Can the Philippines Afford the Fight Against Plastic Pollution?

Southeast Asia is in the spotlight for a series of pollution-related quarrels between the Global North and South.

Only 9% of plastic in the world is recycled. Almost 80%, according to National Geographic, is stuck in landfills.

The Philippines is one of the biggest contributors of plastic waste globally—2.7 million tonnes, or 6% of the world’s waste, and almost double the waste of Central Asia and Europe combined.

The rest of the world has started a fight against plastic waste. The year 2018 brought a lot of apparent wins: Montreal implemented a ban on plastic bags with less than 50-microns thickness. December 2018 marked a Boston-wide ban on plastic bags. The European Commission began its extensive directive towards the reduction of plastic pollution.

But a recent series of diplomatic events has shown that the problem of plastic pollution—or waste, in general—isn’t so easily solved, as the Global South, particularly those in Southeast Asia, have spoken out against taking trash that’s been dumped illegally from the West.

Last week, President Duterte hovered over the possibility of severing diplomatic ties with Canada over 1,500 metric tons of waste which were exported to the country in earlier years.

The Philippines has been taking trash exports from other countries; it is a practice that is common within the industry, particularly among Southeast Asian countries. But this dispute between the Philippines and Canada over trash has highlighted how the power discrepancies between nations creates an inaccurate portrayal of where the world’s trash problems are coming from.

The Malaysian government recently announced that waste from the UK, Australia and the United States has been illegally dumped on their grounds for years.


“A country’s development is related to plastic use.”

— Tara Abrina, research officer at Marine Science Institute.


The World of Plastic

According to statistics, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines are the three biggest plastic polluters in the world. But this pollution largely occurs due to “mismanagement,” rather than actual production.

Studies show that high-income countries have the tendency to generate more plastic per person, but are also managing their plastic waste much more effectively than low-income or middle-income countries. And while plastic waste carries big consequences, like contaminating global waters, not all countries are equipped to handle the burden.

“In a way, it is still a kind of privilege to implement policies surrounding plastic waste,” Anna Reyes, a researcher and consultant for NGOs, says. “Advanced economies have the allocations and resources to respond. In a way, the UK’s new taxation law is also a responsive measure to the recycled plastic crisis,” Anna says, referring to China’s recent ban on imports of recycled plastic, a part of which came from the UK.

The ban displaced more than 100 million metric tonnes of plastic, forcing countries that were large exporters to find alternative ways to manage their recycled plastic. Among the top ten countries exporting plastic waste are Hong Kong, US, Japan, and Germany.

As Malaysia and the Philippines are returning their contaminated plastic waste back to the countries they came from, will nations be forced to deal with their plastic problems at the source?

“Plastic pollution can be tackled via its different life cycle stages… production, disposal, recycling… Development economists are saying that the system, the economy that houses this cycle is crucial,” Tara Abrina, research officer at Marine Science Institute, says. “A country’s development is related to plastic use.”

Is there a solution for our national consumption?

In a press release dated November 22, Senator Loren Legarda states, “Plastic bags are ubiquitous components of the world’s consumer culture. Single-use plastics symbolize the throwaway culture, which the Philippines and many other countries have developed.”

In fact, Legarda filed a bill back in 2011, calling for a “Total Plastic Bag Ban.” Recently, she filed a revised version (Senate Bill 1948, or the “Single-Use Plastics Regulation and Management Act of 2018”), which takes a softer approach. Instead of a ban, it places a levy of five pesos on single-use plastics. 20% of all levies will remain with businesses, and 80% will be remitted to the government.

Tara cautions that this levy shifts the burden onto consumers. “Twenty percent goes to the enterprise. Why? If government disbursements were more transparent, it would be easier to digest, but instead it adds another hidden cost for consumers.”

Manila Bay is the catchment area of the Pasig and Pampanga River Basins whose organic pollution load from the ever growing urban centers have also earned it the distinction of being the biggest sewer in the world. Photo owned by  Shubert Ciencia .  CC BY-SA 2.0

Manila Bay is the catchment area of the Pasig and Pampanga River Basins whose organic pollution load from the ever growing urban centers have also earned it the distinction of being the biggest sewer in the world. Photo owned by Shubert Ciencia. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Philippines has a fraught relationship with plastic bans, which have been seen as a band-aid solution. In September, the Local Government Unit of Malay, Aklan passed an ordinance to ban single-use plastic in Boracay Island, in support of President Duterte’s latest push for a “clean-up.” Critics point out that the island suffered decades of abuse from tourists before it attracted any sort of environmental policy. They also point out that the ban hasn’t proven to be sustainable.

“A ban on plastic would be a win for nature ultimately, but the right mechanisms have to be in place so that businesses and consumers can adapt,” says Ann Dumaliang, a National Geographic Explorer and conservationist.

“We [Filipinos] know that plastics are non-reusable and that they don’t promote a circular economy where everything is maximized while waste is being minimized. But it will involve some cultural changes… It’s not just a policy issue. It’s a cultural issue, an economic issue. Locally, even where plastics bans are implemented, people don’t follow. Government has to care enough to drive implementation. It costs money, it costs resources… you can’t just have a policy and then not put the resources behind it.”

The 2019 budget for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is roughly 25 million pesos, 6.5% more than what it was in 2018.

The Philippines’ Water Crisis is Much Bigger than Manila, NGO Warns

The number of people affected by the shortage in Manila is only one thousandth of the those without access to clean water nationwide. Waves for Water Country Director, Carlo Delantar, invites Filipinos to help.

Many areas inside and outside Metro Manila do not have proper access to clean water. Photo by  Judge Floro .

Many areas inside and outside Metro Manila do not have proper access to clean water. Photo by Judge Floro.

On March 7, every Filipino in Metro Manila thought about how to get their water.

At least 52,000 people were affected in Eastern Metro Manila, in what is now referred to as a “water crisis,” when the privately-owned provider, Manila Water, cut entire neighborhoods off from their supply.

The cut-off happened, ironically, on the same month as World Water Day, without due notice, as Manila Water explained after the fact that they could no longer keep up with the demand. According to a report by Rappler, the company also stated that they anticipated a shortage happening in March, making the calls for accountability even louder.

In the wake of Manila’s water crisis was a cry for justice—article after article dedicated to the question on everyone’s mind: Who is to blame for the lack of water?

Access to water is a basic human right that has long been recognized by the United Nations; water should be “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. 

But beyond Manila’s recent shortage, it is also a right that has been deprived from many Filipinos who have had to think about where to get their water every day for years.


The Big Picture

“Outside of the metropolitan cities, a majority [of communities] don't have water infrastructure,” says Carlo Delantar, Country Director of Waves for Water, an NGO that provides clean water to communities around the Philippines through disaster response and community development programs.

Miguelito Manuzon, a farmer from Bulacan, has had trouble getting access to clean water for his whole life. “Ang tubig ‘yan, mahal rin ‘yan. Lalo na ‘pag matagal na panahon wala. ‘Tsaka ‘di lang naman kami nangangailangan pag nawawalan ng tubig dito… pati mga kabarangay namin o mga kapitbahay.”

[“Water is expensive. Much more when it’s been gone for a long time. And we’re not the only ones who are in need when there is no water here. Our neighbours do too.”]

In Batasan Matanda, San Miguel, Bulacan, where Miguelito lives, the residents take tricycles to the city in order to buy their own drinking water. Some of them, like his family, pay the barangay for access to their water system, but it isn’t advisable for drinking. He says that when there isn’t drinking water to buy in the city, the residents end up fighting.

Local people line up with five-gallon water jugs to receive purified water at a water distribution area in Culandanum, Palaw-an. Photo by  US Marine Corps, Pacific .

Local people line up with five-gallon water jugs to receive purified water at a water distribution area in Culandanum, Palaw-an. Photo by US Marine Corps, Pacific.


Well, I’ve been doing this my whole life. No matter what, I know how to make ways when there is a shortage of water.
— Miguelito Manuzon, on dealing with their water problems.

“Since we're archipelagic, we can't really connect pipes to all 7,641 islands,” Carlo explains, “So people rely on deep wells or rain catchment systems. And even then, that still subjective to contamination.”

 Contamination can lead to a variety of illnesses—World Health Organization reports that in 2016, acute watery diarrhoea caused over 139,000 deaths.

According to, “Nine million Filipinos rely on unimproved, unsafe and unsustainable sources of water and 19 million lack access to improved sanitation.” World Bank estimates the total number to be close to 25 million Filipinos.

That figure is more than a thousand times the number of people affected by the Manila water crisis—a figure that is likely to get bigger given the growing population, Carlo warns: “It's going to be more and more limited because of the rising population. There are efforts being done now, and they could work. But it's going to take a few years before we see it affecting a lot of people.” 

In the mean time, water shortages still happen across the country and regular citizens like Miguelito have adjusted to an unfair normal, and it takes its toll: “Buong buhay ko na ginagawa ito eh,” he says. “Kahit papaano, marunong ako gumawa ng paraan kapag may shortage sa tubig. Pero siyempre lahat kami dito sa barangay nagkakaagawan minsan.”

[“Well, I’ve been doing this my whole life. No matter what, I know how to make ways when there is a shortage of water. But of course, all of us here… we compete for resources sometimes.”]

Is there something I can do?

While incidents like the Manila water shortage are timely reminders about the urgent need for a systematized national response, initiatives like Waves of Water make it possible to contribute. 

To date, they’ve reportedly donated and installed over 10,000 portable filtration systems in 50 provinces, providing clean water to more than a million people.

A primary boundary to access to clean water is the lack of national funding, which is why NGOs that secure funds from international grants or private donations are imperative to the cause.

One of Waves for Waters’ programs, Clean Water Couriers invites Filipinos traveling to far-flung communities to fundraise for filters on their official website, which they also provide. Waves for Water can also train the volunteer to install the filtration system, so that he or she can pass the training on to the community.

“Our mantra is: do what you love, help along the way. It’s lifestyle-driven. We always say that you don't need to take time off to help people,” says Carlo. “You can do whatever you like, whatever you love and help people on the way. If you were a mountaineer and you are already going to an area, you pass by a few communities, you bring a few filters.”

“I’ve seen the shortage of Manila, and some people say that it is political, that there are many factors...I can't really draw a conclusion. But the silver lining here is that people now value water. That is so important, because it is not going to get easier in the next few years.”


Was Tourism a Driver in the Outpouring of Grief (and Money) for Notre-Dame Cathedral?
Notre-Dame de Paris days after the fire. Photo by  Robin Benzrihem .

Notre-Dame de Paris days after the fire. Photo by Robin Benzrihem.

The photos came pouring in soon after the fire began. The money followed, even before the flames were put out.

Last April 15, Paris and the world united in sorrow as the Notre-Dame Cathedral, an 856-year-old structure, was engulfed in flames. The grief over France’s iconic church was so overwhelming that hundreds of millions of euros were raised within hours.

Damages had yet to be assessed when François-Henri Pinault, the second wealthiest man in France, pledged €100 million for Notre-Dame. Not long after, his rival and the richest man in Europe, Bernard Arnault gifted €200 million to rebuild the cathedral; he also placed his group’s architects and designers at the restoration team’s disposal. L’Oreal owner Françoise Bettencourt Meyers matched Arnault’s €200 million. Patrick Pouyanne of oil giant Total (the country’s largest business by sales) has also pledged to give €100 million.

“It’s not just a building, but a place that is extremely important in terms of collective memory and identity,” Laurent Ferri, Curator of the pre-1800 Collections in the Rare Division and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University and a former curator at the French National Archives, told TIME.

To date, pledges for the Notre-Dame have reached over a billion euros. But the financial largesse and widespread media attention have brought a strange contradiction to the fore:

BEFORE THE FIRE: The main building of the National Museum of Brazil used to be the residence of the Portuguese Royal Family starting in 1808. The institution itself was established in 1818. Photo by Halley Pacheco de Oliveira. CC BY-SA 3.0

In just a few hours today, €650 million was donated to rebuild Notre-Dame. In six months, just €15 million has been pledged to restore Brazil’s National Museum. I think this is what they call white privilege.
South Africa-based journalist Simon Allison tweeted.

The fire that razed Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro to the ground destroyed more than just a structure: it took ancient languages, fossils, and valuable artefacts. The amount of money that was raised for its restoration is less than a per cent (about 0.028%) of what Notre-Dame has already received.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, ancient sites are constantly being bombed. The Ancient City of Aleppo is arguably the most recognizable of them all, but in the wake of the humanitarian crisis, its heritage and cultural value have been all but forgotten.

Tourism: Providing a groundswell of support?

Notre-Dame Cathedral is not only a cultural site: It is the most visited tourist attraction and landmark in Paris.

At the time that France’s wealthiest were expressing their grief with money, the rest of the world joined by taking to social media and flooding feeds with photos of Notre-Dame. On Instagram alone, there are over 2.6 million posts for the hashtag #NotreDame.

Prior to the fire, the Notre-Dame was open at least 10 hours per day throughout the week, welcoming roughly 30,000 people a day (50,000 on a busy day) and 13 million people annually, according to Vox.

An actual AP headline reads, “Tourist mecca Notre-Dame also revered as place of worship,” making the case that the cathedral has seen more tourists taking selfies than Catholics kneeling in prayer.

Whether it poses as a site of religious or personal significance, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the most beloved cultural tourism products in the world: a Parisian symbol of beauty, prestige, and heritage, not unlike the luxury empires of the wealthy Pinault, Arnault and Bettencourt Meyers families.

But how much heritage was truly lost in the fire?

The greatest damage was done to the roof, constructed of oak wood from the 13th century, and the central spire. Though many people identify Notre-Dame by this 295-foot spire, it is a recent structural addition to the church, built in the 19th century.

Meanwhile, the 13th-century rose windows and the iconic flying buttresses were undamaged. All the cathedral’s priceless relics and artworks also survived.

A visit of the upper parts of the choir with Art Historian Andrew Tallon who details some of the deterioration in the cathedral.

The fire might have actually solved some of the cathedral’s previously existing problems: Its state of decay has been in headlines since 2017, with disintegrating limestone patches taped up gargoyles and wooden planks for balustrades.

The deterioration, due to ageing, pollution and acid rain, was not addressed. Custodians of the Notre-Dame asked for more money, and while the French government provided some help, it was not enough.

“The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is in desperate need of conservation. No part of the building has not been subject to decay and there are several areas of concern,” the non-profit Friends of Notre-Dame said on its website. The group, launched in October 2016, was aiming to gather €100 million within next five to 10 years, according to a 2017 TIME article.

No one wanted to foot the bill—until a fire alerted the world. Fortunately, there were more than enough people paying attention.

Not all tourism sites are created equal

At the same time that Notre-Dame was burning, part of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque was on fire. The mosque was built in the eighth century, the second oldest in the world, and the third holiest site in Islam; it is situated in the Old City, a UN-designated World Heritage Site.

The responses to the two fires were as different as day and night.

“None displayed solidarity with Palestinians or Muslims, and no effective action was taken by the UN. Al-Aqsa Mosque is no less a religious and nationalist symbol for Arabs and Muslims than Notre-Dame is for the French,” Ghada Kharmi writes in the Middle East Eye.

The hashtag #AlAqsa currently has about 179,000 posts on Instagram, a mere 6% of the number of photos posted of Notre-Dame on Instagram. As cultural sites, it isn’t possible to pit the value of the Notre-Dame Cathedral and Al-Aqsa Mosque against each other. But at a time where both cultural icons were burning—the world was in Paris with Notre-Dame.

Al-Aqsa Mosque is not just important in terms of history, culture and religion— it is also at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On one hand, the grief that the Notre-Dame commanded in such a short time can be commended as a sign of generosity and devotion. But it would be lazy to look at the lack of responses to cultural tragedies around the world—the National Museum in Brazil, the ancient city of Aleppo, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, among many forgotten others—and say there was no devotion.

The polarity of the response coming from the international community can be blamed, at least partially, on a lack of reach: a gap that tourism has filled over time by mobilizing people all over the world. The billion-euro donation is a testament to the Notre-Dame’s dominance as a site afforded wide-reaching publicity.

Tourism itself isn’t removed from the pressing problem of Eurocentric inequality: The tide of tourists moving from “the West to the rest,” as it’s termed in academic literature, only truly shifted in the past few decades. France is still the most visited country in the world, connoting not only a successful tourism plan, but centuries of looking to the West as the place to be. Western countries still reap the benefits of the bigger cash flow that tourism provides.

“We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years. We can do that,” French President Emmanuel said.

Perhaps one day, when tourism sites and cultural sites are valued beyond their publicity, the world will be united in more than just their photos.


Rio de Janeiro's Museu Nacional Document the Collections | Library Contribution
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Al-Aqsa Mosque Friends of Al-Aqsa | The Fight for Holy Sites | Light the Lamps

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