Imagining a world of zero waste

Human progress has grown by leaps and bounds in the past century, owing to social, economic, and technological revolutions that have shaped the world into what it is today. Yet, all of it has been at a cost to the environment; climate change is now one of the biggest problems the world is facing, along with the constant, ever-growing issue of human waste.

According to the World Bank, waste generation is set to increase from 2.01 billion tons in 2016 to 3.40 billion tons in 2050, as more nations and cities urbanize, develop economically, and grow in terms of population. At least 33% of this waste is mismanaged globally today through open dumping or burning.

How can nations address this growing problem without compromising their social and economic goals? Is it even possible?

The latest edition of BusinessWorld Insights aimed to tackle this problem. In celebration of Global Recycling Day, the virtual forum, with the theme “Recycling and Proper Waste Management for a Sustainable Future,” gathered two of the country’s top stakeholders in solid waste management to discuss a zero-waste future and what might look like for the Philippines.

“The Philippines generates about 44 thousand tons of waste on a daily basis. In Metro Manila, that’s about 10 thousand tons. If you look at it on a per capita basis, it’s about .4 to .7 depending on where you are,” Crispian Lao, vice-chairman of the National Solid Waste Management Commission and founding president of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS), said.

“In a developing country like the Philippines, where we have been ranked as the third biggest contributor to marine litter, we found that the gap really is in the infrastructure,” he added.

Recycling is one of the easiest and most effective methods to reduce waste, conserve the environment, and address climate change. Dubbed as the ‘Seventh Resource’, the use of recyclables saves over 700 million tons in CO2 emissions and this is projected to increase to one billion tons by 2030.

Utilizing such a resource is key. Mr. Lao pointed out that the country already has some of the most comprehensive laws on solid waste management, yet the real challenge is in their implementation.

“Obviously you need financing for that. And this is where the private sector can pitch in by putting up the necessary infrastructure in partnership with all stakeholders, not only government, including civil society and the general public, so we can actually address waste management and to prevent leakage to the environment,” he said.

Also a representative from the private sector, Atty. Joseph Fabul, country manager for corporate and government affairs of Mondelez Philippines, echoed this sentiment. For its part, Mondelez Philippines has emphasized its commitment to sustainability in its processes in various ways.

“First, we make snacks using sustainable ingredients. Second, we ensure that our manufacturing processes continue to evolve in order to reduce the environmental impact of our operations,” he said, adding that the company’s manufacturing plant in Paranaque is now 100% powered by renewable energy.

“Third, we also make sure that we continue to innovate in terms of packaging material. And that’s why we made a commitment to ensure that 100% of our packaging material is recycle-ready by 2025, and the good news is that to-date we are already 94% compliant with that commitment,” he added.

The problem of single-use plastics

The ban on single-use plastics has become a popular method proposed by environmentalists to curb solid waste. But is the solution really that simple?

Reality is more complicated. Atty. Fabul noted that there is a wide spectrum in the types of plastics society generates, and some of these are absolutely necessary.

“First we need to define the necessary and unnecessary types of plastics. Because there are types of plastics that we need. There are also plastics that have no viable commercial and large-scale alternatives, so how do we replace them?” he said.

As a food manufacturer, there is yet to be a viable alternative to plastic when it comes to preserving and protecting packaged food from spoilage or contamination. In addition, because of its weight making it easy to transport, Mr. Lao pointed out that plastic reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Mr. Lao, only 30% of local government units have access to materials recovery facilities, where materials could go for recycling and composting. Only 24% to date have access to sanitary landfills at disposal facilities. This is not to mention that many of the country’s poor communities depend on plastic-packaged food for their daily needs.

“What would be the socio-economic impact of a ban that would affect those who live by the day? Sachets are designed for poor communities, the lower economic brackets. We do need to transition and look for better options. While those options are not yet here, it is important to look for solutions. That’s where we are right now, and that’s where we want to set our targets towards zero waste,” Mr. Lao said.

“There are cities that already banned plastic bags. The substitutes are still alternatives that are disposable. Given that the country lacks infrastructure to properly dispose of waste, it only causes more strain to a system that is lacking. The problem has to be viewed holistically,” he added.

Last January 2020, the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability (PARMS) and its member companies have committed to build and execute “Zero Waste to Nature Ambisyon 2030,” a strategy and a commitment to manage plastic waste, aiming to ensure that by 2030, none of the members’ plastic packaging waste will end up in nature.

As part of this commitment, Mondelez Philippines, maker of snacks products like Eden Cheese, Cheez Whiz and Toblerone, pledged that by 2025, it will reduce its global use of virgin plastic for rigid packaging by 25% or reduce virgin plastic use in overall plastic packaging by 5% in 2025. This goes hand in hand with targeting to have 5% recycled content by weight across plastic packaging globally by the same period.

This session of BusinessWorld Insights is presented by Mondelez Philippines.