Plastic Pollution: A Surprising Solution

Written by: Kyle Victoriano

Illustration by: Lynelle Daryl Ringor

The Philippines has always grappled with problems concerning plastic accumulation due to unsustainable and deficient solid waste management infrastructures implemented in the country– a conundrum that has given rise to a persistent plastic pollution issue in the archipelago. The amalgam of an exponentially growing population, rising incomes and consumption, inadequate facilities, and a weak imposition of regulatory policies, played a significant role landing the country its 3rd place ranking in a 2015 report on plastic pollution by the Ocean Conservancy Charity and the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment–a testament to the urgent need in finding feasible solutions to the nation’s inadequacy in managing waste products. 

Waste mismanagement in the country is primarily due to insufficient access by local government units to waste collection services such as sanitary landfills and recycling facilities. Where these establishments are available, waste collection, transportation, treatment, and disposal inefficiencies exist within the system that disrupts wastewater and drainage systems, thus, consequently triggering further plastic waste accumulation in the environment.

 Aside from this, as an archipelago comprising of more than 7,000 islands, the livelihoods of the Philippines’ coastal communities reliant on fishing and tourism industries are placed in a vulnerable position. Marginalized communities such as in the town of San Isidro in Mindanao suffer from the socioeconomic effects induced by waste mismanagement. The consequent effects of marine debris accretion induce the degradation of coral reefs, not only resulting in lower fish yields but also other ecosystem-wide consequences.  

Despite the country’s endeavors to improve its management of solid waste through the passage of numerous laws such as The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003), and the Presidential Decree (PD) 825 which imposes penalties for the improper disposal of garbage and other forms of uncleanliness, the mitigation of the detrimental effects of plastics in the archipelago’s ecosystems and public health are still not ensured. In lieu of this, the unorthodox means of repurposing plastic waste into viable industrial products should be examined. A method that local government units may look into is the utilization of plastic wastes as fortification for construction materials necessary for industrial applications, not only for a greener environment but also for more structurally durable and physically resistant roads and edifices.

Incorporating plastic wastes as additives to concrete in the form of powder and aggregate to display improved mechanical properties is not a straightforward process. MIT conducted a study to assess observed strength differences between cement paste samples, each with a different blend of mineral additive and plastic irradiation dose, and compared against a regular paste. Initial results show that using shredded polyethylene terephthalate (PET) particulates as is, as a lightweight concrete aggregate, improves the concrete’s impact resistance and flexural toughness but at the expense of a significant weakening in terms of its thermal conductivity and compressive strength. Demonstrating mechanical improvements without compromising its compressive strength requires an additional step of injecting doses of radiation to recover the sturdiness lost from substituting typical aggregates with ones made of PET. There is an induced change in the chemical properties of PET materials upon gamma irradiation of PET, causing remarkable effects on its mechanical and physical properties; specifically, physical refinements were observed in its modulus, toughness, stiffness, strength, and hardness qualities. Overall, study results demonstrated an improvement in compressive strength from regular plastic and non-irradiated plastic to that of irradiated plastic with high doses.

The utilization of this kind of technology in the Philippines would provide numerous immediate environmental benefits, with its foremost environmental gain appearing in the form of a massive reduction in the sheer amount of disposable bottles produced. As the number of plastic waste treated by combustion in incineration plants is minimized, mitigation in the emissions of greenhouse gasses would likely be attained. Also, the calcination process involving the heating of limestone, the primary component of cement, in cement production, accounts for approximately 5% of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Hence, the partial substitution of PET for limestone components would drastically abate CO2 emissions evident, especially when scaled to the level of mass production. Plastic entering the ocean would then be decreased which benefits biodiversity immensely as eliminating its entry to the marine food chain will prevent a whole cascade of extinctions that will occur from coral reef destruction.

Additionally, more than the positive environmental implications of the employment of this supplemental approach to solid waste management are its substantial economic benefits for the country. By employing this approach in creating construction materials, various infrastructures, like paved roads and buildings, would experience lasting durability and improved resistance to physical stressors. As an advantage, government units would then be able to save on maintenance costs and repair from their transition to plastic-infused materials. Likewise, the current livelihoods of coastal communities would no longer be hampered by plastic pollution, as well as generate new employment opportunities to fill an increasing demand.

Despite these clear benefits, the feasibility of implementing this method within the Philippine context is still in question, considering the country’s economic climate and state of technological advancements. As per an interview with an expert in this field, she claimed that the Philippines has the full technological capacity to implement such strategies to recycle plastic waste. However, most projects often remain a pipedream due to restricted funding in scientific research, posing a serious challenge towards their development. 

Plastics prove to be a valuable utility with their capacity to be infused with a diverse range of materials, therefore, allowing countless commercial and industrial applications. Many first-world countries already make use of this technology for concrete aggregates, road material, and the creation of tiles, among others. It is not considered a novel and complex technology as the Philippines has the technological capability to effectively implement it. The only real issue rests on the budgetary allocation of financial resources to local government units to create mechanisms that will permit the execution of this system. Upon the implementation of this system, it will further stimulate a national effort towards an increased importance on plastic waste reduction, therefore contributing to the resolution of the country’s prevailing plastic issue. 


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