ALPSIDE DOWNED: Plastic sucks

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews/27 March) –  Again, it took  the horrific images of what man-made wastes are doing to nature to shock us into thinking about  our damaged environment.

This month, we were horrified to know that up to 40 kilos of plastic had been pulled out from the carcass of a Curvier beaked whale that had washed up east of Davao city. Inside the whale, according to authorities who did the post-mortem, were 16 rice sacks, 4 banana-plantation style bags and multiple shopping bags.

The outrage over yet another preventable death in our seas made me think about the Philippines and Switzerland, and what we can learn from each other.

Interestingly, Switzerland – a country that is a model for cleanliness and waste management – is not planning to ban disposable plastics. This is not like the European Union which plans to ban plastic straws, single-use cutlery, and other disposable plastics in a bold measure targeting the reduction of waste in the sea. But Swiss officials said they have a reason for their present stance – they claim that discarded plastic still do not represent a major environmental hazard to Swiss nature and waterways.

Instead, the Swiss fight littering with a board range of measures, among these the segregation of wastes and the imposition of stiff fines for littering. In the cities there are always segregated wastes containers— one compartment for “Abfall” (trash, food or other degradable wastes); another for “Papier” (paper trash); still another for polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles which are then recycled; and the last for “ALU” for recyclable aluminium cans.

To combat cigarette wastes, easily accessible metal trash containers are outfitted with a metal filter for stubbing out and collecting cigarettes. Throwing away butts or empty drink cans can be fined up to 300 Francs (roughly P15,000), sometimes on-the-spot when caught littering in public places.

It is of note however, that on public smoking, the Swiss prefer to err on the side of private and personal rights, and have not adopted a public smoking ban like the Philippines.

In the residences, paper and carton trash are bound separately into neat bundles and put out only on the designated pick-up days. Fines of up to 20,000 Francs could be handed out for the “inappropriate disposal” of large quantities of household waste. I have heard of cases where authorities broke open the trash bags just to find clues to the identity of the erring party and to charge them later.

About a year ago, a leading groceries chain started charging its customers 5 Rappens for a plastic bag, and reported  soon thereafter that there was a noticeable drop in the demand for plastic grocery bags. We were among those who changed our ways for a cleaner environment, preferring to bring cloth or paper bags when doing our grocery. Other stores followed suit, giving you a plastic bag for your purchases only if you ask for it.

The Swiss Federal Council said it remains committed to “avoiding, reducing, reusing and recycling” measures on managing trash. And when facing big business and industry, it still prefers business solutions and voluntary industry measures such as the charges on plastic bags.

But copying the Swiss way is easier said than done. Switzerland, after all, only has a population of some 8 million. Managing the waste of 104 million Filipinos, on the other hand, immediately presents a huge logistical problem. How to collect the plastic efficiently, and where to dispose of the plastic wastes of such a big population?

There are growing calls for governments to regulate the manufacture and use of plastic, or to ban plastic production right away. Local governments are also under pressure to legislate or enforce ordinances on waste segregation and proper disposal of plastics.

A practical thing is to do our part. There are so many inspiring stories of Philippine communities that have reduced their waste enough to manage it well later. The operative word here is reduce, which means doing something before the waste goes out of our homes and later finds its way to our dumpsites — or to the sea.

Local governments can also pass ordinances limiting the use of plastics. As mentioned by a MindaNews editor, Cagayan de Oro City is a pioneer in Mindanao in prohibiting business establishments and vendors from using plastic bags. I also know that in Pilar town in Siargao island, the local officials have prohibited vendors from using plastic bags, preferring the use of newspapers or banana leaves when say, wrapping fish and other marine products  in their wet markets.

The future could be leading to a ban in the manufacture and production of plastic, especially the ever-present plastic bags that clog our esteros and other waterways and choke our seas. And there should be materials or renewable resources that can be presented as alternatives to plastic. But until that glorious time comes, we can pitch in with sustained efforts to cut down on our plastic wastes. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for the SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)