Health and waste experts: Pursuing zero waste possible amid COVID-19 pandemic

Pursuing zero waste strategies is still possible amid the COVID-19 pandemic, health and waste experts said during the 22nd episode of The Climate Reality Project Philippines’ Klimatotohanan entitled “Unmasking the COVID-19 Plastic Pollution: Why Zero Waste is Essential Towards a Green and Just Recovery.”

Zero waste, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), is defined as “a comprehensive waste management approach that prioritizes waste reduction and material recovery.” Its strategies include redesigning products and delivery systems to be sustainable and environment-friendly and increasing access to reuse, repair, recycle, and compost.

The role of zero waste in green recovery and the challenges of zero waste amid the pandemic

recent study published by GAIA in 2021 evaluated the job generation potential of zero waste in 16 countries, including the Philippines. It revealed that implementing zero-waste strategies does not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also provides significantly more and good quality jobs than disposal-based systems—therefore presenting an opportunity for a green recovery from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

The report showed that recycling, remanufacturing, and composting alone can create thousands of jobs across model cities and that the potential of full zero-waste systems that integrate repair, reuse, and waste reduction is even greater.

Marian Frances Ledesma, Zero Waste Campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines, shared that there are a lot of challenges in campaigning for zero waste, especially during the start of the pandemic.

“There were a lot of fears and uncertainty around the transmission of the coronavirus. It got [people] to question if reusables are safe. It didn’t help that the plastic industry in various countries was actively lobbying for the use of single-use plastics as protective measures against COVID,” Ledesma said.

“This led to more single-use plastics and disposables being used by people thinking that those are safer—when in reality,  reusables are just as safe as single-use plastics, and in a way, even safer because they were designed to be reused, washed, and disinfected repeatedly,” she added.

False solutions to plastic pollution

Ledesma also pointed out the rise of false solutions to plastic pollution, such as waste-to-energy and co-processing of plastic and cement, as additional challenges to advancing zero-waste during the pandemic, especially amid the rise of e-commerce.

“False solutions muddy the conversation. They distract people, particularly local governments, from real solutions like zero waste. The sad thing is they incentivize the generation of more waste instead of prevention,” Ledesma explained.

Ledesma also added that while recycling and upcycling are good for the waste that are already generated, they do not address waste prevention.

Coleen Salamat, Plastic Solutions Campaigner at EcoWaste Coalition, agreed with Ledesma, adding that the problem with promoting recycling on its own is that it is a downstream approach. “It gives you the justification that it is okay to use single-use plastics because they will be recycled anyway. At the very core, once single-use plastics are manufactured, they become persistent pollutants,” she added.

Salamat explained that in the hierarchy of zero waste, reduction comes first and that recycling is the least priority. She also highlighted that there are many business models that are already circular and that there is a need to go back to the basics.

Managing medical waste amid the pandemic

Ramon San Pascual, Executive Director of Healthcare Without Harm Asia Southeast Asia, underscored the need to balance COVID-19 response and the use of plastics.

“In the big picture, protecting our own health means protecting our environment,” San Pascual said, noting that zoonotic diseases like COVID are caused by biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. “It shouldn’t be a choice between public health and the environment. It should be both,” he added.

San Pascual shared that Healthcare Without Harm Asia, in partnership with Break Free from Plastic, undertook an audit of five hospitals in the Greater Metropolitan Manila Area (GMA), which showed the unnecessary over-reliance on disposables during the pandemic.

According to San Pascual, 60 to 70 percent of the waste volume of the hospitals they’ve audited are single-use plastics—most are plastic packaging of food from fast-food chains near the hospitals and PET bottles for water. He shared that the hospital administrators reached out to the fast-food chains to reduce or avoid plastic packaging and encourage hospital staff to use reusables by distributing tumblers and putting up more water refilling stations.

Creating an enabling environment for zero waste

Ruzzel Morales, Youth Cluster Coordinator of Climate Reality Philippines, underscored the need to shift the burden of pursuing zero waste from individual actions to systemic changes.

“There are narratives revolving solely around how individuals are responsible in their own reducing, reusing, and recycling wastes. However, certain sectors do not have access, means, and budget to shift to alternatives. If we talk about accessibility, we also have to look at how our policies are supporting the creation of a zero-waste society,” Morales explained.

Morales noted that the government and the private sector should also carry their weight. “It should be a collaborative effort,” she said.

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