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Can our waste management keep up?

Discarded face masks, plastic face shields, and gloves have been piling up over the last year or so, on top of the usual garbage we generate. A spike in waste due to anti-COVID-19 measures is already evident. In Metro Manila alone, some 280 metric tons of additional medical waste is being generated every single day during the pandemic, says a recent forecast from the Asian Development Bank.

This development puts a spin to our age-old waste management issues. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on our discipline as individuals: Each person must segregate their trash; reduce, reuse, and recycle; and obey municipal disposal rules. And many of us have been doing these. But now, it’s clear that the garbage problem of the pandemic requires much more than individual responsibility—there need to be concrete systemic actions to address it.

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It’s not within the individual’s power, for example, to manage the ballooning amount of medical waste that inevitably comes out of our hospitals. The onus is on health care facilities and local governments.

The Department of Health has a waste management manual for how medical facilities should minimize, handle, and dispose of their waste. But implementation of these rules has been spotty even before the pandemic started, with hospitals and disposal firms getting caught negligently discarding their waste.

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Besides hospitals, our general household trash still contributes to the garbage problem. But it’s not enough to just keep appealing to the public to be personally responsible with their garbage. People can only do so much in reusing their face shields to the hilt and carefully segregating their face masks in special trash bags. If local garbage collectors dump them all into the same dumpsite anyway, what use are our personal efforts?

Enforcement of our existing waste management policies is all the more crucial now. The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (Republic Act No. 9003) requires LGUs to implement waste reduction, recycling, and composting plans. Yet it only takes a quick look at municipal waste management facilities and landfills to see that this law is barely enforced, if at all.

If our local governments could hardly handle our pre-pandemic garbage problem, how can they hope to tackle the unavoidable waste consequences of the pandemic?

Environment Undersecretary Jonas Leones said last month that RA 9003 needs to be updated with new technologies on waste disposal. He highlighted the potential use of waste-to-energy (WTE) projects, which could be more cost-efficient alternatives to landfills.

Currently, WTE projects are the subject of debate. In particular, the incineration method has been found to emit toxic gas pollutants, which means it would run counter to another environmental law in the country, the Clean Air Act. More importantly, it would also cause harm to the environment and to human health.

As this controversial solution is being introduced (WTE bills are pending in the Senate), it seems that important questions are being overlooked.

One: Why is the current solid waste management law so poorly implemented? A typical problem is that these rules are enforced only for a brief honeymoon period, occasionally gaining renewed interest before dying out again. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources regularly calls out various LGUs across the country for their poor compliance with RA 9003, particularly for the mismanagement of landfills. It’s remarkable that we’ve had this law since year 2000, yet these violations are still seen as recently as this year.

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Two: Why isn’t there pressure for private companies to cut their nonrecyclable waste production? The disposal of garbage is only part of the issue; plastics and other nonbiodegradable waste must be curbed at the source. In the Philippines, several consumer-goods corporations are consistently the top polluters of plastic waste over the years, according to a recent brand audit by the global Break Free From Plastic Movement.

The report recommends, among others, that companies foster alternative product packaging and that the government establish a national ban on single-use plastics. Currently, even citywide prohibitions on plastic bags are lacking vigor; the bans exist, but you’d still find plastics being used all over, with no sign of ban enforcement.

At a busy street corner in my neighborhood, garbage bags stack up into hills every Wednesday, awaiting the inconsistent garbage collection. I wondered aloud to a friend: Can our waste management system ever keep up? He shot back: “Nah, it was never there to begin with.”

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TAGS: COVID-19, environment, garbage, waste management
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