Circular Economy: Where is the Philippines Headed?

Linear economies: what we are used to

Our economy right now is linear: goods are produced, transported to stores, purchased by consumers, and the goods are consumed but the packaging is thrown away. Our economy is designed with waste being produced at the end of the product life cycle. When we enter any store, goods are generally packaged in plastic. For years, our economy has been this way, and our environment has reached a point when mother nature herself throws our waste back to us. During storms in Metro Manila, Manila Bay often sends waves of plastic debris to the pavement. Plastic debris not only affects people, but wildlife as well.

We often hear news of marine life choking on plastic debris, and micro-plastic being consumed by wildlife. The prevalence of these incidents sparked the zero-waste movement, which has gained traction in various parts of the world. Under this movement, consumers are the ones taking primary responsibility for reducing the waste they produce by boycotting anything that can only be used once, such as plastic packaging, plastic bottles, single use plastic cutlery and straws, and the like. Although this movement is noble, many factors make it difficult to eradicate waste produced on the personal level. It is difficult to totally avoid buying goods that come in single-use packaging when all goods are packaged this way.

For example, most people find it inconvenient to bring their own containers when they do their grocery shopping. Some find it expensive to avoid goods sold in single-use packaging because the alternative itself is expensive, like in the case of bottled shampoo — shampoo bars are more expensive than buying sachets of shampoo. At times it also boils down to accessibility: not everyone can conveniently buy the goods they need on a weekly basis from a zero-waste bulk store. Thus, the zero-waste movement does not fully address the plastic problem we face today, and businesses continue to sell their goods in single-use packaging.

What is a circular economy?

In contrast to a linear economy, a circular economy is defined as a system where no waste is generated because the products themselves are designed for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. It is an economy which is climate neutral, which means minimal pressure is exerted on natural resources and ecosystems. Even the energy used to gather raw materials, produce and package the goods, and transport the goods to the end user is renewable under this model.

It is designed to protect the environment and human health, increase production and distribution efficiency, and to empower consumers to choose greener products. It is a model where sustainability is the priority instead of quick profit.

Earlier this year in March 2019, the European Union adopted the Circular Economy Action Plan. It seeks to adopt a material-specific life cycle approach, in order to integrate circular design, use, reuse and recycling activities into plastics value chains. It seeks to totally ban all single use plastic packaging, items (such as cutlery), and fishing gear, and only allow recyclable plastics. With this plan, the EU also seeks to rethink its waste management system in order to ensure all recyclable plastics are indeed recycled, and to reduce food waste.

Philippine efforts to reduce single use plastic

Single-use plastic bags are starting to be socially unacceptable.

Single-use plastic bags are starting to be socially unacceptable.

Earlier this month in San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, single-use plastic bags, cellophane, and Styrofoam have been totally banned. However, it is not a total ban on all plastics, as there are certain exceptions which can still be wrapped in plastic cellophane, like ice candy, sliced fruits, and products manufactured outside the city. This is in contrast to other ordinances passed by some Local Government Units in Metro Manila, which still allow plastic bags to be used to wrap wet goods, such as fish and raw meat. In San Carlos city, citizens found creative ways to package wet goods using compostable materials such as newspaper, paper bags, and leaves. Meanwhile, on a national level, Senator Kiko Pangilinan filed a bill seeking to ban single-use plastic.

Nationally, there is still a long way to go before a circular economy is totally adopted and enforced. For instance, more progress is still needed in the area of regulating fishing gear, such as nets and lines. Discarded fishing nets and lines can still trap marine life and hamper their free movement, or in some cases strangle them to death. However, with Senator Kiko Pangilinan’s bill seeking to ban single use plastics nationwide, it can be said with confidence that the Philippines is headed towards the right direction.