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Environment

Philippines slams the door on world's plastic waste

Country enlists corporate help as it moves to ban trash imports for 3 months

Plastic waste is sorted at a new recycling plant in Metro Manila. The Philippines has seen its plastic waste imports rise 150% from 2016 to about 11,800 tons in 2018.

MANILA -- The Philippines is getting serious about plastic waste imported illegally from developed countries, announcing in August that it would impose a three-month moratorium on waste-related imports.

It has even sent some back to Canada, which had been discovered shipping waste illegally to the country for years -- a revelation that so infuriated President Rodrigo Duterte that he recalled his ambassador to Canada and threatened war.

"We are not the world's dump site," the outspoken president said.

To help deal with the problem, a new 25 million peso ($481,877) garbage-disposal plant in Metro Manila is scheduled to go online soon. The project is being headed by the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability, a nonprofit organization consisting of global food and consumer goods giants such as Nestle, Coca-Cola and Unilever.

The facility will pulverize about 1 ton of plastic a day -- equal to about 400,000 sachets of shampoo and instant coffee -- to make sidewalk blocks and other products.

But while every bit helps, the plant will hardly put a dent in the roughly 60 billion plastic sachets said to be in circulation, the vast majority of which are destined for dumps. And because making road blocks from recycled plastic is about 14% more expensive than from concrete, the facility will encourage environmentally conscious infrastructure and construction companies to buy them.

"Our first goal is to make projects like this investable," said PARMS Executive Director Paolo Gonzalez. "If we can prove that it will be profitable -- that we can gain a return on our investment -- we will be able to get other sources of funding and replicate it, maybe in other cities in Metro Manila."

More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the world's oceans each year, with China and four other Asian nations accounting for the majority of this. Meanwhile, the mountains of plastic waste produced globally had largely gone unnoticed until China began reducing waste imports in 2014 before banning them outright in 2018.

With nowhere to go, the waste found its way to Southeast Asia, with the Philippines seeing plastic waste imports rise 150% from 2016 to about 11,800 tons in 2018.

But the country has had enough. Following Duterte's tirade, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced the three-month moratorium. A department official urged businesses to take the waste matter seriously and promised to cooperate with them in their efforts to tackle the problem.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives has heavily criticized multinationals' reliance on single-use plastics, saying that nearly 60% of plastic packaging in the Philippines comes from 10 multinational companies, including Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

Moreover, investors are beginning to focus on environmental, social and governance -- or ESG -- investment principles so businesses cannot afford to ignore the issue.

Many other Southeast Asian countries are also unhappy with multinationals over the vast amounts of plastic waste they generate. This has prompted about 40 companies -- including Dow Chemical and BASF -- to establish in January the nonprofit Alliance to End Plastic Waste.

At an August meeting in Bangkok, the Alliance announced it will invest $1 billion in Southeast Asia and elsewhere over the next five years to improve waste control systems and infrastructure needed to collect plastics.

"While our effort will be global, the Alliance can have the greatest impact by focusing on parts of the world where the challenge is greatest -- such as Southeast Asia, where more than half of the world's plastic waste has been found -- and by sharing solutions and best practices so that these efforts can be amplified and scaled-up around the world," said Antoine Grange, CEO of Recycling and Recovery of SUEZ Asia, an Alliance member.

The Alliance's ultimate goal is to build recycling-oriented economies in the region in cooperation with member companies.

Researcher Ella Hermonio contributed to this report.

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