As noon approaches in Valenzuela City and residents prepare to have their lunch, a pungent smell of melted plastic swirls through the air, killing everyone’s appetite.
“It gets suffocating in the evening. We have to close our windows despite the heat and bury our noses under our blankets when we sleep,” says Rosalie Esplana, 40.
The area on the outskirts of the Philippine capital of Manila has been dubbed Plastic City. Its ramshackle streets are home to tiny houses sandwiched next to large factories belching out fumes. Residents have been plagued by foul odors, which they claim come from a neighboring recycling plant, STC Enterprises. Locals allege emissions from the plant have caused several residents to develop a lingering cough, a claim the plant owners deny.
Valenzuela City is a microcosm of some of the problems facing communities in Southeast Asia, which have become the dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste.
In May, the Philippines shipped 1,500 tons of waste back to Canada after it discovered the country was sending containers of garbage that included non-recyclable items such as adult nappies. The nation has similar problems with supposedly recyclable waste from other countries, including South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong, and the government is now eyeing a total ban on waste imports.
‘We don’t need waste from abroad’
In Valenzuela’s Canumay West Village, the problem of foreign waste is personal. The Guardian joined city environmental officers touring the village. They say inspections prompted by residents’ complaints over the smell of burning plastic are commonplace.
“We check if they’re following environmental laws and make sure that their air pollution control devices are working,” says city environment and natural resources office chief Rommel Pondevida.
A significant proportion of the plastic waste recycled in the plants in the city comes from other countries, a fact that local officials including the mayor, Rex Gatchalian, only found out recently.
“I think we have enough waste in the country to process, reuse and recycle. We don’t need waste from abroad,” Gatchalian says.
Customs data from 2018 shows more than three million kilograms of plastic recyclable waste were imported to the Philippines from the US alone — declared in customs documents as waste, parings and scraps of plastic. The waste found in industrial areas such as Valenzuela City is usually mixed with locally sourced raw materials.
While the locals complain about air quality, the local plastic industry says the row over imported waste, and particularly the diplomatic spat with Canada, threatens to make business difficult even for legitimate recyclers.
“We are doing something good for the environment, right? We understand there are issues. But nobody is checking the positive impact that we are contributing to the society,” says Sherwin Koa, manager of Citipoly Industries.
Koa is worried that proposals for an outright ban of all kinds of recyclable plastic materials will force many recyclers to close shop.
“If we’re not able to sustain operations, then we cannot process the local materials also,” says Koa.
Gatchalian is proud of the city’s role in recycling a large proportion of the country’s plastic waste and says the problem is unscrupulous recycling operations, whom he fears could give recycling a bad name.
“Isn’t this the practice that we desire when it comes to plastic? Recycle, reuse and repurpose, rather than throw it directly to the sewer and let it go out in open sea? Regulation is key. If problems persist, the companies can be shut down. I just shut down one last week,” Gatchalian says.
No escaping the smell
Two months after environmental officers visited Cunumay West, residents are still suffering from the pungent smell.
“The odor is repulsive,” says Benjamin Lopez, 50.
“It woke us up at 2:00 a.m. one time. I had to spray perfume in the room. Others had taken to spreading Vicks VapoRub under their noses.”
Residents believe the smell is responsible for five-year-old girl Shantal Marcaida contracting pneumonia, which led to her hospitalization.
On July 1, village chief Mario San Andres gave the owner of STC Enterprises, Wilson Uy, two weeks to clean up or risk losing his business permit. In a public meeting with residents and city environmental officers, Uy said STC wasn’t entirely responsible for the smell and that residents had continued to report complaints even after he temporarily stopped operations.
Speaking to the Guardian he denies fumes from the plant are making people sick and says STC only recycles local plastic.
“We also live here. We value our lives, too. If there is a problem, we wouldn’t want to live here,” Uy says.
There is no escaping the smell in Plastic City. Even outside the village hall, a soft hint of melted plastic permeates the air.
Gatchalian knows the long-term solution is to move the factories away from the residential areas, but San Andres wants action now.
“We have to address these concerns. I also want the village residents to enjoy a long life,” he says.
* Carmela Fonbuena wrote this article for the Guardian.