Thousands of people in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, have been participating in a massive clean-up of Manila Bay over the past several weeks, according to the Philippines-based news site Rappler.
The effort is part of a larger movement throughout the country to deal with the growing problem of plastic waste. The campaign in Manila is called the “Battle for Manila Bay” to emphasize how heavily polluted the body of water has become. Plastic pollution covers the bay’s shores, crowds its waves, and causes frequent harm to marine creatures, according to the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace. It’s known among environmentalists as an “unflushed toilet.”
Volunteers have been stuffing trash bags with litter and using nets to gather plastic floating on the water. Rappler says that 5,700 people have committed to joining up the clean-up effort on a regular basis.
“For such a small country, we ended up third in the world [in terms of] ocean plastic pollution,” said Peachie Dioquino-Valera, an environmental activist with the Climate Reality Project, referring to a report published in Science Magazine. “This fact alone shows how gargantuan this problem is for us.”
“We have a lot of good environmental laws here,” she told Global Citizen. “It's just that we fail in carrying them out.”
All around the world, efforts have been organized to clean up plastic from coastlines, beaches, rivers, bays, and oceans. This global movement has been spurred in part by growing awareness of plastic pollution’s impact on marine life.
The Philippines is often the site of grisly scenes of animals that have been mangled or killed by plastic pollution. On Mar. 18, a cuvier’s beaked whale washed up on the shores of Davao City with nearly 90 pounds of plastic in its gut.
"The dead whale that recently washed up with plastic in its stomach wasn't the first, and sad to say it won't be the last,” said Anna Oposa, executive director of marine conservation organization Save Philippine Seas. “How many more do we need until we see that plastic pollution affects more than just humans? This should serve as an urgent call for us to change consumer behavior and demand accountability from the government and corporations producing plastic."
The Manila Bay clean-up effort has been organized by the government and the military, after finally adhering to a Supreme Court ruling from 2008 that required authorities to clean the bay. But, Rappler notes, it’s driven mostly by volunteers who are attending semi-weekly plastic collection initiatives.
Across social media, volunteers are sharing stories of progress.
On March 18, 2019 at about 8:25 AM, personnel of this station together with DPWH (Sukat Highway Paranaque City) headed by Annabelle Gonzales Otoc, Forewoman initiated Coastal Clean-Up Activity in relation to the “Restoration of MANILA BAY” held at LPPCHEA. pic.twitter.com/JZWxmzsjIB— manilamarpsta_rmuncr (@ncrmomarpstaone) March 18, 2019
(1) Sands have finally surfaced! This is the new face of Manila Bay coastline in Roxas Boulevard following a historical clean-up drive on Sunday that hauled tons of garbage. pic.twitter.com/9oe0yoLM45— Michael Joe Delizo (@michael_delizo) January 28, 2019
Dealing with the problem of plastic pollution, however, would require more than volunteers picking up trash, according to Dioquino-Valera.
The first step should be to greatly restrict plastic production around the country, she said. Currently, the Philippines generates more than 4,600 tons of plastic waste daily, and the overwhelming use of plastic sachets to package common goods has greatly exacerbated the problem, according to Mongabay.
Read More: The Long, Strange Journey of a Plastic Bag
Some cities and states have begun to ban plastic.
“There has been a growing clamor from the public to address the plastic crisis,” Dioquino-Valera said. “[But] we have reports that some cities are turning a blind eye because it turns out some of the politicians governing said cities are invested in, if not, owns, plastic companies.
“We are happy with those cities and provinces who banned, or are banning, single-use plastics,” she added, and cited Bacolod City, select towns in Pangasinan, El Nido Palawan, and Boracay Island as examples.
Municipalities also need to do a better job of capturing, recycling, and properly disposing of existing plastic. Only around 25% of municipalities have facilities designed for effectively managing plastic waste.
Global Citizen is currently calling on governors across the country to pledge to join the zero waste movement.
“Because of weak implementation of environmental laws, even if there are efforts from some citizens to segregate and recycle, it is rendered moot due to lacking systems in our local governments,” Dioquino-Valera said.
Educational efforts also have to be scaled up, she said, to make sure that everyday people know that alternatives to plastic exist and that polluting has serious consequences, she said.
The excitement surrounding the Manila Bay clean-up seems to suggest that the fight against plastic pollution is beginning to ramp up.
But it involves several overlapping problems beyond plastic pollution, according to the Financial Times.
Even if all the plastic was removed from the bay, it would still be unfit for human contact because the city diverts much of its untreated sewage into the body of water, and more than 200,000 slum residents send their waste into the bay. On top of human waste, various factories regularly dump toxic sludge into the water.
The government has begun to fine and shut down the most egregious polluters, and it also started to push private companies that oversee the region’s sewage to invest in better management systems. Authorities are also planning to clean the rivers that lead into the bay that often carry all sorts of waste. Preventing sewage and industrial waste from entering the bay will allow it to rehabilitate over the next several years.
Combined with volunteers cleaning up plastic waste, the bay may one day be clean enough for swimming. Activists, however, hope that this sustainability campaign goes far beyond Manila Bay and leads to long-lasting and sustainable change throughout the country.
“We are hoping that the slew of tragedies brought about by our hazardous and non-biodegradable waste will really shake the government, the corporations, various institutions, and the individuals to really drastically refuse and reduce plastic,” Dioquino-Valera said.