The Sachet Epidemic: Brand Audit 2019

A 2015 study showed that over half plastic waste in the ocean come from Asia, particularly in the form of an innocuous small package. A sachet packs consumer goods for single-use consumption. In fact, brand audits year by year have collected countless little used sachets of shampoo, detergent, instant coffee and many other commodities. Upon beaches, lakes, creeks and rivers is an ocean of colors and brands that have no business being in the vicinity of the water bodies. Most brands such as Nescafé, Maggi, Ariel, Palmolive, Colgate, Head & Shoulders, and Mentos come from Western multinational companies such as Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Unilever.

Brand Audit 2019 Results

From the data gathered by the environmental non-profit organization, Break Free From Plastic, the sachet epidemic is a worldwide problem. Here are some scenes of people who cleaned up beaches during World Cleanup Day 2019.

China:

In Dongying City, Shangdong Province, about 43 people took part in a brand audit by the lakeside.
Image by Break Free From Plastic members
In Zhongshan City, 79 people took part in a brand audit by the seaside.

Ecuador (Brand Audit by PlasticCo.)

Sachets and other plastics are the major polluters based on PlasticCo's experience of brand audit in Ecuador.
Image by Andrea Lema via Break Free from Plastic

Philippines:

Pro-poor but not

Companies promote sachets as pro-poor because they can access the same goods as the rich do, even in small quantities through coins. They advertise this as the cheaper option but blatantly mislead unwitting consumers into spending more to get what they need. This clever marketing loses people more than what they save. After all, bulk buying gives you more of the goods you need at a more cost-efficient way. So the sachet epidemic can primarily be blamed on companies for making these sachets and forcing consumers to deal with the consequences.

TRUE: Sachets have enabled poor communities to enjoy quality products such as shampoos, toothpastes, lotions, condiments, even ready-to-eat food and drinking water.

FALSE: Companies involved the overall wellbeing of the communities that they heavily marketed their single-use products to.

NPR’s Christopher Joyce went to the Philippines, one of the countries most hit by the sachet epidemic. His short interview with a sari-sari store owner named Nimfa Manlabe shows the stark conditions of the sachet industry in an urban community. Manlabe is a middle-aged woman who sells sachets from a sari-sari store. This is a tiny storefront in her home. It acts akin to a neighborhood pantry where you can get stuff to use every day in shiny little packages. This is how almost all Filipinos shop, especially in neighborhoods far from major grocery establishments.

The Philippine Crisis with the Sachet

Here is an excerpt of Joyce’s interview with the Filipina entrepreneur.

MANLABE: (Through interpreter) I sell sachets to people. They come back here every day and buy these small amounts because that’s what they can afford.

JOYCE: But once it’s empty, the sachet never goes away. You can see that by looking down underneath this elevated shantytown. You can’t tell where the water ends and the land begins because it’s all covered in shiny plastic. And it drives Nimfa Manlabe crazy.

MANLABE: (Through interpreter) I keep sweeping every day, but then the next day, I see the trash is back, just thrown on the ground again.

JOYCE: Self-employed waste pickers do collect and sell stuff that can be recycled. Sachets cannot, so no one picks them up. Manlabe says her neighbors resort to burning them to cook their meals or just to get rid of them.

The waste management problem with sachets goes beyond the Philippines and Asia. Rapidly developing economies such as Africa, South America, and India have seen consumer demand for disposable products grow more than their waste management infrastructures can develop. In fact, many residents suffer from little to no sound waste collection and management systems. This makes sachets the single-use bane of the environment.

Single-use bane

Sachet proliferation has become its own so-called “economy” for many low-income communities. They also endanger the environment on which these poor live in. Single-use plastics like sachets have been dubbed as one of “the greatest environmental challenges facing the world” by former UK Prime Minister Theresa May. This sentiment is echoed by other government officials and think tanks all over the world.

The Philippines’ Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said that single-use plastic packages degrade the environment. It constitutes most of the plastic pollution which continues to poison our oceans and injure marine life. When not properly disposed, they clog waterways and cause flooding. And there isn’t a waste management system good enough to handle the sachet epidemic.

A sachet risks the whole system

Plastic recycling is not very effective. Worse, it doesn’t even allow for sachets since there is little value for those tiny packets. Because there is no economic incentive to collect used sachets that have been improperly dumped, no one bothers to pick these up. Soon these sachets wash up to clog drains and contribute to flooding.

Sachets are also the single-use bane of the waste management system. Large PET bottles, cans, or boxes of wastes can easily be reused or segregated for recycling. But most homes shy from sachet segregation – choosing to pile it with other trash – because their materials cannot be physically separated. It’s also worse for the other trash that they go since they dilute the recycling value of these waste materials.

What makes the sachet epidemic more sickening is the blatant greenwashing of the companies who should have been responsible for the wasteful products they sell to the public.

Greenwashing of companies

Companies are challenged every day to change their production process by activists, consumers, and societies at large. However, these manufacturers of single-use plastics, particularly sachets, mislead people on the solution to the sachet epidemic. In fact, most just try to justify their sachet products by their recycling schemes.

Some companies, such as Unilever, promote sachet use due to eco-bricks and sachet-made binders for concrete. However, few homeowners use them to build houses. Cement manufacturing is a very energy-intensive activity. So using concrete in applications where no one wants to use the product is unsustainable. Furthermore, this doesn’t tackle the problem of sachets’ lack of value in the recycling industry.

Better solutions

We cannot recycle our way out of the sachet epidemic. Rather, we need to go for zero waste alternatives. Above all, we need to make sure that people can buy goods in both affordable and environment-friendly costs.

  1. Replace sachets with big dispensers. Before plastics, people used to just bring their bottles and food containers to small stores to fill them with their needed products (i.e. oil, shampoo, detergent) in minute quantities. This would be more affordable than sachets since most of the cost of goods come from the plastic sachet itself.
  2. Ban single-use plastics in a country-wide level. Companies should shift packaging designs to either compostable or recycled plastic. Incentivize initiatives to produce eco-friendly alternatives to products in sachets.
  3. Above all, each individual, government and society should improve the waste management systems in their areas. Conduct clean ups and brand audits to make everyone accountable for the waste pollution.

Replacing sachets in the market is possible, workable even in rural communities. Before sachets, we survived. And we will survive to phase out these wasteful packages.

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