May 24, 2024 (8:33 PM)

7 min read


Graphic by Lance Allen Tosloc

When the Ateneo de Davao University implemented the “total ban” against single-use plastics (SUPs) in 2018, there was a brimming sense of hope and a stubborn tinge of defiance in heeding the tall order of combating our “throwaway culture” outline by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si encyclical.

Why there was such a prevailing sense of optimism and audacity is not that hard to answer. Memorandum No. 2018-071 was solid proof of how AdDU held firm in its identity as a progressive institution eager to respond to the pressing issues of our time. There is, indeed, an urgent need to hoist the Philippines up from the quagmire of plastic pollution, and AdDU, was at the forefront to tell the Philippines that with just enough administrative will, we can embody a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle to be “non-conformists” even in the face of a society that systemically relies on plastics in our day-to-day lives.  

We are forced—and for good reason—to bring our own water tumblers, use paper bags, utensils, plates, and straws, instead of plastics. We fill out the Ecoteneo’s ERMAP forms to ensure sustainability in our organizations’ school activities. In some cafeteria stalls, we are even incentivized through discounts when we bring our own food containers to lessen water consumption when washing dishes. 

Yet, nearly 6 years since Fr. Joel Tabora inked Memorandum No. 2018-071 as an ultimate law in the university entrance gates, where campus guards hawk over would-be smuggled plastic items from our bags, we ask, how dramatic was the change brought by the ban on single-use plastics?

The performative plastic ban?

To some keen observers, there seems to be no change at all. Garbage bins around the campus, as well as the material recovery facility (MRF) at the far end of the Arrupe Hall are unfortunately teeming with single-use plastics. An occasional scan at the pile of rubbish bins leads one to find an assorted mix of plastic cups, lids, utensils, PET bottles, and doy packs, all of which are prohibited inside the campus.

One noticeable thing inside the Finster cafeteria, for example, is that some stalls also sell products in plastic wrappers, like chips, candies, and biscuits. A satellite store on the third floor of the Finster Building sells the same items, mostly in plastic wrappers. One of the vendors in such stalls, who refused to be named for the sake of anonymity, told Atenews that although they themselves are aware of the existing ban on single-use plastics, they cannot disclose how and why the store was still “allowed” in the University since they are also not privy to the dealings and contracts necessary for the establishment of such businesses.

Certainly, it is overwhelmingly ironic to the point of amusement and frustration that one is barred entry inside the campus when they are “caught” having those plastic items inside their bag—all while the University implicitly permits the selling of such items within the school premises.

Although it is somehow an unspoken reality to us, Ateneans, a factor that also makes us interrogate whether the plastic ban is genuine enough is the relative ease at how one can “smuggle” a few plastic items inside the campus, provided that you happen to pass by an empathetic security guard and not the ruthless ones who would suggest you swill down all one liter of your tetra packed-pineapple juice at the gate.

Dan and France, both AB International Studies students, told Atenews of a fond memory when they were preparing meals for their thesis panelists, where they had to hastily find and borrow pitchers from the University staff to transfer three liters of newly purchased soft drinks, all because the security guards would not allow the entry of the original plastic containers.

“Even though gets man namin na for the sake of being strict gud sa protocols ang pagbawal sa mga [plastic bottles] sa loob, kay sana ma-understand [ng administration] ba na hindi lahat ng plastics kay single use lang gud,” Dan lamented. “Like sa mga bottles ng 1.5 soft drinks, pwede pa man yan sila ma-reuse. Ano pa ang purpose ng ‘reusable’ bins natin di’ba?” she added. 

France chimed in saying, “Funny kaayo kay murag mas nalisoran pa mi og defend kay kuya guard kaysa sa aming panelists. But, kidding aside, if maging stringent sila sa ganiyan na mga policies, kay sana ma-[look over] din nila ang mga gina-benta sa loob ng caf.”

A time to reinvent the plastic ban

To be fair, despite the existing loopholes in the university policy and loose interpretations of what plastics qualify as “single-use,” business establishments surrounding AdDU had already caught on to the university issuance. Coffee shops, food joints, and convenience stores have long been wrapping and serving their products in biodegradable materials, lest they lose valuable profit from their Atenean patrons.

However, the persistent contentions and calls of “an inconvenient policy” reveal the enduring ubiquity of plastics in our daily lives. Sure, one can argue that most, if not all Ateneans can afford and are willing to partake in this pivot for a sustainable lifestyle. Yet, outside our campus’ immediate vicinity, the world still lives and breathes in plastic, so much so, that in 2023, AB Communication students from AdDU launched the well-lauded “Bayong-kerohan” campaign to address the colossal plastic waste management in Davao City’s primary public market by reintroducing the use of traditional bayongs made from recycled or dried leaf materials.

Their campaign, including AdDU’s general policy to push for a radical change towards plastic use, waste management, and prohibition, is indicative of just how little effect existing local and national laws have been in place to ward off single-use plastics totally. A 2021 study by the Commission on Audit (COA) reported that the Philippines produced 16.63 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2020 alone, two decades since the enactment of RA 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act. In fact, it was only in 2022 that the law was amended to hold companies accountable for the plastic packaging they produce. 

 Out of that million-ton waste in a year, the City Environment and Natural Resources Office of Davao (CENRO) reported in 2021 that Davao City contributes at least 600 to 700 tons of mixed waste a day, a statistic that is way off the target as outlined by the city ordinance on the ban on single-use plastics, and environmental groups, like the Interfacing Development Interventions for Sustainability (IDIS) and the Break Free from Plastic.

Given all these, where does the plastic ban lead us to? 

The mandate in place is definitely a welcome step and there’s no denying that the only way to go is forward. But, in the essence of Ignatian discernment, the lingering policy loopholes, the questionable effectiveness of the ban inside our University, and the hard-to-pin-down presence of mass manufacturers of plastics in our country invite us all stakeholders of our common home to be in dialogue with ourselves and with others. 

What such dialogue entails is not only limited to brash, vainglorious solutions at the expense of real, lasting change. The path towards a true plastic-free Ateneo, or the Philippines for that matter, may just begin when we seriously commit to holding authorities and companies accountable and not settling for draconian measures that benefit no one. 

This article was published in the April 2024 Tabloid Issue of Atenews. Read it here:

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