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How a Recycling Economy Can Help Sustain Island Tourism

Date Published
March 16, 2022

Siargao was a surfers' enclave until tourists discovered its pristine beaches and other natural attractions. Photo credit: Asian Development Bank.

Known as the surfing capital of the Philippines, Siargao island offers world-class waves and has become a top destination in Southeast Asia. It was named by Conde Nast Traveler as the world's most beautiful island in 2018 and one of the best holiday destinations for 2020. However, the increasing number of tourists, not just surfers, raises concerns over the environmental sustainability of the island’s tourism-based economy.

Siargao, which is actually a cluster of small islands located at the northeastern coast of Mindanao, was declared a protected area in 1996. Yet it has seen an “alarming increase in waste generation” along with the surge in tourists, says a working paper recently published by the Tokyo-based Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI). Marine pollution is also a problem with the yearly monsoon winds littering its shores with garbage from the Pacific Ocean.

Plastic waste from COVID-19

Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic may have given Siargao some respite from throngs of tourists. However, the ADBI paper expects its reopening even just to domestic tourism will increase plastic pollution “as health protocols require the wearing of face masks and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).”

According to the ASEAN Guidelines on Hygiene and Safety for Professionals and the Communities in the Tourism Industry, health and safety standards at tourism establishments should include automatic temperature checks and the use of no-touch sanitizer upon entry, masking, disinfecting surfaces, and social distancing. These also include sustainability guidelines, such as using reducing waste and using biodegradable cleaning products and amenities.

The ADBI paper authored by Kevin Roy B. Serrona, Jeongsoo Yu, and Mary Jean A. Camarin notes the efforts made by the government, private sector, and community to preserve Siargao and improve waste management, but more needs to be done. Some of the nine municipalities of Siargao have segregated waste collection and operate or share a material recovery facility. Some have started banning single-use of plastic. Del Carmen, where the Siargao airport is located, closes major tourism sites for weeks every year for rehabilitation and rejuvenation. Regular clean-up drives are held to clear the shores of litter with the help of tourism operators and volunteers. On the whole, however, these measures are fragmented because of the lack of organized island-wide mechanisms to manage waste.

Circular economy solutions

Recommendations of the ADBI paper focus on creating a circular economy to minimize waste pollution, particularly marine litter, by producing and using products that are reusable.

The authors said this involves “resource recovery systems that are sustainable, cost-effective, and participatory,” and solutions that address marine litter not just at the community or national level but also at the regional or international level since waste from international waters also reach Siargao’s shores. They recommended the following:

Create a Siargao Central Waste Authority. This would raise the scale and efficiency of waste management and recycling programs throughout Siargao.

Establish a Siargao Beverage Recycling Program. Collect plastic bottles through a centralized deposit–refund system that sells them to processors. The program would be run by a private entity as a sustainable business, and it would include the establishment of extended producer responsibility (EPR) to incentivize manufacturers to do their part in reducing plastic waste.

Set up sustainable residual waste recovery. Municipalities should shift from open dumping to a centralized landfill with transfer stations to facilitate the waste collection and disposal and a materials recovery center. Undertake measures, such as recovery of refuse-derived fuel and landfill mining, to make landfill operations sustainable.

Promote zero-carbon resorts. Reduce the carbon footprint of tourism-related establishments by advocating the use of renewable energy, best practices in waste management and resource consumption, and existing and innovative solutions, such as rainwater collection, waterless toilet, and solar-powered tour boats.

Adopt sustainable tourism as a brand. Showcase Siargao not just as a world-class surfing and tourist destination but also for its practices in preserving the environment. Include mangrove and tree planting in activities for tourists and promote interaction with local communities.

Tap technology to manage marine litter. The paper suggests using a “hybrid type of technology combining manual collection and handy sorting machines” that separates plastics based on their resin type (e.g., polyethylene terephthalate or PET). This would help recover valuable plastic materials, improve recycling efficiency, and create jobs.

Explore sustainable financing mechanisms. Market-based instruments, such as a user fee for waste management and tariffs on beverage containers, would provide revenue and make solid waste facilities financially sustainable.

Work with other countries to mitigate marine litter. The authors pointed out that “limiting or eliminating the use of single-use plastics in one country will not solve the problem. There should be a coordinated effort among countries because a blue economy will prosper in shared waters.”

In October, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to explore cooperation on the blue economy in areas such as marine and plastic pollution,