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Did Filipino “Tingi” Culture Pave the Way for Plastic Sachets in the Philippines?

Photo by Glen via WikiMedia In his essay, “A Heritage of Smallness,” National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin, wrote: “Enterprise for the Filipino is small stall: the sari-sari… Commerce for the Filipino is the smallest degree of retail: the tingi. What most astonishes foreigners in the Philippines is that this is a country, perhaps the only one in the world, where people buy and sell one stick of cigarette, half a head of garlic, a dab of pomade, parts of the content of a can or bottle, one single egg, one single banana.” Indeed, we have a tingi culture, and it is being blamed for the proliferation of sachets in the country. Having understood this culture so well, big business gave us the sachets, promoting them as “pro-poor.” They peddled the narrative that by making their products available in small packets, people who would otherwise be unable to afford them can now enjoy them. And because it’s been part of our culture to buy small, these sachets were welcomed without much thought. If we think about it, buying things in sachets is also buying in tingi, only made more convenient. I remember that when I was a young kid, whenever I was sent to the sari-sari store to buy something in tingi, say ¼ of a bottle of vinegar, my mother would make me bring a container with me. The tindera (store owner/manager) would pour the vinegar into the container. Today, people still buy about the same quantity of vinegar. But unlike before, they no longer bring a container with them because the same quantity of vinegar (perhaps even smaller) now comes in sachets and they are not only available in sari-sari stores but also in big groceries. If I didn’t fully understand the problem with sachets, I would have called it “parehong sistema, pinasosyal lang” (the same system, just made hipper). But because I know a bit better, I say, “the same system, just made dirty.”

Today, people still buy about the same quantity of vinegar. But unlike before, they no longer bring a container with them because the same quantity of vinegar (perhaps even smaller) now comes in sachets...
Yes, dirty because sachets, particularly plastic sachets, are made of fuel. Just think of the chemicals they contain, and how many of those chemicals might be harmful to you. But more importantly, dirty because these sachets are designed for the landfill. They don’t have recycling value—once we’re done with them, we toss them into the garbage bin and give them to the waste collector, who would then bring them to a landfill to sit for decades, producing leachate that are harmful to the environment. That is, if they don’t get released into the environment or washed out to the sea, where they harm marine lives. But I digress. Because it is part of our culture to buy small, big business would make us believe that giving us the sachets was simply a response to an important need. But the thing is, we never asked for sachets! The system of bringing our containers to the sari-sari store was working well! Until of course, big business introduced another narrative: Convenience is king! I also remember from my childhood that bringing reusable containers was not confined when going to the sari-sari store. Whenever my mom and I went to the public market, we always brought with us a basket which we used to carry the goods we purchased. Plastic already existed at the time, but they were not free. If you wanted a plastic bag, you’d have to buy them. Just a few decades ago, this practice of bringing reusable containers to the public market was the norm. Sadly, that practice was lost over time. Now, even in the province, I no longer see people bringing containers when they go to the market, much less to the grocery. Not even to the sari-sari store. Because now, plastic bags are everywhere and are free. It is only of late, due to years of pressure from environmental activists, that single-use bags are slowly being banned in various parts of the world. As governments are banning single-use plastic bags with the gradual mainstreaming of Zero Waste, stores hailed as Zero Waste are now sprouting. But if you’d really look at it, many of the Zero Waste establishments are actually just stores that mimic our old way of shopping—stores that don’t use problematic packaging and require their customers to bring their own containers. These stores are showing the big business how to do it—how they should have done it. Let’s stop buying big business’ pro-poor narrative. It is not that we are poor and that we buy tingi style that plastic sachets came to be; it is that companies were focused solely on profit. Instead of developing a sustainable system that would support our tingi culture, they capitalized on it wantonly and without regard to the damage their packaging would cause to the environment and to our health. It is their greed, not their supposed concern for the poor, that made them package their products in problematic materials.
Let’s stop buying big business’ pro-poor narrative. It is not that we are poor and that we buy tingi style that plastic sachets came to be; it is that companies were focused solely on profit.
Buying tingi is not the problem. In fact, as many practitioners of Zero Waste now say, by buying only the things we can consume, we prevent wastage. As an adult, I no longer buy ¼ bottle of vinegar (I now buy by the bottle), but I also don’t buy perishables in bulk or very large bags. The idea is that we buy only the amount that makes sense, and that is, what we can actually consume—not too much so that we don’t waste them, and not too little for our actual need so that we don’t buy things in sachet. I wish Zero Waste stores would become the norm in the country. Or shall I say, I wish our culture of bringing our own container would make a full comeback, because actually, we used to do things the Zero Waste way). I hope more and more people will pick up that old practice. Because indeed, sometimes, the way forward is going back to our old ways of doing. Sherma Benosa is the Knowledge Management Officer of GAIA Asia Pacific. She may be reached at sherma@no-burn.org.

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Back to the Future

Photo by John Martin Perry via Wikimedia Glaiza Lee, a writer in her mid-30s, still remembers her family owning and managing a sari-sari store in their home in Caloocan City during the early 1990s. Then a grade school pupil, Glaiza often helped in the store repacking goods and selling them. Glaiza’s mother used to buy goods from the market in bulk—cooking oil by the gallon, bagoong (fish paste) by the gatang, vinegar by the liter, and salt and sugar by the kilo—which they would then resell in their store tingi-style. Tingi is simply retail, but in the context of sari-sari stores (neighborhood stores selling household essentials, usually food and personal care products), it is reselling items in much smaller quantities, usually enough for one-time use, depending on the item.  Meanwhile, 65-year old Mario Tejada, a retired government employee in Piddig, Ilocos Norte, also used to help his mother sell in the public market during “market days”—Wednesdays and Sundays—in the ‘60s. His family also owned a sari-sari store at home.  According to Mario, market-goers used to bring baskets, commonly made of rattan or bamboo, with which to carry what they purchased. Meat vendors either wrapped their produce in banana leaves or strung them together using bamboo twine. This practice is still being done in some provinces these days, especially by small-time fisher folks selling their catch by the roadside.  They also used samak leaves to wrap their goods, which usually consisted of meat, shells, fruits, vegetables, etc. The customers that frequented their sari-sari store also brought their own containers when purchasing certain products. But unlike Glaiza’s family who made use of a measuring device for some items, Mario’s family usually would just estimate the content that they would pour into the customer’s container. “For example, if a customer wanted a quarter bottle of vinegar, we would designate a quarter-bottle mark in the bottle and pour content into the customer’s container. When the remaining content reached the mark, we’d stop pouring,” Mario explained. The containers that the customers brought depended on the items they were buying. “If they wanted gas for their gasera (gas/kerosene lamp), they would bring the gasera itself and we’d pour the gas directly into it,” said Mario. “If they wanted a shot of alcoholic drink, they would bring their drinking glass and they’d drink from it immediately!” Deposit Scheme Deposit schemes were already commonplace during Glaiza’s childhood, especially for sodas. Sodas then were in glass bottles which distributors used to collect every time they came to deliver new orders. To buy cases of sodas from the distributors, the sari-sari store owners would surrender empty soda bottles returned to them by the buyers. To ensure that the customers would return the empty soda bottles, sari-sari store owners required a deposit.  For sellers of local products, such as chocolate drinks, Glaiza remembers simply leaving the empty bottles right outside their door. The seller would then replace these with new products.  Sachets and the Narrative of Convenience The tingi system as it was practiced in the old days worked well, but everything changed when the corporations introduced plastic sachets. In just over a few decades since they were introduced in the Philippine market, sachets and other single-use plastics have become ubiquitous, so much so that a 2019 study by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives showed that Filipinos generate as much as 164 million sachets in a year—enough to cover the whole of Metro Manila in a foot of plastic sachets.  Fast-moving consumer goods have been using the pro-poor narrative to push sachets in the market. Through their low price-points and marketing pushes, brands were able to push out the old sustainable ways of selling products cheaply.  They also pushed out the natural products that our elders used with products laden with harmful chemicals. Mario shared that during his childhood, they used to soak gugo bark sheets in water and use the resulting foamy water as shampoo and used crushed guava leaves as deodorant, ipil or banaba leaves as floor wax. Just a few decades ago, people still drank fresh fruit juices and used fresh fruits and vegetables as seasoning. Today, people now prefer processed or chemical-laden products in sachets which have become easily accessible throughout the country—from the neighborhood carinderias and sari-sari stores to major supermarkets.  But with the convenience that sachets brought were bigger problems that outweighed their supposed benefits. Sachets, together with other single-use plastics, are big contributors to the growing issue of plastic waste problem and are hindering cities with good solid waste management programs from becoming completely Zero Waste. Unlike the other single-use plastics such as plastic bags and straws, sachets are yet to be the subject of regulations and bans. Ripe for Regulation According to the same GAIA report, sachets—both single-layer and multi-layers—make up 52% of the country’s plastic residual waste stream. The good news is that a 2019 report by the Social Weather Stations commissioned by GAIA found that Filipinos are for regulating problematic plastics; 7 of 10 Filipinos believed that single-use plastics should be regulated, while 5 of 10 are for regulating sachets. Policy, if enforced, is an effective instrument in regulating single-use plastics. To illustrate, since Quezon City banned single-use plastics, even fast-food chains in the city were forced to shift to reusable plates, cups, and cutlery. Fast-food chains, known for using single-use plastic packaging, started to put cream and sugar, which used to be available only in sachets, in big reusable canisters. They did the same with ketchup and gravy. They also started serving bare rice and fries. COVID-19 may have disrupted the implementation of the single-use plastic ban in the city, but with experts saying that reusables are safe to use even during the pandemic, the city government should no longer have any hindrance in imposing the ban. Going Back to Take Steps Forward  With the increasing public awareness on the negative impacts of plastics on health and on the environment, more businesses are embracing the environmentally sustainable route. In the past two years, more and more Zero Waste stores—refill stores, stores that sell packaging-free organic products—were being put up. Some hotel and travel industries which heavily relied on single-use plastics have also done initial steps to do things more sustainably.  These Zero Waste stores and businesses are showing the big corporations the way to doing business more sustainably. If these small businesses can provide products and services without harming the environment, the big corporations should be able to follow suit—and do even better with their huge budgets for R&D.  But that would mean wanting to become truly sustainable. As an initial step, they can look at our more sustainable old practices and work on improving them and scaling them up, rather than co-opting them wantonly for maximum profit.  

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EU Promotes Greater Global Responsibility on Plastic Waste — But Not for Internal Market!

Green Groups Denounce Europe's "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" Policy

In April of last year, the European Union joined Norway in co-sponsoring amendments to the world's only waste treaty to establish new trade controls on the dirtiest and most unrecyclable plastic wastes. These amendments were passed in response to countless human rights abuses, and environmental pollution caused by unregulated plastic waste dumping. Such problematic plastic wastes now will require prior consent by importing nations, and are listed under Annex II of the Basel Convention as "wastes requiring special consideration." However, last week, the European Commission made it official in their publication of the proposed Delegated Regulation that the EU does not intend to fully apply these new trade controls themselves between their own member states. This would leave the door wide open for EU waste traders to shunt difficult-to-recycle plastics to substandard operations in poorer EU communities, as well as plastic waste to "waste-to-energy" incinerators in other EU countries. Incinerating plastic waste undermines recycling, and has dire consequences for the climate, for the environment, and for a toxic-free and just circular economy. Global and European environmental groups* have lined up to oppose this move, noting that the Basel Convention allows no reservations or exceptions to its obligations and definitions. They argue that this is a departure from the EU Waste Shipment Regulation's current faithful inclusion of Basel Annex II wastes, and requirement of prior notification and consent for their trade within the EU. "The only rationale for promoting a double standard of this kind is if your track record on responsible trade in waste and its subsequent recycling is already superlative and you can show that you have an equivalent level of control to that required by the global rules," said David Azoulay, senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law. "But the evidence shows that it is not the case at all." Citing recent reports of plastic waste dumping and burning in Poland, Italy and Romania, the environmental groups also noted that the exception is unjustified given the persistent trend of wastes moving across the continent to victimize weaker communities and member states. The draft regulation would allow some plastic wastes to instead be freely traded in the EU market without the newly agreed controls. These plastics have recently been regulated under the Basel Convention's Annex II due to the difficulty in recycling them, and the risks they pose to human health and the environment particularly when they are burnt. They include a wide set of mixed plastic wastes, PVC and PTFE (Teflon) wastes, as well as all manner of plastic waste not destined for mechanical recycling. "Our members include recyclers and communities who live by so-called "waste-to-energy" incinerators, and they know just how much burning plastic waste hurts the recycling economy, creates toxic pollution and harms the climate. We cannot accept a free pass for that to keep happening in the EU," said Sirine Rached for Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. Hard-to-recycle and contaminated plastics are likely to end up dumped in the open environment or burnt, causing toxic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The green groups claim that the proposal flies in the face of the vows recently made in the European Green Deal including the Circular Economy Action Plan, where the EU committed to carbon neutrality and to show leadership in action on plastic waste. "How does bending current EU rules and creating double standards for the EU demonstrate any kind of global leadership?" asked Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a global toxic trade watchdog organization. "How is the rest of the world going to take the EU seriously when they preach boldly on the global stage and then run back home to coddle their waste and plastics industries?"   For more information, contact: Jim Puckett, Basel Action Network jpuckett@ban.org, +1 (206) 354-0391 David Azoulay, CIEL dazoulay@ciel.org, +41 787 578 756 Sirine Rached, Zero Waste Europe & GAIA sirine@no-burn.org, +33 6 76 90 02 80 Tim Grabiel, EIA TimGrabiel@eia-international.org, +33 6 32 76 77 04 Sara Brosché, International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) sarabrosche@ipen.org, +46 31 799 5900   Note: The EU proposed Delegated Act is designed to provide a legislative response to the recent amendments passed in May of last year at the Basel Convention's 14th Conference of Parties. Those amendments which the EU worked for but is now refusing to implement within its own borders are meant to come into force on January 1, 2021. The organizations which strongly believe that the EU member states should apply the new Basel Convention plastic waste amendments like every other party to the Basel Convention include: Basel Action Network (BAN) Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) Greenpeace International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) European Environmental Bureau (EEB) Health Environment and Justice Support (HEJSupport) Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF) Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) Rethink Plastic Break Free From Plastic Link to PDF

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My BFFP Story

In 1978, I took my first trip to Switzerland and was mesmerized by the clean, well-organized streets and the beautiful landscaping.  Planted flower gardens, meticulously cared for yards and common spaces gave me the vision I wanted to see in my home country of Tunisia.  Many other trips to European countries and the USA reinforced my desire for well-planned and organized common spaces. My environmental work began in about 2003, gained momentum in 2008 and late in 2011, at the urging of colleagues, I formed and registered the association, POUR UNE TUNISIE PROPRE ET VERTE, FOR A CLEAN AND GREEN TUNISIA (PTPV).  PTPV was formed to bring awareness to the growing problem of trash in the streets and environmental damage to Tunisia.  We enlisted the participation of students, other associations and concerned citizens for the cleanup of municipalities, beaches, and other venues over the years. My Environmental awareness actions were started in the school where I taught German.  During “German Day” the students and I gave presentations on the environmental catastrophe of trash in the streets.  Over three years, these presentations were so well received, the students and I wanted to take our efforts further. This morphed into “The Mask”, media coverage of me with improperly disposed of medical waste at a local hospital.  From there, we gained enhanced media coverage of our actions starting with a protest in front of the Tunisian Ministry of Environment.  Our actions continued in the municipalities until we made a transition to beach clean-ups.  The beach clean-ups garnered major media coverage and volunteer participation.  In addition, we had the support of Tunisian activist and blogger, Lina Ben Mhenni,  A Tunisian Girl. Our clean up action,  I will be the Trash Can to go Dancing#La Goulette Plage, was the first of our well-organized beach clean-ups with large participation and widespread media coverage. Due to the great success of the La Goulette action, beach clean-ups became the major focus of our efforts.    These actions used our headline slogan “Keep an Eye on Our Sea” and included Women’s Day Beach Clean Up, Let’s Clean Up (3 locations), Take Action, Girl Up and many more. Over time, our general trash clean up transitioned to plastic use reduction with actions like Nine Danke Plastik, Plastic Bag, No Thank you, Take Action, Beat Plastic, Beat the Plastic Use the Basket, Bye Bye Plastic and many others.  We joined the movement, Break Free From Plastic, in 2019 and took part in the Brand Audit during one of our Keep an Eye on Our Sea beach clean-ups. I continue the fight against environmental harm and specifically target the reduction of plastic use. Protecting our environment and educating young people to become the future stewards of environmental sustainability will always be the focus of my work.  

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What Happens to NZ’s Plastic Exports? Stories from Receiving Countries

[et_pb_section bb_built="1" admin_label="section" _builder_version="3.0.47" custom_padding="0px|0px|54px|0px"][et_pb_row admin_label="row" _builder_version="3.0.47" background_size="initial" background_position="top_left" background_repeat="repeat"][et_pb_column type="4_4"][et_pb_text _builder_version="3.0.98" background_size="initial" background_position="top_left" background_repeat="repeat" background_layout="light"] Following China’s National Sword Programme, most of Aotearoa New Zealand’s (NZ) post-consumer plastics now go to Indonesia and Malaysia.  In 2019, 40% of New Zealand’s ethylene went to Indonesia (15,000 tonnes) and just under 40% of our styrene went to Malaysia (16,000 tonnes).  New Zealand also sends other plastic resins to a range of other countries, but these two countries are by far the most significant receiving countries overall.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1TwyxSYsbY&feature=youtu.be In May this year, the NZ Government called for public submissions on a national response to the Basel Convention plastics amendments.  This involves amending NZ’s Imports and Exports Order to include mixed plastic waste in NZ’s permitting system.  The Government’s preferred option was for permits only for mixed plastic waste.  They did not want to set contamination limits for either mixed or separated plastic waste.  New Zealand is not exempt from waste dumping (waste colonialism). Early last year, Indonesia sent five containers of contaminated plastics back to NZ – at Indonesia’s cost.  Only two of the five containers have been located.  It is suspected that the other three have either been illegally traded on to another developing country or otherwise disposed of.  The following NZ organisations made a submission urging the NZ Government to require permits and ambitious “contamination limits” for all bales of exported plastic waste (mixed and separated).   The submissions are currently under review.  The submitting groups above organised a webinar on the 22nd June to amplify our message to the Government that NZ can no longer continue to pass the externalisation of the costs of our open-circuit plastics economy and weak waste management system onto developing countries.  

The following individuals graciously accepted our request to present at the webinar:

  • Sirine Rached: global policy advocate for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Sirine supports robust regional and global policies and standards that combat plastics-related harms and pave the way for a just, local, and toxic-free zero-waste economy.
  • Yuyun Ismawati: environmental health advocate involved in chemicals and waste convention negotiations. She represents Nexus3 Foundation and is a member of the Alliance for Zero Waste Indonesia.
  • Heng Kiah Chun: Greenpeace Malaysia Campaigner who has been extensively involved in imported plastic waste investigations since 2018.
  • Daru Setyo Rini: environmental biologist and Programme Manager of ECOTON Gresik East Java, Indonesia.
The panelists showed what waste colonialism looks like in South East Asia and explained why the Basel Convention has been amended to include new regulations on plastics trading.   It was particularly shocking to learn about the vast discrepancies between NZ’s plastics’ export figures and receiving countries’ import figures.  The presenters revealed that NZ was not only responsible for exporting unrecyclable plastics; they may also be responsible for exporting contaminated paper scrap (e.g. bales contaminated with low value plastics) as has been the case with Australian exports to Indonesia.  Our attendees also learned that South East Asian countries are beginning to ban and heavily restrict the import of plastic waste.  

The webinar emphasised an urgency for NZ’s Waste Work Programme to plan for investment in the following: 

  • phasing out hard-to-recycle plastics (3,4, 6 and 7s)
  • improving domestic collection, sorting systems, and onshore recycling 
  • building refill and reuse systems into current plans for a national container deposit scheme
  • exporting only bales of single-resin, clean, and high value plastics (no mixed bales)
  • setting ambitious contamination limits and requiring permits for all exported plastic bales and validating bales in NZ.
  The video of the webinar and our submission can be found here: http://perc.ac.nz/wordpress/where-do-nzs-plastic-exports-go-stories-from-receiving-countries/ Many thanks again to all our presenters. Arohanui Dr Trisia Farrelly Senior Lecturer │ Co-Director, PERC│Co-Founder NZPSC│Co-Founder APPA [/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]

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Reusables can be used safely: Over 115 health experts fire back at the plastic industry

While the world is rightly preoccupied with tackling COVID-19, oil companies are pushing to produce more single-use plastic than ever before. So what do we need to know about plastic in the age of COVID-19? During these stressful times, we must listen to science not industry lobbyists. The oil and plastics industry wants you to think that you and your family are safer when your food, drinks and other products are wrapped in plastic. But health experts around the world agree that reusables can be used safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 120 scientists, academics, and doctors from 18 countries signed onto a statement today reassuring retailers and consumers that reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene. The experts — along with Greenpeace USA and UPSTREAM, both members of the Break Free From Plastic movement — note that household disinfectants have been proven effective at disinfecting hard surfaces, such as reusable cups and containers. Plastic is indispensable in healthcare settings, and there are many reasons why plastic is the material of choice for personal protective equipment (PPE) used to protect essential workers from COVID-19. But there’s a big difference between PPE and packaging for food and other goods. Even so, the oil and plastics industry have been peddling myths in the media and to politicians in an attempt to make single-use plastic acceptable again. So, here’s what you need to know about plastic packaging when it comes to COVID-19.

There’s nothing particularly sanitary about plastic packaging

Unless you are talking about the medical-grade stuff, there is nothing intrinsically sanitary about plastic. Pathogenic bacteria and viruses will all lurk there just as happily as anywhere else. They can sit on the product inside the plastic, they can sit on the plastic itself. There is nothing magical about this material. In fact, a study from the New England Medical Journal indicates that COVID-19 can survive on plastic surfaces for two to three days, and on cardboard for 24 hours. The bottom line is, and hundreds of health experts agree, whether you buy your fruit and vegetables and other foods loose, or wrapped in plastic, you should always wash thoroughly before consumption.

You’re very unlikely to catch COVID-19 from food or packaging

COVID-19 is most commonly passed from person-to-person contact, and as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA tells us, it’s very unlikely that you can catch Covid-19 from food and its packaging.  Grocers and supermarkets have to follow strict hygiene rules when handling produce, so washing it in running water and/or cooking it thoroughly is enough to make it safe. Just before lockdowns began around the world, many cafes and coffee house chains started refusing to accept reusable cups as a way to protect their staff. But, as mentioned earlier, health experts around the world endorsed a statement today that states that if you wash your reusable cups with soap and hot water, or ideally in a dishwasher if you have one, this is enough to destroy any trace of the virus and keep you and your barista safe. You can also ask for your coffee to be made in their own metal or ceramic cups and then pour it into your reusable cup for contactless coffee. The same goes for fabric grocery bags. Across the United States, a number of states banned reusable grocery bags in response to the pandemic. But a quick hot wash will remove viruses and pathogenic bacteria. So where is the misinformation coming from?

Oil companies and the plastic industry are exploiting the crisis

In the midst of the covid-19 crisis, petrochemical companies are connected to efforts to use the pandemic to their advantage, whipping up fear to stem the tide of protest against plastic products. As the world strives to wean itself off fossil fuels, some of the biggest oil companies in the world – Shell, BP, Saudi Aramco, and Exxon – are investing billions into plastics as the key to their future. Now the plastics and petrochemicals industry are trying to exploit the world’s covid-19 response by casting their own services as “essential,” lobbying governments for massive bailouts and weaker environmental regulations. A new research paper by Greenpeace USA has found links between the people supplying and fronting misleading articles on plastics and plastic manufacturers or oil companies. When the European plastics industry called on the European Commission to lift an EU-wide ban on some single-use plastic items on the grounds of “public safety,” the commission’s Vice President responded, “I really did not appreciate people writing to me and using the need for personal protective equipment as a reason not to have a ban on single-use plastics – there’s really no relationship.”

Plastic is still disastrous for the environment and low-income communities

In the past few years, we’ve seen people all over the world turn away from single-use plastic in droves with bans on plastic bags, straws, cutlery and more. But sadly, plastic pollution is still a crisis with massive impacts globally, especially in low income communities and communities of colour. The entire lifecycle of plastic is dangerous — from the extraction of the oil used to make it, to its disposal. In addition to the billions of tonnes of plastics entering the sea every year, the production of plastics and, in many places, the burning of it, are fuelling climate change. Throughout its lifecycle, it’s estimated that by 2050 plastic production from oil could be responsible for up to 12% of the Earth’s remaining total carbon budget (the amount of emissions our climate can reasonably take). That’s the equivalent to 615 coal-fired power plants – showing that plastic is far from being clean and sanitary for the planet. The problem isn’t going away: a study by the NGO Tearfund released this year shows four global drinks giants in six developing countries could fill 83 football pitches a day with their plastic waste. And in countries like the UK, much of the plastic waste we create is exported and then ends up in open dumpsites in countries like Malaysia. Local people have to pay the price of the health impacts that follow: burning plastic creates respiratory problems and headaches. In the current crisis, we should be making decisions based on the advice of medical professionals – not lobbyists for the fossil fuel and plastic industries, who have a history of doing more harm than good. Nina Schrank is the Plastics Campaigner at Greenpeace UK This article was originally published on Greenpeace.

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Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) Movement Position on Chemical Recycling

The petrochemical industry has created a plastic crisis that accelerates climate change, sickens fenceline communities, contaminates drinking water and food supplies, endangers ecosystems, and pollutes the air, the land, waterways, and the ocean. Plastic pollutes throughout its lifecycle, from extraction to production to dumping and burning, and everything in between. While planning to increase production by 40% in the next decade, industry simultaneously proposes to solve this plastic crisis with a set of technologies it calls “chemical recycling.” Industry uses this term to conflate recycling with plastic-to-fuel, a form of waste to energy. In this respect, BFFP, whose members fight plastic pollution across its lifecycle, rejects this attempt to distract attention from the urgent need to reduce plastic production.

Plastic pollutes throughout its lifecycle, from extraction to production to dumping and burning, and everything in between.

Chemical recycling will not solve the plastic crisis. Plastic production is growing exponentially: at 3.5% to 4% per year, it will nearly quadruple by 2050. As long as plastic production continues to expand, a circular economy for plastic is not possible. Waste management – including recycling – cannot close an ever-expanding gap nor address the climate and toxic emissions from production. A dramatic reduction in plastic manufacturing is the first and most important step to addressing the plastic crisis.  Plastic-to-fuel is not recycling. Under the guise of “chemical recycling,” industry is promoting technologies such as pyrolysis that turn plastic into fuel. As almost all plastic is derived from petroleum and natural gas, plastic-derived fuels are not renewable and not climate-friendly. Downgrading plastic into fuel does not replace virgin polymer and is not a form of recycling, as the European Union Waste Framework Directive makes clear. With ongoing decarbonisation, plastic-derived fuels increasingly threaten to displace renewable energy rather than other fossil fuels.

Plastic-to-fuel is not recycling. Under the guise of “chemical recycling,” industry is promoting technologies such as pyrolysis that turn plastic into fuel.

Chemical recycling raises serious concerns about toxic waste, emissions, and greenhouse gases. Little information is available about the environmental performance of chemical recycling in real-world (not pilot-scale) conditions. The limited data available indicate that these processes are energy-intensive, with a large carbon footprint, and produce large quantities of toxic air emissions, liquid effluent, and solid waste, in part because of toxic additives within waste plastic. Industry must reveal the full environmental impacts of chemical recycling. If facilities are built, they should not be located near communities already burdened with environmental health hazards, and their operations should be strictly monitored and regulated.  Chemical recycling is low on the waste hierarchy. With plastic, reduction is the priority. Where plastics are necessary, they should be designed for safe and easy recycling, without toxic additives. To the extent that chemical recycling may have a role in addressing historical, specialized, or contaminated plastic waste streams, it must not be incentivized to compete with mechanical recycling and other measures higher in the waste hierarchy.  Furthermore, BFFP emphasizes that:  - The real solution to the plastic crisis is to be found in plastic prevention and reuse.  - Recycling means reprocessing materials into products, materials or substances but should categorically exclude any form of waste-to-energy. As such, no plastic-to-fuel operation should ever be allowed under the designation of chemical recycling.  Read more about Chemical Recycling here

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Chemical Recycling: Miracle Cure, or Snake Oil?

Photo by Ella Ivanescu on Unsplash As people around the world call for an end to plastic pollution, the plastic and petrochemical industry has seized upon a silver bullet solution: chemical recycling, or “advanced recycling.” This older, failed technology has been dusted off and breathlessly promoted in industry circles as the answer to plastic pollution, but the proof to back up these claims has been noticeably absent.  What really is chemical recycling, and is it all that it’s cracked up to be?  In short, the answer is no. A technical assessment and short briefing released today find that chemical recycling is polluting, bad for the climate, and has a track record of technical failures. Far from a promising solution to plastic waste, chemical recycling is a distraction, at best.  Chemical recycling refers to a process that aims to turn plastic waste back into virgin quality (like new) plastic through some combination of heat, pressure, depleted oxygen, catalysts, and/or solvents. This differs from mechanical recycling, which essentially melts plastic waste and then turns it into pellets or flakes for further use.  Sounds good so far, right? 

Chemical recycling is polluting, bad for the climate, and has a track record of technical failures. Far from a promising solution to plastic waste, chemical recycling is a distraction, at best.

[caption id="attachment_6644" align="aligncenter" width="600"]plastic life cycle This diagram shows the inputs and outputs of the plastic life cycle when it is chemically recycled. Greenhouse gases are emitted in multiple stages, and much of the material ends up getting lost or burned.[/caption]   Unfortunately,  all too often what’s called “chemical recycling” is, on closer examination, a fancy way of burning plastic.  Not so good. Industry will often use the term “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” to actually mean plastic-to-fuel, where plastic waste (made of fossil fuels) is turned back into a fuel that is then burned, releasing greenhouse gases that bring us one step closer to climate breakdown. On top of that, these plants quite literally have to add fuel to the fire: it takes even more fuel to power the process, and the process itself leads to more greenhouse gas emissions. In short, more plastic waste is turned into greenhouse gas emissions than back into plastic. At every step of the way, chemical recycling is a climate polluter. Not only that, but chemical recycling is also an environmental health risk.  Plastic waste contains a whole host of toxins (studies show that single-use food packaging can contain over 100,000 chemicals) and heating plastic releases a whole other toxic stew, like carbon monoxide, CO2, and dioxins. All of those toxic substances must go somewhere—into the air, the water, and the final products. Since much of “chemical recycling” is actually creating dirty fuels instead of new plastic, burning these fuels is not only a climate problem, it’s a health problem too. The COVID-19 crisis has made it impossible to ignore how air pollution kills. 

More plastic waste is turned into greenhouse gas emissions than back into plastic.

The petrochemical industry has long depicted the viability of chemical recycling in rosily optimistic terms.  However, current data suggest that this industry outlook is a far cry from the technology’s actual capabilities. In fact, there’s a disturbing lack of independent reporting or research on the subject of chemical recycling– most of what does exist is funded by the very industry that has a vested interest in the technology succeeding, and is based on lab studies, not real-world conditions.  In fact, these technologies have an abysmal track record of technical and economic failures. As of 2017, the core technologies — known as pyrolysis and gasification — had wasted at least $2 billion of investments on canceled or failed projects. After all that, even if these projects do manage to produce some plastic, there is no market for it — with virgin plastic prices at rock bottom, expensive, energy-intensive technologies like chemical recycling just can’t compete.
As this diagram shows, every step of the chemical recycling process brings insurmountable technological and economic challenges.
Chemical recycling has been billed as a tech-fix that will solve our plastic problems. It won’t.  It turns out that even when a chemical recycling facility actually tries to turn plastic back into plastic, much of it gets burned or lost in the process anyway.  Meanwhile, the same industry that is promoting chemical recycling is planning on quadrupling the amount of plastic on the planet by 2050. There’s no way chemical recycling, or any other waste management approach, will be able to stop us from drowning in plastic. Our society urgently needs to transition from a fossil fuel economy to a sustainable future, and we have no more time to waste on chemical recycling.  We have a hard road ahead of us. A global pandemic is plunging us into a global depression. Plastic pollution is surging as industry falsely pushes single-use plastic as the safest option for the public, and recycling markets are once again tanking.  As we recover, we must invest wisely in proven, common-sense, upstream solutions that will support public health and a safe environment, and not waste precious funds on risky industry pipe dreams.   GAIA members around the world have been pioneering zero waste systems that stop plastic at the source, create good jobs, and build local economies and climate resilience. Let’s stick with what works.  Read #breakfreefromplastic’s full statement on chemical recycling

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