Monday, January 31, 2011

Bottomless well

THIS week, the nation marked the 10th anniversary of Republic Act (RA) 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000. It came at a time when renewed concern over the large-scale damage from a combination of uncollected, untreated, unsegregated waste on the one hand, and Ondoy-level flooding on the other, is rising amid debates on continuing climate risks. It also came as debate started to heat up over the unprecedented implementation of a citywide ordinance, the first in the country, banning the use of plastic bags in Muntinlupa City, as part of efforts to reduce the risk of flooding from plastic bags clogging riverways and drainage system.

On the date that the EcoWaste Coalition called attention to the dismal failure of authorities to enforce RA 9003, the Federation of Philippine Industries (FPI), one of the biggest and most articulate business groups in the country, also warned authorities against the unintended consequences of the Muntinlupa prohibition on plastics, saying it could cause severe economic losses—including the displacement of 175,000 workers—without actually reducing the risk from flooding.

According to FPI chairman Jesus Arranza, instead of an outright ban on plastic bags, authorities should instead focus on improving the waste-recovery and recycling programs from the barangay level up to the national government. He cited England as an example, where the world’s largest recycling facility was set up from the proceeds of selling recovered waste. England may seem to be a far-fetched ambition for now, but there’s no reason we should not aspire to improve on what is, in fact, already being done—albeit with little government support—by the network of segregators, collectors and recyclers in some areas that has taken to heart the mandate of the solid-waste act enacted 10 years ago. Local plastic makers, Arranza said, are very willing to buy the plastic waste, and local government units (LGUs) simply have to come up with effective schemes to collect those recyclable plastic items. This way, not only do drainage systems and waterways get spared from clogged plastic items, the villages also get revenue from selling the items for recycling. The plastic makers can have ready inputs for production and thus, cut resin importation, allowing the country to save on foreign currency. In short, it’s a win-win situation for all, if only those charged to enforce the law, the LGUs primarily, do their job.

But as the record of the past decade shows, implementing a law that took so much time and effort to craft seems to have been an idle wish. The law, signed on January 26, 2001, promised a healthy and sustainable environment, through segregation, recycling and composting to reduce waste.

“The 10-year-old law apparently has not developed into maturity despite its age, considering the garbage and waste crisis the country is in today. What is very depressing is the utter lack of serious implementation of this law, as evidenced by the wanton violations of its major provisions everywhere.” That’s the lament of Roy Alvarez, president of EcoWaste.

Data from the National Solid Waste Management Commission, said EcoWaste, shows that despite the law’s mandate to close down all open dumps by February of 2004, at least 790 open dumps remain in operation. And, while all controlled dumps should have been closed by February 2006, there are 382 controlled dumps still operating—three more than there were in 2009.

According to EcoWaste, little progress is seen in the law’s mandate to set up materials-recovery facilities, or MRFs. There are only 6,957 MRFs, serving barely a fifth, or 7,938, of the more than 42,000 barangays.

EcoWaste also deplores the “sanitary” landfills in areas prohibited by law—and notwithstanding objections by affected communities—such as the San Mateo Landfill in Rizal, the Ternate Landfill on Mount Palay-Palay in Cavite, and the VGP Landfill in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan.

Add to this litany of disgusting statistics the explicit violations on specific prohibited acts, as noted by EcoWaste: littering; open burning; open dumping; construction of dumps in environmentally critical areas; and the manufacture, distribution, use or importation of non-environmentally acceptable products and services, remain unchecked, if not ignored by those who are supposed to implement the law.

Ten years down the road from 2001, we are presented with yet another glaring illustration of our penchant for enacting good laws without bothering to enforce them, or fund their implementation. Offhand, the Muntinlupa ordinance banning plastics is good because it demonstrates political will and a desire to effect lifestyle change in a particular community. Yet, the FPI has a point in saying that an outright ban on plastics won’t reduce the risks of flooding unless the salient parts of the solid-waste law are seriously implemented—this, while creating the collateral damage on the workers in the plastics and recycling sector.

Perhaps it’s time for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to once and for all throw the book at all LGUs that fail to implement RA 9003. All those governors, mayors and barangay officials who got elected last year should be compelled to pursue segregation, materials recovery and recycling among their constituencies as soon as possible. Unless they are forced to do so, all this talk about reducing the impact from climate risk will go nowhere and will merely mean throwing good money down a bottomless well of misery.


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