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How Did the Philippines Become the World’s Biggest Ocean Plastic Polluter?

CRISIS - Pollution Crises by Denise Ramos Asia Jun 12th 20235 mins
How Did the Philippines Become the World’s Biggest Ocean Plastic Polluter?

As summer vacation commences, tourists are bound to flock to the Philippines, a nation known for its iconic islands that house some of the world’s whitest sands and most transparent waters. Unfortunately, the Asian nation has also made waves by being crowned as the world’s biggest ocean plastic polluter. In this article, we dive into the persistent plastic pollution in the country’s waters.

Assessing Ocean Plastic Pollution in the Philippines

The Philippines had the largest share of global plastic waste discarded in the ocean in 2019. The country was responsible for 36.38% of global oceanic plastic waste, far more than the second-largest plastic polluter, India, which in the same year accounted for about 12.92% of the total.

Contrary to popular belief, most plastic waste does not enter the sea directly. Conversely, it makes its way to the sea from smaller water streams. 

According to a 2021 study, 80% of plastic waste comes from rivers and seven of the top ten plastic-polluted rivers in the world are in the Philippines. Pasig River even dethrones the previously most polluted river in 2017, the Yangtze River of China. 

How Does Plastic Pollution Affect the Environment?

The Philippines prides itself on having one of the world’s most diverse marine biodiversity. By being at the apex of the Coral Triangle, the country holds an extensive system of coral reefs occupying more than 27,000 square kilometres (10,425 square miles). 

Dubbed the “rainforest of the sea”, coral reefs are the essence of marine ecosystems, with 25% of the ocean’s fish relying on them for shelter, food, and reproduction.

coral reefs

Coral reefs around the world are threatened by plastic pollution.

Unfortunately, this centralisation of dependence is easily overthrown once coral reefs encounter threats such as rising ocean temperatures and plastic pollution. 

A 2018 study showed that, without the presence of plastic, coral reefs have a 4% likelihood of contracting a disease. With plastic, the risk dramatically increases to 89% due to the spread of pathogens. 

This phenomenon triggers a chain reaction, as it disrupts marine ecosystems and causes nearby sea animals to consume microplastics. Microplastics are smaller pieces of plastic generated through processes such as weathering and exposure to wave action and more. Their consumption is evidently persisting in the Philippines, where nearly half of all rabbitfish, a commonly consumed fish species, were found to contain traces of microplastics.

By dumping plastics into the sea, these eventually enter our bloodstream. According to the United Nations, more than 51 trillion microplastic particles litter the world’s seas, a quantity that outnumbers the stars in our galaxy by 500 times.

While we are increasingly aware of where microplastics can be found, we are still relatively in the dark about their impact on the environment and especially on human health. Yet, there is no doubt that microplastics contain highly toxic and harmful chemicals.

You might also like: 5 Coral Reefs That Are Currently Under Threat and Dying

What’s Behind the Philippines’ Plastic Pollution Crisis?

The Philippines has a peculiar culture of consuming products in small quantities. For example, instead of buying a regular bottle of shampoo, many people opt for sachets sold at local stores at a much lower price. 

With a reported 20 million people living below the poverty line in 2021, the country’s widespread poverty leaves citizens hunting for the cheapest alternative. Large corporations exploit this situation by offering palm-sized packages of products and building a “sachet economy”, further exacerbating plastic pollution in the country. 

Sachets of powdered soap being sold at SM Hypermarket in the Philippines. Photo: Whologwhy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Sachets of powdered soap being sold at SM Hypermarket in the Philippines. Photo: Whologwhy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Nonetheless, it is said that there is no other material that offers safer and quicker transportation of food like plastic does. 

Instead of merely focusing on reducing plastic use, governments should also consider increasing the accessibility to proper disposal facilities. Indeed, the head of Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability Crispian Lao states that 70% of Filipinos lack access to disposal facilities, which steers plastic waste directly to oceans. With minimal exposure to environmentally-friendly options for plastic disposal, the population often lacks awareness of plastic pollution.

This highlights another problem: The lack of government action. 

Among the reasons behind plastic pollution being such a big issue in the Philippines is government mismanagement. More specifically, the government is criticised for merely having good laws surrounding waste disposal but often failing to properly enforce them

In 2001, the government established the Waste Management Act to tackle the nation’s growing solid waste problem through methods such as prohibition of open dumps for solid waste and by adopting systematic waste segregation. Two decades later, the Commission on Audit stated that there has still been a “steady” increase in waste generation. 

How Do We Fix This?

In the grand scheme of things, most of the causes of plastic pollution could be addressed with proper government intervention. Instead of feeding into the corporate agenda that maximises plastic production, the government could take notes from its surrounding Asian regions. 

For example, Taiwan was responsible for a meagre 0.05% of global oceanic plastic waste in 2019, owing to numerous legislation to protect its waters from plastic that the country enforced in recent years, including the Marine Pollution Control Act in 2000 and the Action Plan of Marine Debris Governance in 2018. In 2020, the Environmental Protection Administration declared a ban on all free plastic straws and has now pledged to ban all single-use plastics by 2030. With years of revising and enforcing plans, Taiwan can now aim for bigger environmental goals.

Another great example is China. Up until 2017, the country was the largest importer of plastic. Since the introduction of a ban on imported waste in 2018, including different types of plastics, things have drastically changed. The ban effectively halved the amount of imported waste. Ultimately, China was responsible for only 7.22% of global oceanic plastic pollution in 2019. 

Additionally, the Philippine government could extend its success from the six-month closure of its tropical landmark Boracay in 2018, following former President Duterte’s order to carry out rehabilitation works to restore the island’s pristine condition from pollution.

A survey conducted in February 2018 by the Philippines News Agency found that a staggering 716 out of 834 businesses had no discharge permit and were draining contaminated water into the sea.

Before the closure, the faecal coliform level in Boracay waters was at nearly 900 most probably number (MPN) per 100 millilitres (ml). The acceptable level for swimming conditions is 100 MPN per 100ml. By the time it reopened, Boracay’s coliform concentration had plummeted to 40 MPN per 100 ml, indicating a much cleaner environment.

Despite the financial loss that came with the prolonged closure of Boracay, numerous stakeholders have stated that it was worth it. 

As this example shows, short-term efforts can lead to long-term improvements.

Especially if aided by government measures, the actions of an entire nation can go a long way. By increasing the number of accessible recycling bins, people would be one step closer to classifying their trash. By imposing fees or even bans on the use or production of plastics, people would have no plastic to throw into the seas. By simply raising awareness, more Filipinos would act against plastic pollution.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

If you liked this article about plastic pollution in the Philippines, you might also like: 10 Plastic Pollution in the Ocean Facts You Need to Know

About the Author

Denise Ramos

Denise is an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, majoring in Journalism and Marketing. She joined Earth.Org in June 2023 for a Summer Editorial Internship. She is passionate about leveraging effective communication to raise awareness of different social issues. She is interested in combatting environmental issues, particularly those involving the oceans and animals.

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