Monday, October 11, 2010

Saving the world one plastic bag at a time

Imagine a life without plastic bags. In an ideal
world, we could all be so lucky. But in a fast-paced, modern-day world
dependent on instant solutions and quick fixes, there's no quick way
to do away with these items.

But the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is
taking a step in that direction by urging supermarkets to declare a
plastic-bag-free day at least once a week--on Wednesdays.

Speaking on ANC's "The Rundown," DENR Assistant Secretary Corazon
Davis says the move is meant to encourage the public to return to
basics, to move away from their wasteful habits and help prevent
environmental problems.

"We try to sensitize the public not to be a throw-away society. We
have to shift our mindset from being a plastic-user to one who goes
for recycling and using our own bag every Wednesday," she says.

Davis reveals that plastics manufacturers in the Philippines have
expressed interest in joining government's efforts to adopt esteros
and contribute to efforts to clear the country's waterways.

"Manufacturers should have a buy-back scheme. If this problem is not
solved, they go back to our esteros," she says. "Masyadong matagal na
gumagamit ng plastic ang mga tao. Noon, wala namang plastic, so why
don't we go back to that."

Supermarkets back project

The call comes after government signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA)
with the Earthday Network Philippines and 12 supermarket chains to
help reduce the use of plastic bags in the country via the scheme.

Supermarkets who've thrown their support behing the once-a-week,
plastic-bag-free day project include: the Philippine Amalgamated
Association, Philippine Retailers Association, Ever Gotesco Mall, Ever
Supermarket, Hi-Top Supermarket, Isetann, Philippine Macro, Robinsons
Supermarket, Rustan's Supermarket, Shopwise, SM Supermalls and SM

Rustan's and SM Supermalls are among those who give their customers
incentives if they use reusable bags for their groceries. SM uses
reusable green bags for this purpose.

"It's voluntary and we hope more supermarkets will be coming in and
joining the program," Davis says.

Shifting to reusables

Today, the DENR says they are working closely with non-government
organizations and the academe on disseminating information on the
harmful effects of plastics, as well as the sound practice of using
alternative and reusable bags.

Sonia Mendoza of the Eco-Waste Coalition's Task Force on Plastics
welcomes the move. "It's a good start. We have to inform the public
about the adverse effects of plastics," she says.

"These plastics litter our landscape. There's a part of the North
Pacific called the North Pacific gyre where plastics have collected,
it's now twice the size of the state of Texas. They're
non-biodegradable," Mendoza explains.

"These plastic bags are made of Polyethelene, which is one of the
friendlier plastics but they photodegrade-- they break into small
pieces and can enter our food chain," she says.

"It's a wrong notion that this is free. Plastic bags are included in
the products you buy. In the U.S., retailers spend $4 billion to
provide plastics to all retail stores. If you take that out, it's a
big reduction in the cost of what to buy."

But given the highest cost of reusable bags, Mendoza hopes that
government can help put up alternative livelihood programs to make
alternative bags, and help reduce their cost while providing jobs.

"Right now," she says, "reusable bags are more expensive compared to
plastic bags due to limited supply."

Mendoza says, in their own communities, they advise locals to bring
"bayongs" (basket) to the wet market, pails for the fish, and reusable
bags to the supermarkets.

One of the communities that have benefitted from reduced plastics use,
achieved with the help of the late environmentalist Odette Alcantara,
is Blue Ridge in Quezon City.

A twitter from Nagcarlan, Laguna says it's plastic-bag-free day in
their community all the time as they use cartons for their groceries.

Wait and see

But the Philippine Association of Supermarkets Incorporated (PASI) is
adopting a wait-and-see attitude among its customers.

"We hope the use of plastic bags can be avoided," says PASI President
Federico Ples, but he fears the repercussions of such action.

"Pag binigla natin 'to, maraming customer na magagalit. Either they
will not buy from you because they have no container, or you have to
sell them an alternative which might be good for the environment but
will also be more expensive," he says.

A national policy

While they are not opposed to the move to cut back on the use of
plastic bags, Ples says the program's success may depend on having a
national policy.

"There is no national law that prohibits the use of plastics. What we
really need is a national law that will be uniform for everybody. We
want to get out of this practice of giving plastic bags. We spend a
lot of money to give these bags for free. But this practice has been
there for a long time. It will need a lot of effort to educate our
customers that using these plastic bags may be harmful," he says.

Until such a law is drawn, advocates insist there's no better time
than now to begin saving the plastic bag at a time.

Calculations exptrapolated from data released by the United States
Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 on U.S. plastic bag, sack, and
wrap consumption: somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic
bags are consumed worldwide each year.


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