Plastics in the Philippines

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The USS John C. Stennis anchored in Manila Bay.

​At the beginning of last year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published a report that provided a sobering perspective on global plastics use. One particularly disturbing item it detailed, as noted in the Washington Post, was that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans if current trends hold strong. “Islands” of trash float in the seas’ gyres, vast whirlpools that swirl in the crooks of ocean currents. National Geographic describes the waste patches as comprised of a “cloudy soup” of microplastics that have broken down and accumulated in the eddys, which are sometimes bigger than large countries. Seventy percent of the material, which includes not only plastic but all kinds of human garbage, sinks to the ocean floor, so it is virtually impossible to measure the volume of the debris. The largest plastic island spans the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean.

​That’s the open ocean. More concentrated garbage depositories fester in some of the world’s ill-regulated ports. Some nautical miles offshore in Manila Bay in summer 2016, my Navy aircraft carrier dropped anchor, and particulate plumes rose and spread on the polluted water’s surface like cream in coffee after a spoon drops into the cup. Sailors boarded a rickety port transit vessel for a choppy 45-minute ride to a bangin’ party on the concrete pier and all over the city. The whole journey in, no fish were visible in the water, only incredible tangles of plastic like noodle soup stretching across the Bay. The water to the horizon was littered with illegal fish traps.

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Manila Bay’s trash soup.

Solid pollution is hardly the only kind off the shores of Manila and its suburbs. In the Bay, fuel spills are commonplace, prominent ones happening at least every decade. In August 2013, the Philippines’ largest refining operation, Petron Corporation, leaked half a million liters of diesel into a 300-square-kilometer area just offshore, creating a rusty slick. Activists demanded the responsible facility in Rosario be shut down. The government banned fishing in the Bay and deployed patrols that enforced the ban, affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fishermen.

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Manila Bay’s shipping lanes.

The Bay is famously congested with shipping traffic. In 2014, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada had to suspend the city’s daytime truck ban for eight days to clear the port of cargo loads that had stacked up ahead of a WEF meet. Though the country is party to an impressive array of international environmental accords, Philippine efforts to embrace environmental rules historically lag the needs of its ecosystems. For example, it was only 2015 when the Philippines agreed to the ambitious international regulatory framework known as MARPOL 73/78 (formulated by the UN’s International Maritime Organization in 1973, updated in 1978 and fully implemented in 1983), which limits the ways and amount ships can pollute the world’s oceans and ports. Academic study of Manila Bay consistently finds high levels of pollutants in the water body. The pollution is so bad that it alters the chemistry of the water. This can spur drastic increases in phytoplankton populations known as “red tides” for the crimson blankets they create on the ocean surface. These phenomena choke out other forms of life, including sea grass, which is a vital habitat for ocean fauna.

On the trek into port from the aircraft carrier, I didn’t know whether the swirling plastic was denser on this particular path than in other parts of the delicate ecosystem here. The only visible structures were the ship we had left, the largest Philippine cityscape ahead and the smattering of fish traps.

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A fish trap.

These sights made the Bay seem constricted to our own little experience, but the Bay is in fact one-third again bigger than Houston. It is a complex and misunderstood place, despite the effort that goes into understanding it. It has mudflats and sandy beaches and mangroves and coral reefs and hundreds of species of birds. If there’s something scientists and activists who care about the Bay have tried to tell people it’s that the critical and fragile ecosystem can and should be revitalized. Three years before my ship’s port call there, officials from Greenpeace and the University of the Philippines publicly encouraged the Philippine government to aggressively attack the Bay’s environmental woes.

The government should attack those of the rest of the nation, too. Some the most pressing social concerns that face the country are environmental. The CIA World Factbook notes the following: “uncontrolled deforestation especially in watershed areas; soil erosion; air and water pollution in major urban centers; coral reef degradation; increasing pollution of coastal mangrove swamps that are important fish breeding grounds.”

On land, there are other problems.

On the pier outside the Mall of Asia, the world’s 11th largest shopping mall, some coworkers and I hailed a cab and negotiated fare to our hotel, some miles inland. The name on the driver’s card was Jeremy, but he said “Call me J.” He had to put his beater sedan in third gear to make it up the hills on the highway. 

​If Bay congestion is considered an economic nuisance, Manila’s packed byways are a catastrophe. The thoroughfare we drove on, known as the C4, six jumbled lanes across, was choked with more cars than I’ve ever seen. The infrastructure was crumbling and much of the road was lined with hastily constructed building facades advertising massage parlors, lawyers and tire services. Billboards insinuated local political candidates. (President Rodrigo Détente, who has since waged a barbaric drug war that has killed thousands of people, had just been elected and it was all anyone could talk about.) These signs were blackened by a thick highway dust and there was little or no sidewalk. I couldn’t tell how a person would patronize any of the businesses, but the buildings crawled with people. There was no apparent parking. The only pleasantness was the vivid flora that encroached on these structures, peeking through cracks and climbing the sides, a constant and oddly calming reminder that if the population stopped growing for one second the forest would take over.

​ The highway ducked over hills and into valleys and the going was slow, and the whole time J tried to solicit more services. He’d overcharged us for the cab ride and seemed convinced he could continue taking advantage.

​ “I be your escort all night, I get ladies, very sexy, very beautiful. I take you to best bars, no lady-boys. Stay away from clubs near Dusit Thani [our hotel], they are full of lady-boys.”

​ Our hotel came into view over the next hill, a Philippine lodestar of modernity and exclusion. It was the tallest building in its part of the city and was surrounded on all sides by flat, upscale shopping malls. There was a Buffalo Wild Wings and a Marks & Spencer. J let us off at the hotel. ​We politely took his phone number and furtively cast it away. 

Mustachioed, important-seeming men in short khaki shorts and thin white button-ups, sleeves rolled, escorted equally relaxed families through the lobby. The wives wore expensive sundresses, the children vacation garb to match their parents.

A coworker and I had booked an “Executive Club” room and the concierge took us to the sixteenth floor on the elevator and got off and told us we had to board a “transfer elevator” to the check-in floor. Our room had two toilets and two plasma televisions that played cerebral English-speaking Asian new stations. There were 800 square feet and a free massage. Inside, there were marble floors, outside, granite tables. During happy hours, the bars charged 590 pesos (about $12) for bottomless drinks and the room included a breakfast buffet at the lobby restaurant, The Pantry, which served exotic food, some of which I couldn’t identify, to guests in padded armchairs. There was fresh-squeezed fruit juice and suckling pigs roasting on spits. There were mimosas and bloody marys and screwdrivers and beer and the locals wanted us to drink. We did. It was the top of the world, which we’d never get to in the United States on an enlisted military salary.

​ The previous time a carrier pulled into Manila several years prior, a drunken marine enlisted the service of a transgender prostitute and when he discovered the nature of the goods, he murdered her and left her bloodied corpse in a hotel bathroom. Courts recently upheld the marine’s conviction on the charge of homicide, which, in the Philippines, does does not entail malicious intent. 

Though Duterte is cooling to the Philippine relationship with the United State favoring better relations with China, the Philippines is no stranger to foreign militaries. It has been occupied by Western nations for most of its history. Spain controlled it from the 16th century until 1898, when the United States wrested the archipelago in the Spanish-American War. (Many Filipino families carry on Hispanicized surnames.) The country’s more than 7,000 islands are poised at the locus of global commerce, conveniently sandwiched between Japan and the South China, Sulu and Sulawesi seas. For a country the media has aggressively and thoroughly labeled “third-world,” the Philippine economy, though tight, is quite stable, according to the Factbook. The Philippines has enjoyed a budget surplus for 14 consecutive years. The growth rate for gross domestic product was 6.1 percent in 2015 and 6.9 in 2016, a staggering number. Compare it to 2.6 and 1.6 in the United States respectively. This breakneck pace and relative economic stability does little to mask the vast wealth gap. While money flows into the pockets of the wealthy, the poor languish. More than 20 percent of the country lives in poverty, and we could smell the strata wafting from the kitchens of The Pantry.

One morning, we got to know our poolside bartender, a dogged man, probably 45, who worked extra so he could send his daughters to special schools in Japan. He worked this bar and a number of other locations around town. Short, barrel-chested, mustachioed and well-dressed, he tended to American Navy women in the pool who demanded their whiskey and Coke, though the full bar was not open yet. He personally brought the drinks from up from the downstairs bar. He did everything we wanted. I tried to help by taking my beers at the bar instead of having him bring them. He had not seen his daughters in years. One of our younger sailors tried to give him business advice.

I drank single malts with a friend on the hotel’s top-level floor, the Executive Club. My friend longed for his pregnant wife, and we focused on personal, simple things. I was at the top of the system. I can’t understand tiers above me in America, at which some don’t sweat their next leer-jet purchase.

Sixteen floors downstairs on the street, a snaggletooth man peddled prostitutes outside a convenience store where we purchased our liquor. 

“I can get you girls, good-looking girls, send them to your room. What is your room number?” he asked us.

Weathered by time and hardship, he marveled how I could afford not to sweat a few nights in the Dusit Thani Executive Club. The layers in the economic spectrum don’t end. It’s a punch in the gut to realize that you live at the surface, on top of almost everyone.

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