How a Philippines plastic waste crisis spiralled

STORY: In Gloria Molina's household goods store in the Philippine capital Manila, toothpaste, instant coffee and laundry detergent go by the handful.

A regular bottle of shampoo costs around $2.

While a palm-sized packet, or sachet, costs about fifty cents - even though its less than a tenth of the size.

Many living on meagre wages all across Southeast Asia, and the wider developing world, consider it the better alternative.

“These are our products that we usually sell out. As you can see, there's a variety of packaging, we have biscuits, coffee, candies, and bread."

“Sachets are a lot easier to sell compared to other packaging like bottles because that's what we poor people can afford."

A study by environmental group The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives said a staggering 163 million sachets are used every day in the Philippines.

But the pouches, made of layers of plastic and aluminum foil, aren't recyclable or biodegradable.

Many are swept out to sea by garbage-strewn rivers flowing through overcrowded cities like Manila.

Of all the countries releasing plastic waste into the ocean, a report from the University of Oxford ranked the Philippines at number one.

Some living in the country, like Andrea Gonzaga, have begun to move away from sachets altogether.

"I do understand the convenience of using single-use everything because it’s already measured and all that, but at the end of the day, it really affects the environment, and like I said it’s more cost-efficient to just purchase bigger bottles.”

Legislation to ban single-use plastic items has been introduced in Congress.

But that has languished despite repeated calls by environmental groups to pass it.

Alternative legislation requiring consumer brands to contribute to the cost of collecting and disposing of plastic waste has been ratified and is awaiting signature from the President.

Maria Rosario Garcia is one of a group of professors from the University of Santo Tomas who conducted a study on the social and environmental components of plastic pollution in Manila Bay in 2021.

“In relation to the government and producers, they should modify sustainable packaging for consumer products one commodity at a time. They cannot simply stop plastic use and then look for an alternative. They can do it one at a time.”

Big consumer products companies have acknowledged that plastic waste is harming the environment, and that they’re working on solutions.

Still, this waste is only continuing to grow.

Critics say laws regulating solid waste are inadequate and poorly enforced, leaving governments and communities struggling to address the sachet pollution crisis.

The Philippines Department of Environment and National Resources did not reply to Reuters’ request for comments on how effectively laws have been enforced.