July 17, 2019 - Wednesday
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Davao City, Philippines

The sachet problem

March 14, 2019 - Thursday 1:03 AM by Jon Joaquin

There is a growing awareness in the Philippines these days that single-use plastics are, to put it mildly, a bad thing. Many grocery stores in Metro Manila don’t provide plastic bags, or at least penalize those who don’t bring their own “eco-bags” by charging for plastic bags. Here in Davao City, more and more establishments are using metal or bamboo straws for drinks. I also see more people carrying their own water bottles so that they don’t have to buy water in plastic bottles.

But while I appreciate these steps, I think they’re targeted at the wrong thing. I’ve always felt that the real problem in the Philippines is not plastic bags, straws, and plastic bottles because these are pretty easy to deal with. Just ask stores, restaurants, and other such places not to use them. If they’re not available, no one will buy them. The real problem, to my mind, are those infernal sachets that are the very essence of the “single-use” problem.

Many consumer items in the Philippines can be bought in sachets: shampoo, snacks, instant noodles, sanitary napkins, juice drinks, coffee, sugar, creamer (or the ubiquitous “3-in-1” that contains the last three). For as long as I can remember, the “takatak” boys (so-called because of the sound they make with their wooden boxes make to announce their presence) have been selling cigarettes by the piece and not by the box to drivers in the streets of Metro Manila. That’s the “tingi” culture in action -- retailing items because they are cheaper to buy by the piece than by bulk.

Of course buyers actually spend more in this transaction because each piece is sold at a higher price than if they had been bought as a whole, but with many people earning on a day-to-day basis (or as we say in Filipino, “isang kahig, isang tuka”), it‘s easier to buy just one piece today and let tomorrow take care of itself.

“Tingi” was actually the practice -- indeed the essence -- of the sari-sari stores, where the owners repacked the supplies they bought in bulk to make it more easy for neighbors to buy them. They made money by marking up the prices of each item, but it was still more affordable to the average person than buying the whole set.

The packaging I remember from my childhood were usually unmarked paper bags, but as manufacturers wised up they realized that they could latch onto this “tingi” mentality by simply packaging their items one by one. I don’t know what product started the craze, but soon enough everything could be bought in sachets. Today I can’t see any sari-sari store selling items repacked by the owners themselves; these have been replaced by sachets of every single item.

The problem is that sachets are made of plastic (as well as aluminum and other materials that are equally non-recyclable). The result is that over the past decades that we have been buying them, we have become flooded with plastic waste that are a nightmare to deal with. An article in Agence France-Presse (AFP) cites a report by the non-governmental organization GAIA that said Filipinos use and discard 48 million plastic bags every single day -- and more than half of the non-recyclable plastics are in the form of sachets.

The problem with this problem is that the obvious solution of banning sachets won’t work because many will rise up in protest because they can’t afford to buy in bulk. “Tingi” happens to be also virtually cultural for Filipinos; even those who can afford to buy in large quantities prefer to buy the sachet versions of products because they are more convenient and do not expose the products to constant opening if they were together in big containers. Instant coffee, for instance, tends to solidify at the bottom of the bottle because of the frequent opening and scooping out it goes through. Sachets solve this problem.

I personally don’t have a solution to this. It’s one of those things I look at in resignation and simply wish we would get our acts together and stop using sachets. The recent cleanup of the shoreline of Manila Bay highlighted the problem of single-use plastics, but I think it will take more than that to convince people to give up their sachet-buying habit.