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'The odour of burning wakes us': inside the Philippines' Plastic City

5 year old

In Valenzuela City, residents blame recycling plants for pungent smells and respiratory illnesses

by Carmela Fonbuena in Valenzuela City

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.

 Canumay West village in Valenzuela City has numerous recycling plants that deal with plastic waste produced domestically and imported from other countries. Photograph: Martin San Diego/The Guardian

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 odours, which they claim come from a neighbouring 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 south-east Asia, which have become the dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste.

Children play with household plastic waste outside a sorting facility in Canumay West village. Photograph: Martin San Diego/The Guardian

‘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.

A boy plays with an old Listerine plastic bottle. Photograph: Martin San Diego/The Guardian

“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.

Residents of Canumay West village in Valenzuela City say they rub VapoRub under their noses to block the smell of burning plastic. Photograph: Martin San Diego/The Guardian

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.

There is no escaping the smell

Two months after environmental officers visited Cunumay West, residents are still suffering from the pungent smell.

“The odour is repulsive,” says Benjamin Lopez, 50. “It woke us up at 2am 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 hospitalisation.

On 1 July, 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.


Metal Cans Becomes

Metal Becomes

"Tin" cans are actually steel cans coated in a thin layer of tin. The tin and steel are separated during the recycling process.

Cardboard Becomes

Cardboard Becomes

Majority of our recycled cardboard can be a different paperboard, bags, corrugated cardboard or another cardboard.

Newspaper Becomes

Newspaper Becomes

Many of the newspapers and magazines collected are recycled in the manufacturer of paper plates and associated paper goods.

Glass Bottles Becomes

Bottles Becomes

Used glass containers can be reused indefinitely. It is actually easier to manufacture new glass containers from recycled glass.