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  • Writer's pictureNow You Know PH


By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

When you go to the reviews section of the on-line shopping sites which have become a middle class essential throughout this 16-months long and counting lockdown, most entries extoll the many layers of bubble wrap and wide adhesive tape that one’s package was mummified in.

Occasionally, a thoughtful customer might comment on whether his purchase actually met the advertised specifications, or performed according to expectations. More often, the number of stars granted is proportional to the amount of unrecyclable plastic packaging. This reflects our unfortunate tendency to judge based on outward appearances, or for superficiality. Eg., a populist politician who is crass and foul-mouthed is, on the surface, so different from the traditionally civil and suave, even glib (ma-pulitiko) type. That’s a change, ergo, he must be a change-maker. But is it the kind of change we need or want? “Why are we so shallow?” the National Artist F. Sionil Jose asked, even as the Filipino intelligentsia decried his own personal political judgments.

Apart from the longest lockdown (with little benefit to show for it), the Philippines tops another list of shame. Worldwide, the Philippines generates the most amount of mismanaged plastic waste—356,371 metric tons before the pandemic. The Pasig which disgorged 63,000 metric tons of plastic waste into the sea then, is the world’s most polluted river. Six other Philippine rivers are among the top ten most polluting in the world, i.e., Agno, Tullahan, Meycauayan, Pampanga, Libmanan and Rio Grande de Mindanao. That’s 70%, definitely a failing grade. Twelve out of the 50 most polluting rivers globally are ours, and 466 of the 1,656 which failed in the whole wide world.

We are so proud when one of our mixed-race lovelies makes it in an international beauty pageant, as if a woman in a sash and stilettos, has ever significantly reduced poverty or contributed to world peace. What we are winning hands down is the title of world class polluter, with far-reaching global repercussions for climate change, and our fish supply. Still, we can’t seem to grasp the dire consequences of our obsession with plastic. As the Igorot folk song Salidumay puts it: “Lip-istick ka ng lip-istick, hindi ka naman naga-brush your teeth…”

Wet market vendors are dumbfounded when I tell them no more labo plastic, but just put my gulay as is into my bayong. In the supermarket meat section, the butcher refuses to put my purchases straight into my Tupperware. It’s store policy to put each meat cut in a styrofoam tray, swathe it in plastic cling wrap, and then put each tray in a plastic bag. He would get into trouble if he followed my unheard-of instructions.

Filipinos are also responsible for dumping the most single-use plastic packets into the world’s oceans. 164 million plastic sachets or 1.5 per Filipino in 2019, may not seem like much. Of course, that’s not all we’re throwing away. We still don’t know what the 2020 total, which would include face masks, rubber gloves and acetate face shields might be.

A top official of one of the multinational corporations (MNC) responsible for many of these sachets, put this spin on it: if their company had not been so considerate as to use sachets, then most Filipinos, and other citizens in the developing world, would not be able to afford or to enjoy their excellent products. Hence, these MNCs which have profited immensely by tapping the multitudinous market of the world’s poor, have actually done them a favor. Never mind that it is the same poor who will suffer the most from the pollution caused by all that plastic waste, with depleted fish stocks, fewer sources of potable water, greater risks of floods.

Locally, there have been negligible efforts at repurposing the unrecyclable. Some MNCs have had consumers bring back x number of their company’s sachets, like currency, to a redemption center, in exchange for even more of that company’s products. Selling is still the bottom line.

For decades, well-meaning NGOs have given the poor dubious livelihood opportunities, such as selling hand-made clear plastic throw pillows or bean bag chairs, stuffed with sachets that have been cut into shiny bits by jobless women and youth. Larger packets are sliced into strips then joined together to weave into decorative flowers, boxes, handbags or hats. Their novelty wears thin quickly. The market for the pity buy is just as unsustainable as single use plastic packaging.

Lasting change comes about through major policy decisions. The MNCs are slow to reduce their use of small single use plastic packaging here, where too many are simply too poor to afford anything larger than a sachet. The 5 million Filipino families who have fallen below the poverty line due to the lockdowns will make this problem even worse. If only a fairy queen like RuPaul would suddenly appear, wave his magic wand and say, “Sachet away.”

Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (In Real Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction--but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.

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