Sachet, Sachet, Sachet

Manila Times columnist Dan Mariano wrote in his space Big Deal his observations during a recent trip to a diving site in Batangas. In his piece, he made a strong case case against sachets, which, incidentally, was also the subject of a post I wrote just the other day.

Indeed, no matter how small, sachets are bad for the environment.

Here’s a repost of Mr. Mariano’s excellent piece.

Sachets, big environmental damage in small packs

by Dan Mariano

Among the natural attractions of the Philippines are its dive sites. Located in the so-called Coral Triangle, our country can lay legitimate claim to being at the “center of the center of marine biodiversity.”

For decades the mind-blowing variety of underwater fauna and flora has attracted local travelers and foreign visitors—including beachcombers, whale shark watchers and scuba divers—to our seas and shores. But for how much longer?

Notwithstanding official and nongovernmental efforts at conservation, the deterioration of our marine environment has not abated. In fact, indications are that the degradation is actually accelerating.

Last Friday several of my scuba buddies and I took advantage of the break in the weather by taking a day trip to Mabini, Batangas—popularly, but erroneously, referred to as Anilao—just a couple of hours by car from Manila. Anilao, in fact, is just one of several barangay, or villages in the Municipality of Mabini.

Arriving at a dive resort in Barangay San Teodoro, we were dismayed to find the shore littered with all sorts of garbage. The flotsam consisted mostly of plastic—water bottles, bags, etc. The bulk of the rubbish was made up of discarded sachets of shampoo, soap and detergent.

The filth on the beach and an undertow wrote off a surf entry that we had planned on originally.

We decided instead to hire a motorized banca to bring us to two dive sites, called Saddle and Batok, several kilometers away. Yet even there the sea was full of trash—and not just on the surface.

We entered the water by back-flipping from the boat and even at a depth of 30 feet the garbage invasion was still apparent. Plastic covered swathes of coral growth, sections of which were showing tell-tale signs of bleaching. These are warning signals of impending doom for corals along with the marine life that depend on them for reproduction, nutrition and survival.

One of the boatmen said the garbage actually comes from Manila Bay—but washed toward Balayan Bay in Batangas province by waves whipped up by the habagat, or the northeast monsoon winds that prevail in this part of Luzon during the rainy season.

True, many factors are responsible for marine environmental degradation—from destructive fishing methods to global warming. But from what we have seen of the damage already done to the waters of Batangas, the indiscriminate dumping of solid waste—primarily plastic—is the number one suspect. And the bulk of plastic garbage comes in the form of sachets.

The sale of small amounts of shampoo and detergents in plastic sachets is very popular throughout the Philippines, India and other developing countries.

Plastic sachets were first used to pack shampoo products by a company that failed to file a patent and thus does not own the trade rights to this invention. Not long afterward, sachet packs began to flood the world—literally.

One of the biggest distributors of shampoo and detergents in sachets is Unilever. This Dutch-British multinational company has even earned plaudits—not from environmentalists, but from marketing experts—for its decision to use these small, disposable plastic bags.

Writing in the VentureRepublic website, Martin Roll wrote: “Unilever is a classic example of a global brand which has pioneered serving the locals with products that address the local sensitivities.

Unilever’s Indian subsidiary Hindustan Level Limited (HLL) has been the leader in recognizing the tremendous opportunity lying at the bottom of the pyramid—the customer base that aspires to consume products but in smaller quantities and at lesser prices.”

Described in the website as the author of the global bestseller Asian Brand Strategy (Best Business Books 2006 by Strategy+Business magazine), Roll said that HLL “literally invented” the shampoo sachets—small plastic packets of shampoo for as less as one Indian rupee, or about two US cents.

“This became such a rage among the rural consumers that many other brands started offering products such as detergent, coffee and tea powder, coconut oil and tooth paste in sachets,” Roll said. “Even though the unit price was higher, rural consumers were able to afford to purchase the smaller quantity at their convenience.”

The gurus of capitalism credit companies like Unilever with adopting creative marketing techniques—and making a bundle in the process. The same experts, however, rarely if ever acknowledge the environmental destruction they wreak.

Dive sites are, of course, not the only places where the environmental damage done by sachets is evident. The same small packs and other disposable plastic products find their way into our streets, storm drains, sewers and flood-control structures. When burned, they fill the air with toxic fumes.

As environmental advocates point out, many animals ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for food, and therefore die. Worse, the ingested plastic bag remains intact even after the death and decomposition of the animal. Thus, plastic loiters in the landscape where other victims may ingest it.

It takes at least a thousand years for plastic to break down—long after the businessmen, industrialists and investors who reaped mega-profits from non-biodegradable products like sachets are themselves dead, buried and decomposed.

To read the rest of Mr. Mariano’s excellent column, go to this page.

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