Food and the Filipino
Feast and Famine

All that trash

THEY MAY be small and convenient for consumers, but those sachets and pouches that are the current toast of the manufacturing world has become a considerable environmental headache.

Like a lot of plastics, these packaging materials, known as flexibles, laminates, or composite materials consisting of several layers of either the same or different materials (plastic, ink, metal), are recyclable. But making them reusable is more complicated than recycling paper, cartons, metals, glass, and rigid plastics.

The collection of empty sachets and other waste flexibles from households for turnover to recycling facilities is even trickier. Households, paleros (garbage truck helpers), and even scavengers have shown no interest, much less made a move to sort and collect them. As a result, nearly all waste flexibles are dumped at the landfill, according to a waste analysis and characterization study done last year by the multinational Unilever Philippines.

The study examined 15 tons of garbage collected by a garbage contractor from wet markets and residential and commercial areas in Manila and then taken to Pier 18 before landing at their final destination: a landfill in Montalban, Rizal. Pier 18 is one of two major garbage transfer stations in Metro Manila. It handles 800,000 of the three million tons of trash generated each year by the city’s 11 million inhabitants. The other station is in Payatas, Quezon City, through which 1.6 million tons of garbage passes every year.

Carry bags or supermarket bags form the bulk of the ugly plastics clogging the Montalban landfill. Those from food products account for as much as 10 percent, while empty sachets of soap, detergent, and cosmetics make up five percent. The low figures of their garbage notwithstanding, Unilever and other members of the Soap and Detergent Association of the Philippines are seeking ways to entice Filipinos to recycle empty sachets as they would other packaging materials, says Christophe Joyeux, Unilever Philippines’ development manager.

Unilever itself is active in developing the recycling technology for flexibles. It has so far been successful in producing hollow blocks and bricks out of empty sachets and detergent wrappers coming from its factory. The flexibles are shredded and ground into 16-mm pieces and then mixed with other ingredients, including liquid wastes also from its factory, to produce ingredients for the construction materials. Unilever is still working on the technology to produce construction boards from waste sachets by hot molding.

Heeding a suggestion by Leonarda Camacho of the Linis Ganda program, Unilever has entered into a tie-up with Union Cement where energy from roughly shredded and uncompacted waste sachets is recovered to help fuel the kiln used to manufacture cement. In Europe and the United States, laminate and other plastic wastes are already being used in cement processing. Explains Joyeux: “Plastic is petroleum. What people don’t realize is sachet material has the calorific value of coal: One kilo of this generates as much energy as one kilo of coal.”

Because the kiln to which the sachets are fed manually is fired at temperatures ranging from 1,100 (end temperature) to 2,000 degrees (at the furnace part), the plastic instantly decomposes into its primary ingredients — polyethylene or PE in this case — and emits no toxic fumes, according to Joyeux.

Since the last quarter of 2004, Unilever has been trucking one to two tons of waste sachets to Union Cement nearly every week. But all these emanate from its factory. The challenge now facing Unilever and other manufacturers of sacheted products is how to collect the empty packets and other flexibles from consumers for recycling.

If flexibles were only a high-value product, there really should be no problem. A Unilever survey on recyclable materials being bought by junkshops shows wires priced at P90 a kilo, aluminum cans at P48 a kilo, hard plastics at P1 kilo, transparent plastic bottles at P27 a kilo, tin cans at P3 a kilo, and rum bottles at 50 centavos apiece. These attractive rates explain why these and other items are sought after by door-to-door collectors, by paleros who haul them onto garbage trucks where sorting immediately commences, by scavengers either waiting at the transfer stations or living near sanitary landfills. With all the sorting taking place, the trash that eventually winds up in the landfills consists mostly of organic wastes such as food wastes, dried leaves, wood, diapers (80.4 percent), plastic bags (12.8 percent), and wrappers from foods, paper (1.9 percent), soap, detergents and cosmetics (1.5 percent), says Unilever’s study on wastes.

But as waste flexibles are low in value, Unilever expects scant interest from paleros. Neither does the company find it practical or economical to recover the sachets at the landfill. “It’s much more economical to try to get them from homes, where most of our things are disposed,” says Chito Macapagal, Unilever’s general manager for corporate development.

Marketing strategies that have consumers surrendering empty sachets in anticipation of prizes may be one way of recovering waste flexibles. “That’s a very good source of a homogenous postconsumer recovery,” Macapagal says. “The only thing is it’s not sustainable because you can’t do promotions every year.”

To help in its search for incentives for people to recycle flexibles, Unilever is set to undertake two studies this year. One will be done with help from the education department’s Manila schools division and will analyze wastes house-by-house by getting schoolchildren to bring their garbage at home to school. “Our goal is to confirm if people are willing to give it (flexibles) away,” Joyeux says. The study is also intended to find out the inducements for people to recover empty sachets.

The other study will involve scavengers who would be provided incentives to collect waste flexibles from homes to enable Unilever to measure the kind and amount of packaging that can be retrieved.

For flexible recycling to succeed, Unilever knows it can’t go it alone. “On the average, there are only two grams of flexible packaging of soap and detergent per family per day,” says Joyeux. “If I ask a scavenger to go to a home for two grams, it’s not gonna work.”

That’s why the multinational firm is convincing not only the soap, detergent, and cosmetics industry, but also the food industry to get involved. The sooner manufacturers put their heads and hands together, the better for the environment.