Notes & Essays

Plastic Isn't the Only Problem, and Banning It Isn't the Solution

An environmentalist takes a surprising stand on the plastic problem.
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano
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The Philippines ranks third in the world’s top ocean polluters of plastic. Naturally, this makes Filipinos very angry. 

We’re angry at the government (again). The problem, we say, is that the government sucks at containing our waste. And it's true: Even if most of the garbage in the Philippines gets hauled away in large trucks with a 85% collection rate national average, that still means up to 750,000 metric tons of plastic waste that leaks into the ocean per year. That’s roughly 9% of global plastic leakage into the ocean because our dumpsites can’t contain the trash. How could we not be mad at a system that had one job and isn’t doing it?

Being called a top polluter of oceans also makes Filipinos angry at the root and the source. It makes people angry at the companies that manufacture plastic—we think of them as evil conglomerates without an ounce of conscientiousness in their profit-driven path to the apocalypse. And it's not without basis: Unsurprisingly, in a small coastal cleanup conducted by Greenpeace at the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area, a tally of the waste collected showed that it mostly came from the biggest multinationals.

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And because plastic is one of the most ubiquitous forms of waste, it is the easiest to curb at the individual level. It can be easily distinguished. Used in campaigns. Antagonized. Demonized. Being anti-plastic is arguably the easiest path to environmentalism.

Because plastic is one of the most ubiquitous forms of waste, it is the easiest to curb at the individual level. It can be easily distinguished. Used in campaigns. Antagonized. Demonized. Being anti-plastic is arguably the easiest path to environmentalism.

However, when our anger at governments and capitalism finally gets us nowhere, the outrage collapses into a concentrated beam of shame. And because plastic is a great poster child, it makes it easy for us to point this shame towards the poor barista who’s handing you your drink in a plastic cup with matching cover and straw. It also makes it easy to pity the market vendors who have never dreamed of putting meat inside Mason jars. 

In her article for Quartz pointing out "The Surprising Benefits of the World's Most Wasteful Material," Sarah Wild argues that plastic packaging has always been around because it helps bring food to the world in the most cost-minimizing, sanitary way possible. I suppose it extends to other household items, such as shampoo, dishwashing liquid, and detergent. Wild goes on to say that perhaps the world just can’t let go of plastic because it is deeply embedded into our basic needs procurement system (imagine a grocery without 80% of the products on the shelves). Some advocates use this to say that it’s not the barista’s nor the meat vendor’s fault, and argue that upending the centralized food system and “SUPPORT LOCAL” is the only way to untangle the mess that human civilizations were built on. The less distance food needs to travel, the less artificial things and packaging it needs to make the trip. 

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But a painful example in the Philippines reminds us that we cannot hope to be food self-sufficient any time soon. Perhaps the most famous case is the Department of Agriculture’s rice self-sufficiency program, which alone has cost us 1.6% of GDP in economic losses in 2000-2005. That’s an average of Php56 billion lost every year for six years, in exchange for protectionist policies that had the noble intention of supporting local rice farmers by limiting how much rice can be imported. For the moment, our rice paddies can only partially supply the rice we demand. From your basic economics class, you’ll know that this deficit is sure to blow up the price of local rice. That’s fine if we can afford it, but our small farmers are net buyers of food—meaning they buy more food than they sell. Thus, any increase in food prices hurts them more than it helps. Meanwhile, importing rice from Vietnam is 36% cheaper, even after shipping and insurance. 

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So what about keeping the cheap, centralized food system for now—but it certainly won’t hurt to ditch the plastic sacks for reusable fabric bags, right?

This is true to a point, but it's not that simple when blown up to scale. While this decision easy to make as an individual consumer, it turns out to be a logistical nightmare for multi-country operations. Cheap plastic allows for a company’s accountability to end after shipping, effectively incentivizing them to pollute the oceans. But it also allows manufacturers to give us what we need, at a price that is affordable for the many people who live on a day-to-day basis.

Cheap plastic allows for a company’s accountability to end after shipping...but it also allows manufacturers to give us what we need, at a price that is affordable for the many people who live on a day-to-day basis.

So which side are you on?

It becomes tempting at this point to shut off all points of view and go back to demonizing plastic, the companies that make it, and the government that can’t get rid of it for us. But this is the part of environmentalism that people are usually afraid to talk about or accept, so stay with me on this one: environmentalism is value-laden. There is essentially no wrong or right. Your choices reflect only what is most important to you, at a given moment.

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I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we—you, me, that barista and the meat vendor—are doing our best with the choices we are given. It’s not even that we are limited by a physical oreconomic system. Rather, the choices we make, or the amount of waste we make, is guided mostly by our individual principles, priorities, and preferences.

I'm not saying we should completely ignore the fact that our coastlines are literally bursting at the seams with plastic. I'm saying: please don't berate people, companies, or even yourself for needing the world’s most wasteful material when it matters. Maybe local, unpackaged food is too expensive. Maybe alternative packaging is too expensive. Maybe literal lives depend on the food that is in this plastic. Or maybe you just really like the taste of those chips and you’re having a bad day. I don't know. But I want to believe we are all doing our best with what we have.

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So let’s tackle this plastic problem with kindness, please. And, okay, maybe also help the government with this one problem.

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About The Author
Tara Abrina
Tara Abrina is an aspiring environmental economist at the UP Marine Science Institute and the UP School of Economics.
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