Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wash VS. Styro

A current concern in the fastfood sector is the massive use of polystyrene packaging. In the UK and most of the developed world, there is already a gradual transition from the use of polystyrene towards more sustainable packaging materials.

When McDonald's reverted back to the use of polystyrene cups for its sweet tea, it received much criticism in for its corporate social responsibility (

In the Philippines, the fast food sector still has a long way to go before it can fully transition towards more sustainable packaging. I am quick to note that I am not advocating the use of paper packaging but rather a packaging system with minimal impacts to the environment in the course of its life cycle. I have decided to write this blog in the context of the Third World since the truth of the matter is economic conditions locally is totally different from the developed world.

One of the challenges of the fast food at the moment is the impact of its transition from polystyrene packaging to reusable melamine wares for dine-in customers. The transition was once hailed by civil society as the first step towards a more sustainable fast food industry, with a number of press releases. I was still in college at that time in UPLB. I remember an email forwarded to me where a civil society group boycotted the offices of McDonald's since it didn't immediately follow suit with its competitor's move to reusable wares.

However, this shift has a catch, it did reduce the volume of polystyrene packaging wastes but for the past five years according to my boss, the waste water quality of the fast food was on a decline and the DENR is now reprimanding the industry for failing to comply to the water quality standards.
Technical solutions have been offered by a number of waste water treatment experts but none so far has been effective or let's say not so economically feasible given the space requirement, initial investment and maintenance cost over time.

Last December 2008, I attended a party of the Polystyrene Packaging Council of the Philippines, those invited where not merely the styro producers but a number of waste recyclers who made it a business to recycle polystyrene products. At that time, the municipality of Los Banos issued an ordinance banning the use of plastics and polystyrene packaging from all its establishments and other local governments are planning to follow suit. The DOST does support the recycling technologies but its environmental impacts should be assessed.

What I have learned is that every policy decision has an impact and my basic training in economics taught me that given this condition, we should optimize our options to come up with the solution with least cost or the least detrimental impact. Ideally, given this type of a scenario, a full Life-Cycle Analysis must be done but being in the Third World, we do not have the capacity in time and money to engage ourselves in this exercise.