Plastics Exposed: How Waste Assessments and Brand Audits are Helping Philippine Cities Fight Plastic Pollution

[This Executive Summary has been updated to reflect the correct figures on plastic bag use in the Philippines: every day, almost 48 million shopping bags are used throughout the Philippines, or roughly 17.5 billion pieces a year.]


Single-use disposable plastic is the greatest obstacle to sound waste and resource management. Inadequate waste management systems and human negligence are often cited as the main contributors to plastic waste leakage into terrestrial and marine environments—but waste and brand audit data in many parts of the world are helping reveal that the unfettered production of disposable plastic is the actual problem. As long as the mass production of throwaway plastics continues unabated, cities and countries will find it harder and harder to cope. Put simply, disposable plastic is a pollution problem, and the only way to prevent it is to stop it at source.

The data in the Plastics Exposed: How Waste Assessments and Brand Audits are Helping Philippine Cities Fight Plastic Pollution report was gathered through the waste assessment and brand audit (WABA) tool developed by the NGO Mother Earth Foundation (MEF), a group implementing GAIA’s Zero Waste Cities project in the Philippines. Currently, there is a lack of extensive data in the country regarding the production, consumption, and disposal of single-use plastics and plastic packaging. For example, there is no data on the total sachet production of companies, which make up a significant portion of throwaway plastics in dumps, waterways, and beaches. Traditional waste assessment and characterization surveys (WACS) also do not distinguish between the different types of plastic packaging, preventing effective policy making for their proper management. This report therefore also highlights the importance of WABAs as a vital tool to give detailed information about the types, volume, and number of plastic waste in a city, and to support strategies to deal effectively with this problematic waste stream.

As a tool, WABAs help 1) expose the role of specific corporations in the global proliferation of plastic waste; 2) unmask how the industry has passed on the blame for the waste they produce to the consumers of their products, and the responsibility for clean-up of their packaging to governments; and 3) reinforce the need for corporations to accept liability for the full life-cycle impacts of their products and the packaging in which their products are sold.

This report compiles data from 21 waste assessments conducted in six cities and seven municipalities across the Philippines by MEF and local government project partners, with the support of GAIA and funding from the Plastic Solutions Fund. Data from these 21 waste assessments were used to extrapolate national data, including estimates about the use and disposal of different types of plastic residuals. Among the 21 sites where waste assessments were conducted, 15 sites have additional brand audit data. These data provide a snapshot of how much plastic waste, particularly those with branded packaging, are discarded by households.

Based on WABAs conducted in areas across the Philippines, findings highlighted in this report confirm that:

  1. Organic waste comprise more than 50% of generated waste in the Philippines, affirming that organic waste management is an important strategy that will create substantial waste reduction for local governments.
  2. Disaggregating data on the different types of plastic residuals gives a clearer picture of waste generation, providing valuable information on policy actions needed to substantially reduce this highly problematic waste stream.
  3. The strict implementation of plastic bag regulations produces dramatically significant results in lowering plastic bag use. However, the existence of a plastic bag regulation in a city or municipality does not automatically equate to lower plastic bag use.
  4. Almost 164 million pieces of sachets are used in the Philippines daily, equating to around 59.7 billion pieces of sachets yearly. With the absence of policies mandating liability and accountability for the production of this problematic waste stream, cities and municipalities are left to deal with this problem using taxpayers’ money.
  5. While more attention should be given to ensure the reusability of packaging and products, it is important to acknowledge that within current waste management systems, recycling plays an important role in supporting livelihoods, and creating additional income for households, villages and/or municipalities and cities.
  6. More than 50% of all unrecyclable residual waste discarded in the country is branded waste, and only 10 companies are responsible for 60% of all branded waste in the study sites. This highlights the urgent need for interventions that involve manufacturers in taking responsibility for their plastic waste, primarily by drastically reducing production of throwaway plastic packaging.

Using WABA data, this research extrapolates national estimates on annual per capita use of plastic shopping bags, plastic labo, and sachets in the Philippines. Findings show that:

  1. The average Filipino uses 591 pieces of sachets, 174 shopping bags, and 163 plastic labo bags, yearly.
  2. Everyday, almost 48 million shopping bags are used throughout the Philippines, or roughly 17.5 billion pieces a year.
  3. Plastic labo bag use throughout the Philippines is at 45.2 million pieces per day, or 16.5 billion pieces a year.
  4. Around three million diapers are discarded in the Philippines daily, or 1.1 billion diapers annually.

These figures show that the sheer volume of residual waste generated daily is beyond the capacity of barangays, cities and municipalities to manage: the problem is the huge amount of single-use plastics being produced, not the way the waste is managed. Experiences in GAIA’s Zero Waste Cities project sites show that after implementing Zero Waste strategies (for example establishing working materials recovery facilities or MRFs, conducting door to door segregated collection, composting organics, and maximizing recycling of high-value materials, etc.) cities can only achieve a maximum of 70-80% waste diversion (i.e. maximizing the sustainable management of discards to avoid landfilling and other final disposal methods) compared to their pre-Zero Waste program baseline. Despite expanding Zero Waste strategies, cities and municipalities will be left with around 20% of waste that they cannot manage—sachets and other single use plastics—preventing them from fully achieving Zero Waste goals.

Clearly, plastics are a global problem with local repercussions, and it is the cities and municipalities, as well as ordinary citizens, who bear the brunt of the problem. But the plastic crisis can be tackled, starting with using WABA as a tool.

Several case studies of Zero Waste Cities project sites in the Philippines featured in this report show how WABA data was used in waste and resource management planning to:

  1. maximize waste diversion rates;
  2. create a system to efficiently collect segregated waste from previously hard-to-reach areas while creating jobs for informal waste workers;
  3. design eco-sheds for materials recovery facility;
  4. design community composting facilities;
  5. predict landfill capacity and lifespan, and support investment in Zero Waste strategies; and
  6. reveal trends in plastic use in a city and municipality for monitoring and improvement of regulations.

While this report is focused on examples from the Philippines, the experiences related here are not unique, and the recommendations in this report are applicable in other countries. Cities all over Asia and in the developing world in general are faced with the same problem of plastic residuals, most of which have been identified as branded plastic packaging from multinational corporations (MNCs) based in the global north. This points to the need for a global plastic regulation to reduce and eventually eliminate the production of single-use plastic products and packaging.

Based on the findings, this report gives the following recommendations:

  1. WACS protocols should include disaggregated data on different types of plastic bags and packaging.
  2. Cities and municipalities should include brand data in waste assessments.
  3. The Philippine government should institute a comprehensive national plastic bag ban that promotes reusable bags.
  4. Governments should regulate other single-use plastic products, and mandate companies to redesign products and packaging and put in place alternative delivery systems.
  5. Governments should mandate diaper companies to improve recovery options for, and present viable alternatives to, disposable diapers.
  6. Waste incineration is an unsustainable practice that abets plastic pollution and must be stopped. In the Philippines, the government must retain and strengthen the ban against waste incineration.
  7. Corporations must be transparent about the plastic packaging they produce, assume accountability and liability for the packaging, and immediately stop producing throwaway plastic packaging through innovations in redesign and product delivery