Knowing where trash comes from is the first step in figuring out better, more sustainable solutions.
Freedom Island is a beautiful stretch of mangrove-lined beach, just outside of Manila, in the Philippines. It is an artificial beach, created in the 1970s when a coastal highway was built, but it has become an important habitat for migrating birds from Siberia, Japan, and China. The government declared it a 'critical habitat' in 2007 and it was listed as a 'Ramsar wetland of international importance' in 2013.
Unfortunately, Freedom Island is also covered in trash. It is considered to be one of the dirtiest places in the Philippines, a country that already is notorious for mismanaging 1.88 million metric tonnes of plastic waste annually. In an effort to figure out what kinds of trash are clogging the beach -- and which companies are responsible for producing this trash -- Greenpeace Philippines conducted a 'waste audit,' together with partners from the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement.
What is a waste audit?
Waste audits are typically conducted by people who follow a zero-waste lifestyle. It's an examination of all trash collected, in order to understand its source and figure out alternatives. From the #PlasticPolluters website:
"Zero waste practitioners, from neighbourhoods to cities, regularly conduct waste audits to monitor the types and volume of waste generated in a particular area. These systematic exercises help decision makers and communities to develop resource management plans which include at-source segregation, comprehensive composting and recycling schemes, residual waste reduction and product redesign. The data generated will also help city officials design collection systems and schedules, decide what policies to enact, identify what kind of collection vehicles to use, how many workers to employ, and what kind of technology to invest in, among others. All these components lead to our zero waste goal: reduce the amount of resources disposed in landfills and incinerators to ZERO.
In addition to identifying the most common types of waste, audits can also cover the identification of brands and companies that use disposable, low-value or non-recyclable packaging for their products."
For one week, volunteers gathered trash at Freedom Island. It was divided into categories -- household products, personal products, and food packaging -- and packed into bags according to its original manufacturer. The biggest culprits? Nestle, Unilever, and Indonesian company PT Torabika Mayora are the top three contributors of plastic waste discovered in the area.
The most common trash item found on the beach was sachets, the little plastic-and-aluminum packets that are widely used in poverty-stricken areas of the world (particularly Asia) to sell food items, condiments, personal care products and toiletries, even drinking water. The minimal packaging makes items cheaper, but sachets are not recyclable. From the Guardian:
"Because there is no economic incentive to collect used sachets that have been improperly dumped, no one bothers to pick these up. This contrasts with a one-litre plastic bottle that might be worth something once collected and returned for its deposit. When scattered indiscriminately, these sachets clog drains and contribute to flooding. They are also unsightly, littering the cities and the countryside with the brand names of the big corporations."
This beach cleanup is a valuable reminder of how our consumer choices affect the planet, long after we've finished with an item, and how companies need to take responsibility for the full life-cycle of their products and packaging. We desperately need prevention, not end-of-pipe waste management -- which doesn't even exist in many Asian countries.