STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A tide of plastic waste is contaminating the oceans. And in a congressional hearing, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse named major culprits.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Over 50 percent of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from just five countries - China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
INSKEEP: NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce went to one of those countries, the Philippines, to see how bad it is.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Manila - it sprawls along the coast of Manila Bay. Shantytowns sit in the shadow of new high-rises and mega shopping malls. People here have more money than they used to, so they're buying more stuff, from fancy soaps to imported coffee and fast food, all of which is wrapped in plastic packaging. And a lot of that plastic ends up in the bay. There's an island in the bay that's kind of like a doormat for that floating plastic. I went to take a look. It's not far from shore.
So we're on a bangka, which is a Filipino boat, a wooden boat about 20 feet long, 3 feet wide.
I could see lots of mangrove trees. The island could be a place for a resort, except that what looks like Spanish moss hanging from the branches isn't. It's plastic bags.
On the way out there, you look along the shore and it's just one long line of plastic debris.
To get ashore, we walk on a little catwalk made of bamboo and held together with a plastic tie. Underneath it, it's plastic, more plastic, more plastic. Hello.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
JOYCE: Hey, pup.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
JOYCE: The variety of stuff lying around is amazing - shoes, bottles, syringes, even motorcycle helmets. It's impossible to tell exactly where all this stuff comes from, but clearly, a lot of it comes from the neighborhoods surrounding Manila Bay. Some of those neighborhoods are trying to stop the flow of plastic into the bay. I visit to Hulong Duhat.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, hello. Good morning, (unintelligible).
JOYCE: The local government is now requiring residents to actually pick through their trash and segregate out the plastic so the community can deal with it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible) Silver.
JOYCE: A woman pushes her trash cart through a tiny series of alleys and along with her is a monitor from the neighborhood government.
DAHLIA SEQUITA: My name is Dahlia.
JOYCE: Dahlia Sequita speaks through a translator.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So the policy is that no segregation, no collection. So collection is free, but the household need to segregate their waste.
JOYCE: Food waste goes in one bag, metals, paper, glass in another and two bags for plastic, recyclable and non-recyclable. If residents don't comply with all this, they pay a fine.
SEQUITA: First offense - 500 pesos. Second offense - 1,000. And third, going to jail.
JOYCE: Even jail for not separating plastic from your trash. There are hundreds of official neighborhoods in this huge city. Hulong Duhat is one of just 16 that now require residents to segregate plastic from their garbage.
JOYCE: Is it enough? I ask the town's secretary, Nenita Labiano.
Do you think it's going to work? I mean, it's like a tsunami of plastic.
NENITA LABIANO: (Through interpreter) Well, sometimes I get mad. As a community, we do our part to clean up the waste and educate people about the environment. And in the beginning, people cooperate, but then they go back to their old ways. And it makes me sad.
JOYCE: But even when people do do their best, where does that plastic go? That's where it gets complicated. Some plastic, like bottles, gets recycled. But then there are the sachets, plastic packets that contain a single portion of soap or coffee or shampoo. That's how corporations like Unilever and Nestle market consumer goods in Asia, and most of these sachets cannot be recycled. That rankles Froilan Grate. He's with an environmental group, Mother Earth Foundation, which has sponsored the neighborhood cleanups.
FROILAN GRATE: The problem is that, for most of these companies, they feel their responsibility to their product ends the moment they sell it.
JOYCE: He says there's a reason used sachets end up in the ocean. In the Philippines, independent waste workers collect plastic and sell it to recyclers. But if it can't be recycled, like those sachets, it has no value.
GRATE: Talk to a waste worker. Can you actually earn from this by collecting it?
JOYCE: So they don't collect it. Grate has spent 17 years looking for ways to get rid of plastic waste. He now realizes that Filipinos can't dig out of this alone. Most packaging comes from just a few big companies. He says it's time they take more responsibility.
GRATE: You have companies dumping all of this new product and packaging that is beyond our capacity to manage. You earn from this, you know? And you expect all of us to then magically just solve it for you.
JOYCE: You can't just magically get rid of something that is permanent, that doesn't degrade. It just keeps piling up. Remember that island I visited? Walking toward the beach, plastic underfoot, I stopped to look at a huge pile of burlap bags stuffed with plastic waste. A team of workers collected that waste, one day's work, and yet they barely make a dent.
It's relentless. And it buries itself in the sand. It becomes permanent. You kick the sand aside, and there is a plastic tile. There's four or five straws underneath the sand. There's half of a plastic bag. And then mixed in with coconuts and mangrove seeds, you know, it's just - it give you the feeling that you can't ever catch up.
That's why many people throughout Southeast Asia are now saying enough. Cleaning up isn't going to fix this. They want to take the fight to the corporations that create the plastic in the first place. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAPA'S "CETACEAN WAY")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.