal legislation in the US aimed at reducing single-use disposable foodware.

The “Disposable-Free Dining” ordinance will get its first reading at the December Berkeley City Council Meeting. A press event will be held in advance, at 4:00pm (location), featuring Council Member Sophie Hahn, the ordinance’s lead author. “Single-use disposable foodware is a local and global problem, one with enormous financial and environmental
costs,” says Hahn.

Berkeley’s ordinance goes further than the many disposable plastic reduction ordinances that have passed around the US and globe in the last two years. It requires that:

1) only reusable foodware can be used for dine-in service,
2) all takeout foodware must be BPI-certified compostable,
3) food vendors must charge customers $0.25 for every disposable beverage cup, and
4) disposable compostable straws, stirrers, cup spill plugs, napkins, and utensils for take-out are provided only upon request by the customer or at a self-serve station.
City-owned facilities and City-sponsored events will adhere to the same standards, and mini-grants will be available to help businesses transition.

In April 2018, the City Council introduced the draft ordinance and referred it to the Zero Waste Commission to seek public input. The Commission held six public listening sessions, received over 60 pages of input, and submitted recommendations back to City Council. Councilmembers then revised the ordinance into its current form, which will be put to a vote.

Earlier iterations of the ordinance accepted recyclable disposable foodware, but the final draft omitted it altogether, as global plastic recycling markets continue to founder. “Most of the single-use plastic foodware has no value in today’s recycling markets. With China’s ban on importing plastic scrap, cities are actually paying to get rid of it,” says Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Ecology Center, the nonprofit that has collected Berkeley’s recycling since 1973. “We cannot recycle our way out of the disposable foodware problem. We have to focus on reduction.”

“Our throw-away culture is leading to a proliferation of plastics in our food, air, and drinking water, which threatens human health and all ocean life. Disposable food packaging is the biggest contributor to the problem,” says Upstream’s Policy Director Miriam Gordon. “Globally, we’ve seen that charging consumers for plastic bags is the most effective way to
shift people from disposables to reusables. The Disposable-Free Dining ordinance builds on
that strategy.”

“Businesses that make these changes are often surprised at the cost savings and customer
satisfaction when they move away from disposables,” says Samantha Sommer, who manages Clean Water Action’s Rethink Disposable, a grant-funded program that helps local businesses make the kinds of changes the ordinance mandates.

According to a Clean Water Action study, food and beverage packaging comprise the majority of all Bay Area street litter. Bay Area cities are struggling to meet the Regional Water Board’s zero litter to storm drains requirement by 2022. Like other cities, Berkeley bears the cost of litter abatement – including the costly collection of debris from storm drains – as do the business districts. Last year alone, the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District’s street ambassadors picked up over 22 tons of litter.

Globally, single-use disposable foodware is contributing to plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, drinking water, and food. 80% of plastic found in the ocean come from land-based sources. Shoreline Cleanup results from Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville underscore this.

The ordinance is supported by a coalition of over 1000 local, national, and international organizations participating in the Break Free from Plastic (BFFP) global movement, including the Ecology Center, Clean Water Action, UpStream, The Story of Stuff Project, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and Surfrider Foundation. BFFP Global Coordinator Von Hernandez, says, “The gravity of the global plastic pollution crisis should compel policy and decision makers to enact measures to reduce plastic waste. Zero waste practitioners worldwide applaud and support this initiative from Berkeley and look forward to its adoption and implementation.”


Martin Bourque, Executive Director, Ecology Center, 510-812-5514
Council member Sophie Hahn, 510-981-7150
Karina Ioffee, Director of Communications, Office of Mayor Jesse Arreguin, 510-981-7102

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An Island Crusader Takes On The Big Brands Behind Plastic Waste

An Island Crusader Takes On The Big Brands Behind Plastic Waste

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?

Map showing the location of the Philippines

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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Industry group seeks to maintain single-use plastic status quo

Industry group seeks to maintain single-use plastic status quo

Press Statement

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.



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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