Sunday, January 23, 2011

City faces tough fight over plastics ban

TOTO, 34, tends to a patron’s order of a 12-ounce soda “to go” in a sari-sari store in Muntinlupa City. Like the past months, he pours the contents of the bottle into a plastic bag and hands it to the buyer.

Asked about a large tarpaulin sign plastered at a wall inside the store which reminded anyone on the prevailing ban on the use of plastics in the city, he smirked.

“I’d put that (soft drink) inside a paper bag and let’s see if you can drink it,” he said in a sarcastic tone. He declined to give his full name, saying the city government might come down hard on the store he was working for.

Landmark ordinance

On Tuesday, the city government began implementing a landmark ordinance banning the use of plastic bags and polystyrene items as packaging materials. The ban has earned cheers and jeers from environment groups and big business, respectively.

Touted as the first in Metro Manila, Ordinance 10-109 prohibits the use of plastic bags as packaging materials and as an alternative, the law fosters the use of environment-friendly bags like those made of recycled and reusable materials like cloth.

The ordinance, signed into law by Mayor Aldrin San Pedro last year, also bans the use of cups, boxes and plates made of polystyrene, more popularly known as styrofoam. It tasks the the city’s Environment Sanitation Center (ESC) to implement the law.

Mounting opposition

Not only does the city government face mounting opposition from industry groups, it also has to deal with a culture of throwing away trash.

In a recent interview, ESC chief Al Cosio admitted how tough it was to change people’s mindset on the use of plastics. The agency faced an uphill battle on Tuesday in patrolling the streets of Muntinlupa, with small business owners among the most stubborn of all, the official noted.

“Some want to play hard ball. We find it difficult to deal with market vendors and sari-sari store owners who claim ignorance of the law,” he said. “They still insist on using plastic bags.”

Two teams from the ESC now go around the city to observe the situation. In the coming weeks, the teams will go around barangays, he continued.

When Tropical Storm “Ondoy” lashed through Metro Manila in 2009, thousands of Muntinlupa residents left their homes for higher ground as floodwaters inundated the city’s streets. Figures from the city government showed about 3,500 families were displaced.

As the waters receded, city officials buckled down to work and traced the cause of the floods, the worst in recent memory. It did not take them long to find out.

Clogged waterways

Trash—tons of it—clogged waterways and drainage canals, with plastic bags containing residents’ refuse. Like a clot in the artery, plastic blocked the flow of water, which should have went straight to Laguna de Bay, instead spilling over the city’s streets.

The episode stamped an indelible mark on Muntinlupa residents, most especially government officials, Cosio explained. Hence, San Pedro asked the city council to create a law against the use of plastics and styrofoam, he said.

“But what if the government found out that it was paper that clogged the drains, instead of plastic? Would they ban the use of paper there?” said Crispian Lao, probably in half-jest.

For Lao, the president of the Philippine Plastics Industry Association (PPIA), the problem wasn’t plastic bags. Rather, it was the people’s irresponsible disposal of their trash.

“Anything thrown indiscriminately would clog drains and waterways. The city government has to look into this because it is the root cause of the problem,” he told the Inquirer in a phone interview. “This is a problem of the citizenry’s lack of discipline and poor implementation of antilittering laws.”

A week ago, the PPIA sent San Pedro the industry’s position into the matter, but apparently its views on the issue came a year too late. The mayor maintained that stakeholders were already consulted prior to the law’s passage.

The one-year moratorium was even done to give businesses in the city a grace period for the transition, Cosio explained. “But a year seems not enough.”

The industry position, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer, focuses on two key arguments: The lack of a law created by the national government pertaining to the regulation of plastics use and the proper implementation of the solid waste management act.

Discipline is the problem

“Our advocacy is to help educate the people and recover [materials] for recycling to put it back into the production stream,” Lao continued. “The heart of the problem is discipline. We have to educate the people.”

In a separate letter, the Philippine Association of Supermarkets Inc. (Pasi) also pleaded with the city government to consider deferring the implementation of the ban, citing that paper bags were “five times more expensive” than plastic ones.

“The use of paper bags is impractical especially for our shoppers who rely on public transportation as their primary means of commuting because of the difficulty in carrying two or more paper bags especially when loaded with heavy products,” wrote Federico Ples, Pasi president.

Besides, there is such a thing as an oxo-biodegradable plastic which decomposes over time, so the local government should seriously consider this as an alternative, the group said.

Apart from the letters from the two groups, several more landed on the mayor’s desk. Similar requests made their way to Cosio’s office too.

“I don’t think there would be any compromise,” San Pedro said bluntly when asked about the chances the city government would budge. He said the year-long moratorium on the law’s implementation was “enough.”

“The one-year moratorium was already enough time for businesses to use all their plastic bags, and for industry to oppose the ordinance,” San Pedro told the Inquirer.

“As a component city, it is well within our powers to create laws within our territory. If they want to challenge it in the courts, they could do so,” he added.

Words of praise

On the other side of the fence, an environment advocacy group and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) have offered words of praise and encouragement to the city government for implementing the ban.

“We congratulate Mayor San Pedro and the city council for taking the lead into this initiative. We hope to this encourages other cities,” said Rey Panaligan, national coordinator of Ecowaste Coalition. He said the law wasn’t totally new in the Philippines as other cities and towns have similar measures being implemented.

The main issue the ban addresses was “cutting the volume of garbage being thrown away,” he explained. It was not in anyway a threat to businesses.

He also acknowledged the problem’s cultural dimension, as Lao noted it, although Panaligan stressed that “some plastic bags are designed for that purpose … which is single use.”

“The MMDA strongly encourages local government units to adopt similar strong measures such as these to combat the dangerous effects of environmental degradation which leads to massive flooding and climate change,” said Chair Francis Tolentino in a separate statement

Violators could be fined P500 on the first offense, P1,500 on the second offense, and P2,500 plus imprisonment for the owner and cancellation of his business permit for one year should the violation go the third time.

Cosio also gave a similar explanation, insisting that the ban was a pro-active approach of the local government to the burgeoning problem of waste disposal.

“We have to act now. Should we wait for another Ondoy to make the first move?” he said.


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