© 2024 New Hampshire Public Radio

Persons with disabilities who need assistance accessing NHPR's FCC public files, please contact us at publicfile@nhpr.org.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Purchase your tickets today and be entered to win ALL prizes including $35k toward a new car or $25k in cash during NHPR's Summer Raffle!

A Small Plastic Package Is A Big Culprit Of The Waste Filling Oceans


For years, the oceans were filling up with plastic waste, but people couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Then research in 2015 showed that over half the waste was from a handful of Asian nations. NPR's Christopher Joyce went to one of these countries, the Philippines, and found that a big culprit is a small plastic package used to sell consumer goods. It's called a sachet.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: To see how sachets worked their way into the fabric of Filipino life, I visit the neighborhood of Maysilo in the capital city of Manila. It's next to a swamp. Kids run between tin-roof shanties that hover a few feet above ankle-deep water.

NIMFA MANLABE: Hi, welcome my sari-sari store. I'm Nimfa Manlabe.

JOYCE: Nimfa Manlabe is a middle-aged woman who sells sachets from a sari-sari store, a tiny storefront in her tiny home. Think of it like a neighborhood pantry filled with shiny little packages, like the ones ketchup comes in at the fast-food restaurant.

MANLABE: Detergent powder, candies, milk, shampoo.

JOYCE: Stuff people use every day.

MANLABE: Sunsilk, Palmolive and conditioner.

JOYCE: There are more than a million sari-sari stores across the Philippines. Manlabe says this is how everyone here shops.

MANLABE: (Through interpreter) I sell sachets to people. They come back here every day and buy these small amounts because that's what they can afford.

JOYCE: But once it's empty, the sachet never goes away. You can see that by looking down underneath this elevated shantytown. You can't tell where the water ends and the land begins because it's all covered in shiny plastic. And it drives Nimfa Manlabe crazy.

MANLABE: (Through interpreter) I keep sweeping every day, but then the next day, I see the trash is back, just thrown on the ground again.

JOYCE: Self-employed waste pickers do collect and sell stuff that can be recycled. Sachets cannot, so no one picks them up. Manlabe says her neighbors resort to burning them to cook their meals or just to get rid of them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in foreign language).

JOYCE: It wasn't always this way. Sherma Benosa is with an environmental group called GAIA, and she says it used to be that people brought refillable glass or ceramic containers to the sari-sari store.

SHERMA BENOSA: I remember when I was a kid that when you go to the store and you cannot afford the one bottle vinegar, you have a container with you and give them to the saleslady, and they put whatever amount you're asking to buy. So there's no problem. Only when we had plastic things became problematic.

JOYCE: So where did all this plastic come from? Well, let's go back to the 1940s.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is Tupperware - the airtight plastic containers that keep good foods fresher longer.

JOYCE: Plastic for consumers was growing in popularity. Manufacturers raced to find ways to fashion it into things people would buy. Plastic was lightweight, inexpensive, flexible.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Food stored in Baggies plastic bags always have the sound of freshness, and they always taste as fresh as they sound.

JOYCE: But much of it could not be recycled, and people in the industry knew that. At the first National Conference on Packaging Waste held in San Francisco in 1969, some executives wondered, where is all this plastic going to end up? One marketing consultant said that wasn't their problem. Difficulties with plastic waste, quote, "are not the responsibility of those who produce materials, fabricate packages or package goods" - unquote. Rather, he said, it's the consumer's responsibility. So manufacturers just urged people not to litter and kept pumping out new kinds of plastic with yet more uses.


JOYCE: Then in the 1980s, an Indian businessman started marketing products in single-use sachets - a day's worth of shampoo for people who couldn't afford big bottles of it. Sachets were aimed at the poor, but eventually, they became a symbol for a middle-class lifestyle.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Chik jasmine shampoo (foreign language spoken) active double conditioners (foreign language spoken).

JOYCE: Global companies followed suit. It was also great marketing, all those single-use packets, each with a brand and a logo. Sachets did offer some advantages for consumers.

CRISPIAN LAO: You have the health issue.

JOYCE: Crispian Lao is a former plastics executive. He now leads the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Material Sustainability. It includes companies that make and package consumer goods, such as Nestle, Coca-Cola and Unilever.

LAO: The market needed something to deliver those products to the consumer safely, and that is where single-use packaging came in. You now have disposable cups, disposable bowls, disposable plates.

JOYCE: Lao says sachets offered quality control. You knew what you were getting. You didn't have to wash reusable containers, which could be risky in poorer neighborhoods where water quality is often suspect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

JOYCE: Today, sachets are everywhere, in poor neighborhoods like Maysilo but also in places like this - San Fernando, a thriving business community north of Manila.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

JOYCE: In a gated suburb, a private team of workers wheels carts through the city every day calling for trash.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

JOYCE: San Fernando has lots of money for trash collection, but it's still stuck with sachets of the plastic that cannot be recycled. Froilan Grate is with the environmental group Mother Earth Foundation. He shows me a pile of this stuff in a damp concrete room in the center of town.

FROILAN GRATE: This one, the next one, is like the soda cup that you typically get from fast-food chains like McDonald's.

JOYCE: The cup looks like it's made from paper.

GRATE: The problem with this one is that it's promoted as a better alternative because it's paper cup, but it has a plastic liner inside.

JOYCE: Recycling something like this, mixed paper and plastic, is expensive. It requires technology they don't have in the Philippines.

GRATE: So this entire thing, including the straw that they use, goes into the landfill.

JOYCE: So if people in the Philippines can't get rid of this stuff, who should? Grate says the companies that make it.

GRATE: I'm angry because those who have the power, those who have the resources and I'm talking about companies earning billions of dollars to actually do the right thing are washing their hands and saying you use it, that's your problem. So that is where the frustration is coming from.

JOYCE: Numerous companies - Unilever, Coca-Cola, Nestle and others - have pledged that by 2025 they'll use only plastic packaging that can be reused, recycled or composted. In fact, Unilever has a new chemical process to recycle sachets and a pilot plant in Indonesia to test it. In the Philippines, Crispian Lao's industry group is planning a research effort to make more plastic recyclable.

LAO: The idea right now is that how can we now, you know, together with the global partnership, redesign the product so it becomes more recyclable, look at recycling the existing products that are there? Because it's not going to disappear overnight.

JOYCE: Von Hernandez is skeptical. Hernandez is the global coordinator for a group called Break Free From Plastic working in an office here in Manila. His view is consumers shouldn't have to recycle their way out of this mess.

VON HERNANDEZ: If we cannot recycle or compost this material, then you should not be producing them in the first place. You should not be deploying them into commerce.

JOYCE: Both activists and the brands say they want the same thing - less plastic trash. But they're still far apart on how and when to make that happen. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.