More than 60 billion plastic sachets and 17 billion shopping bags are used in the Philippines every year.
Because of their flimsy nature, these bags and wrappers rarely get recycled. Instead, they end up overflowing in landfills, stuffed into incinerators, and littering the island nation's streets and coastlines.
That’s hundreds of millions of pieces of plastic being disposed of in ways that harm the environment.
In recent years, the epidemic of plastic pollution has become well-known around the world, as people engage in beach clean-up efforts and call on companies to invest in plastic alternatives.
Yet few countries face as overwhelming a plastic crisis as the Philippines.
A lack of plastic collection protocols and recycling facilities, combined with a heavy reliance on single-use plastics for everyday purchases, has turned once pristine environments into dumping grounds.
Local fishing communities have seen their incomes decline as plastic pollution harms fish populations, and tourist destinations are becoming less popular because of the extent of plastic's impact.
The good news is that local activists are driving a movement to clean up coastlines and neighborhoods, compel the government to invest in recycling facilities, and get the country to transition to a zero waste economy.
Anna Oposa is one of the activists leading this effort. As the executive director and "Chief Mermaid" of Save Philippines Sea, Oposa has helped to build a grassroots movement fighting for a sustainable future.
In the fifth episode of ACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement, a six-part documentary series developed by National Geographic and Procter & Gamble and co-produced by Global Citizen and RadicalMedia, Oposa describes the scale of the plastic challenge facing the Philippines and how her organization is working on local solutions. For example, she works with corporations to help them find sustainable alternatives to plastic and organizes ocean clean-up efforts. You can view the full episode here.
Oposa spoke with Global Citizen about the problem of plastic waste in the country, how it's directly affecting people's lives, and what it's going to take to solve it.
Global Citizen: What are the main sources of marine plastic pollution in the Philippines?
Anna Oposa: Food packaging, personal care products, household products, and ghost fishing nets.
How does plastic pollution affect the livelihoods of Filipinos?
There are many ways. One is that plastic pollutes our natural environment, which affects the popularity and appeal of tourism destinations. Plastic can also affect fishing practices by getting caught in marine life and boat propellers.
What kind of impact are local beach and sea clean-up efforts having in the country?
They are useful in raising awareness on plastic pollution and [showing people] how throwing “away” trash means it still ends up somewhere. They can also inspire positive behavior change among individuals who join these events.
These efforts also cause a reduction of plastic use at source, an increase of use in reusables, and written letters to leaders.
Is plastic pollution a problem that should be solved with a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach? Or does it take a combination of the two?
There needs to be a combination. We already have good and strong laws — what we’re lacking is implementation, political will, and infrastructure. We also need collective behavior change.
We need government leaders who care about their constituents more than their own political ambitions. We need financial resources allocated properly and used efficiently to set up the right infrastructure and services required by law.
What do you hope to achieve within the next two years?
I hope to take our environmental education programs on a larger, national scale through “Earthducation.” our environmental education program for schools and teachers; by partnering with more establishments for Waste Watch; and by partnering with corporations to help them facilitate change within their operations
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
ACTIVATE: THE GLOBAL CITIZEN MOVEMENT is a six-part documentary series from National Geographic and Procter & Gamble, co-produced by Global Citizen and RadicalMedia. ACTIVATE raises awareness around extreme poverty, inequality, and sustainability issues to mobilize global citizens to take action and drive meaningful and lasting change. The series will premiere globally in fall 2019 on National Geographic in 172 countries and 43 languages. You can learn more here.