New era in plastic waste management

NICK FEWINGS-UNSPLASH

In one of our classes at the Asian Institute of Management more than 20 years ago, we discussed recycling and how to best go about it. Having classmates from both the manufacturing and services sectors, it was interesting to note the differences in opinions on how best to tackle the matter. Just-in-time production and production efficiency, among other topics, were also taken up corollary to waste disposal, or to recovery and reuse of materials.

What left an impression on me, however, is the comment that without any production waste, recycling would not be necessary. And while I agree with this, the comment left open-ended the issue of product recycling, or what to do with products at the end of their life cycle. And there was little appreciation at the time for the concept that manufacturers or producers, and not just consumers, should also be made responsible for this.

Republic Act (RA) 11898, which was passed by Congress in May 2022, amends the law on solid waste management by extending producers’ responsibility over plastic packaging waste. President Rodrigo Duterte did not enact the bill passed by Congress, and instead allowed it to lapse into law in July. I am uncertain, however, whether RA 11898’s implementing rules have already been drafted and released.

RA 11898 is just the start of what I consider to be a new era in solid waste management. Obviously, by itself it is far from enough to deal with the gargantuan problem of plastic pollution. However, with RA 11898, the Philippines begins to “institutionalize the extended producer responsibility mechanism as a practical approach to efficient waste management, focusing on waste reduction, recovery, and recycling, and the development of environment-friendly products…”

The law “requires producers to be environmentally responsible throughout the life cycle of a product, especially its post-consumer or end-of-life stage.” A list of “obliged” enterprises will be developed, and these businesses will be required to implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs that will be monitored and audited with respect to minimizing the volume of plastic waste generated annually. A commission and other government offices will be established for this purpose.

“Obliged” enterprises, for now, refer only to “large” producers that generate plastic packaging waste such as sachets, labels, and laminates; rigid plastic packaging products such as food containers, cutlery, and plates, as well as tarps, signages, and labels; plastic bags; and, polystyrene used to make foams and films, among other plastic products.

The law adopts a phased approach, giving producers leeway between 2023 and 2028. This way, both producers and consumers can adapt to the changes mandated by law. As an incentive to producers to implement EPR programs, activities related to these may qualify for fiscal incentives. In addition, EPR-related expenses are deemed tax deductible.

However, businesses that fail to comply with the required EPR programs may be fined anywhere from P5 million to P15 million, and penalized with the suspension of their business permit. This is in addition to the possible filing of pollution cases that carry an additional set of fines and penalties including jail time for erring corporate and pollution officers.

As I mentioned in previous columns, there are many scientific studies that point to the feasibility and viability of repurposing and making plastic waste productive and useful, and turning them into products other than plastic. Such efforts help keep plastic waste out of our oceans, and, at the same time, allow the more sustainable use of natural resources that plastic products replace.

One school of thought is that public policy should focus on keeping plastic waste out of the environment and accelerating the shift toward a more circular economy where valuable plastics are reused, again and again — to build a more efficient and sustainable world. So, solving the issue starts with having an effective solid waste management system and infrastructure.

The plastic industry is against the ban on single-use plastic and the tax on plastic production. It believes that banning single-use plastics will just result in the production of substitute materials, which may be even more harmful to the environment. And the tax on plastic bags is regressive, as it affects low-income groups the most. Combined, these two policies can lead to food loss and food wastage, and product safety issues.

While I don’t entirely agree with the industry on this, I support its call for more effective solid waste management. I also support the industry position that plastic waste regulation should be based on sound policymaking and science; should involve all stakeholders in the decision making; and, should accelerate the transition to a circular economy. In short, a wholistic approach to the issue.

RA 11898 is a step in the right direction. Producers should share in the responsibility of dealing with plastic packaging waste that they themselves produced and sold. While proper disposal after purchase is mainly the buyers’ or consumers’ responsibility, waste management will be more effective if producers also offer them options or alternatives to simply throwing away used packaging and end-of-life products.

What is crucial at this point is how policymakers and producers will work together to define the scope and limits of EPR in the law’s implementing rules and regulations, and how stakeholders will effectively operationalize the law to ensure that its objectives are met. The rules should be crafted to ensure that plastic pollution is minimized if not eliminated, and that end-of-life products should first be recovered, reused, or repurposed instead of just being disposed.

Extending a producer’s environmental responsibility to cover the entire life cycle of its product is just the start. I believe major producers like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Unilever have started initiatives in this regard. The challenge is how the law can further these initiatives and involve consumers in pursuing a more effective solid waste management program particularly for plastic products and packaging.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

matort@yahoo.com

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