The Philippines is finally going after plastic producers but some companies are not cooperating

‘There are some companies, which may not have sustainability as a priority, that are still in denial that they are mandated to do the EPR law,’ says Crispin Lao, executive director of the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability.

By ELYSSA LOPEZ / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)

Environmental groups in the Philippines have long advocated for a single-use plastics ban, and hundreds of proposed laws and resolutions were filed in Congress in the past decade to support the call. Nothing prospered. 

Instead, Congress required the country’s biggest plastic-producing companies to pay to collect and recycle their materials. 

The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Act of 2022 mandates companies with more than P100 million assets to develop a scheme to recover the same amount of plastics they produce or face a fine of at least P5 million.

It’s been a year since the law took effect, but the implementation remains short. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) learned the companies continue to exhibit a “wait-and-see” attitude on how the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will implement the measure, casting doubt on the country’s ability to tackle its growing plastic waste problem. 

Unclear guidelines are leading companies to have a cautionary approach to the law, according to the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), tapped by 29 corporations to capture their plastic packaging wastes from the environment under the EPR law.

“The main challenge right now is that the guidelines for implementation are still in flux,” Elvin Yu, PBSP executive director, told the PCIJ.   

“It’s still unclear what the guidelines are for the compliance audit of obliged enterprises, for example, and we are seven months into the year. That’s going to be a problem,” he added.

The National Ecology Center under the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) has yet to issue a compliance auditing manual for these enterprises, he said.  The Department of Finance, specifically the Bureau of Internal Revenue, is also silent on the tax incentives for the enterprises. 

“So many companies are in a wait-and-see attitude. They want to know how the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) would really implement the law,” Yu added.  

Crispin Lao, executive director of PARMS (Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability), observed that some companies remained confused about the kind of EPR programs to adopt and the kind of benefits to avail of.  

“There are some companies, which may not have sustainability as a priority, that are still in denial that they are mandated to do this [EPR],” Lao added. 

“Kita naman na nangangapa pa sila (It’s clear they’re groping in the dark),” Lao said, when asked on how the EMB has handled the EPR implementation so far. “It would have been better if there were more discussions, more talks with the private sector so they could be prepared.” 

If the government was clear on the tax incentives, “it could have been one way to encourage registration and compliance of obliged enterprises,” said Ferth Vandensteen Manaysay, deputy manager at the Climate Reality Project Philippines. 

PCIJ reached out to the DENR and the EMB, but has yet to receive a response. 

 Low registration among companies 

In a forum with business leaders two months ago, Environment Secretary Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga pleaded with the enterprises to register their EPR plastic recovery program with the government given the relatively low number of registrants.  

“We need your help [so more would be] registering in the EPR. This is extremely important for us to bring down the amount of solid waste that is released into our environment,” she said then.   

As of July, only 662 of around 4,000 enterprises registered with the Department of Trade and Industry had submitted to the National Solid Waste Management Commission their programs for the proper management of their plastic wastes. 

Under the EPR law, a company must recover 20% of its plastic wastes by year-end of 2023, a target that increases by 20% a year until it reaches 80% by the end of 2028. 

The company is required to register its EPR program with the DENR for proper audit. It may undertake its own EPR program or tap another party called the producer responsibility organization (PRO), such as PBSP and PARMS, to do this. 

Enterprises face minimum fines of P5 million on first offense and P10 million on second offense, and suspension of business permit on third offense.  

The industry’s slow compliance has prompted the DENR to implement the EPR law in mostly urban areas, such as Metro Manila in Luzon, Cebu in Visayas, and Davao in Mindanao this year. These areas, after all, would have the most available  facilities for waste processing. 

LOOK: Where the EPR Law is implemented

Gaps in the law 

For environmental groups, the industry’s lukewarm reception reveals gaps in the new law.   

“We initially wanted higher fines, for example, because P5 million could easily be the annual salary of the top executives [of these companies],” said Coleen Salamat of the EcoWaste Coalition.  

A longer consultation with stakeholders could have led to a stronger, more effective policy, she said.

The law is problematic because companies may still continue producing plastic waste and not have clear commitments on plastic reduction, said Miko Aliño of Break Free From Plastic.

“Under this law, as long as you are collecting waste, whatever you do, whether you burn it in cement kilns, or recycle, you are compliant… The law allows them (corporations) to operate business as usual,” Aliño said.

“It’s what my colleague Von [Hernandez] would say as a ‘polluter-friendly’ policy’.” 

Salamat said she and her colleagues were “shocked” by the speed of the deliberations. It was “quick’’ in comparison with other environmental laws, he said. (TIMELINE: EPR in the Philippines: Law pushed by plastic producers took 15 months to hurdle Congress)

“Meanwhile the Single Use Plastics Ban bill had not made progress, when it was vocally supported by former President [Rodrigo] Duterte,” Salamat said right after Congress passed the EPR law.

PARMS, which counts some of the biggest fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs) companies as members, was one of the industry groups that lobbied for the passage of the EPR law. Its members include Coca-Cola Philippines, Monde Nissin, Universal Robina, P&G and Unilever.

“Before, the conversation was geared towards the banning of single-use plastic applications, but Congress could not provide an alternative [to the material],” Lao said. “So yes, the industry is supportive of the EPR.” 

The measure was first introduced in the Senate in February 2020, right before the pandemic, by Sen. Cynthia Villar. According to a Reuters report, Unilever had directly lobbied Senator Villar to push for its passage.  

A year later, the senator’s daughter, Las Piñas Rep. Camille Villar, also introduced the EPR bill in the House of Representatives. Congress deliberated the measure as the Covid-19 pandemic raged and saw its passage within 15 months, from the first time a Senate joint committee first conducted a hearing on the measure. 

Duterte was supportive of the ban on single-use plastics, according to his spokesperson Salvador Panelo. While presidents have the power to veto bills, Duterte sat on the measure. He left his post without approving or rejecting the proposed EPR law.

Marcos Jr. succeeded Duterte. In his inaugural speech, he vowed to “clean up” the country’s plastic waste problem. “We are the third biggest plastic polluter in the world, but we won’t shirk from that responsibility. We will clean up,” he said. 

Marcos could have vetoed the EPR law, too, but he didn’t exercise this power. He also sat on the measure until it lapsed into law in July 2022, during his first month in Malacañang, 

A year into his presidency, during his second State of the Nation Address on July 24 this year, Marcos asked Congress to pass a law imposing excise taxes on single-use plastics. 

Environmentalists are afraid it may still not be enough. END

Environmental group reports PH gov’t not acting on anti-climate change commitments

The year-old Ferdinand Marcos Jr. government continues to implement anti-environment projects that cause displacement and other disastrous impacts of climate change, an environmental group told the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) said large-scale mining, land reclamation and large dams being implemented under the Marcos government are causing ecological imbalance, weakening climate resilience in the Philippines.

In an interactive dialogue, CEC executive director Lia Mai Torres reported that such projects and policies are still in place despite the Philippine government’s declarations supportive of global climate change mitigation programs.

“Aside from the continuation of climate risk projects, Filipino environmental human rights defenders are not optimistic about the prospects of genuine climate action based on the principles of climate justice in the remaining five years of the Marcos Jr. administration, given the 12 cases of killings of environmental advocates and climate activists that have already occurred,” Torres said.

CEC’s intervention in the dialogue highlighted that “while important, addressing climate displacement should not preclude addressing the issues and vulnerabilities that cause displacement and other disastrous impacts of climate change.”

CEC reported that a Philippine government representative in the dialogue said that the Philippines’ disaster risk reduction and management favors interventions related to disaster displacement that are respectful of human rights.

CEC however belied the assertion, pointing out that there are no existing policy instruments in the Philippines, like many countries, that directly address climate change-induced migration.

“We are ill-equipped and poorly prepared to face internal migrations and disruptions due to climate change, much less the possible influx of climate refugees from neighboring countries.”

The dialogue entitled “Providing legal options to protect the human rights of persons displaced across international borders due to climate change” had UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change Ian Fry and Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions Morris Tindall-Binz in attendance.

The dialogue was an event in the ongoing 53rd Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council at the Palais des Nations in the Swiss city.

A report presented at the dialogue said that 38 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes in 2021 while 22.3 million people were displaced by weather-related events in the same year.

Among the conclusions of the dialogue was that “the Paris Agreement should develop funding arrangements to assist persons displaced across international borders due to climate change to address their vulnerabilities.”

The CEC called on fellow Filipinos and the international community to keep a watchful eye on the Marcos Jr. administration and continue ensuring ecological balance is achieved by preventing environmentally damaging and destructive activities.

“[The Philippines must be] gearing away from false climate solutions, shifting away from the neoliberal model that facilitates the hyper-extraction by foreign interests of our natural resources, and addressing systematic inequality and poverty that strips away our capacity to adapt to climate disasters,” Torres said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)