Leather sector needs housekeeping

10 January 2005

Cleaning up leather processing is what the government wants the industry to do. Failing this, the country's environment, especially the water tributaries, will not be able to recover their former robust health, which is vital to sustain the fish stocks on which the livelihood of local fishermen depends. However, many of the residents living along the rivers where the tanneries and factories discharge their wastewater and solid wastes have stopped catching fish due to fears that their high toxicity levels may have affected the health of consumers. They put this threat to public health down to the various environmental abuses that have held back progress in recent decades. These occurred despite safety programmes introduced by the industry to improve operations and growth. For many decades now, both large and small tanneries have been operating successfully. Yet some manufacturers have failed to comply with the environmental regulations set out for them by the government. While environmental rules have been in place for a long time now, there seems to be a lack of political will to enforce these policies and protect the environment from further abuse. Local tanners, especially the small and medium-sized ones, have difficulty in complying with the objectives set for them by the government. Tanners say that this is for financial reasons. Studies show that only the big tanners have expressed interest in abiding by rules set by the various government agencies. Reports have proven that the leather sector has contributed to the environmental degradation of the surrounding rivers, with their effluent discharges representing a particular problem. However, the small and medium tanneries took the view that this was of no concern to them unless there was a risk that government agencies would monitor/pursue them and revoke their licenses and environmental compliance certificates for blatant violations. Their awareness was further heightened by the occupational and health measures introduced by the Japanese government and the International Labour Organization. This form of intervention established a method of setting quality management standards in the workplace. In fact, many of the big tanners were given environmental training by Unido, the German Agency for Technical Development (GTZ) and the Department of Science and Technology. A number of their employees were sent abroad to undergo further training on the subject. As always, the Tanners' Association of the Philippines has played its part in reminding members of the latest health issues and trends in the industry. This is the reason why it persists in applying for a common effluent treatment plant to be located in the local area. However, the government found it difficult to source the appropriate financial, technical and human resources to support the proposed project. Nevertheless, the government has tried to mitigate the problem, for example asking the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Trade and Industry to assist the industry in the past years, but nothing much has changed. 'Perhaps it is because these agencies are not able to explain the cost benefits of cleaner production while making the products environmentally competitive in the world market', a leather expert said. The situation is worsened by the fact that several large tanners have dissociated themselves from the British leather industry association due to high membership fees. This is happening despite the fact that the big leather companies have been aiming at penetrating the global markets. Nonetheless, the sector is preparing to adopt effective measures that will mitigate environmental degradation in their areas of operation in order to achieve the coveted ISO certification. The environmental programmes they wished to carry out include: identification of the sources of their solid waste such as sludges and toxic wastes; major contaminants of wastewater such as salts, ammonium, chromium and other pollutants; reduction of water usage and proper disposal of wastewater; and improving technical operation efficiencies to comply with environmental standards. Leather experts said these approaches simply targeted the industry's prevailing problems. They also urged the local governments to provide tanneries with the necessary support to minimise the impact on their operations. The Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Trade and Industry have been given responsibility for tackling the problems of environmental degradation. The DOST, in conjunction with Unido, has launched a project on chromium recovery efforts, but it appears that the small and medium tanneries could not cope with the demands made. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Health have also lent their support to the industry, creating acceptable effluent standards, ambient emissions, and solid waste management. Aware of the significant need to strengthen the partnership, the DENR launched the Philippine Environment Partnership Programme (PEPP) with the aim that the industry's self-evaluation achieve a high degree of environmental performance. A recent government report stated: 'Despite this, the industry still finds it very difficult to comply with environmental standards for economic reasons. The sector has a long way to go to fulfil or comply with the environmental and health standards. Some really look like sweatshops and should be closed.' The industry believes that it did not get enough support from the government regarding provision of a common effluent treatment plant. That is why it initiated a move to adopt cheaper methods of disposing of wastes thus endangering their environment. In compliance with the government's PEPP, the DENR had urged the industry players, particularly the small and medium-sized companies, to enter into agreements, codes of good practice and voluntary standards to minimise the need for stricter regulation by the government, which some companies resent. Government regulators have, therefore, urged the leather association to draw up a framework and set of principles for the code by way of adopting a simple environmental management system with the Environmental Management Bureau as required in the PEPP. It would be impossible for the leather industry to comply with the terms of the PEPP alone, but the industry has expressed high hopes that it can accomplish such a mission when provided with the necessary grants or assistance to acquire the new technologies. Experts said the Tanners' Association of the Philippines can resolve this impasse by applying for a loan for the construction of a common effluent treatment facility for which the local government would act as guarantor. There is an immediate need for the government or any relevant non-government organisation to extend help to the leather tannery sector. The sector is keen to secure environmental assistance from organisations willing to provide them with capacity-building seminars on environmental management systems. But they believe that the provision of the common effluent treatment facility remains the industry's top priority. In the absence of this, some have adopted cleaner technologies to mitigate damage to the environment. At best, they have decided to use chemicals that have the lowest environmental impact and are relatively easy to treat. 'They try to keep their equipment in good condition to avoid higher operating expenses. They also try to get updates from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on the appropriate chemicals, latest trends and technologies for leather treatment', a study said. Government officials argue that with the implementation of the environmental partnership programme, repeated violations by some tanneries could eventually be eliminated. However, the industry is still looking forward to the day when it is enforced fully. Among the environmental laws that serve as a guide to local leather industry operators are the Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act; Presidential Decree No 824 or the Improper Garbage Disposal; and Presidential Decree No 856 or the Sanitation Code of the Philippines. RA No 9003 provides for an ecological solid waste management programme, creating necessary institutional mechanisms and incentives, prohibiting certain acts and providing penalties, appropriating funds therefore and for other purposes. Created under this Act is the National Solid Waste Management Commission, Office of the President, comprising 14 members from the government and three from the private sector. Its main task is to oversee the proper segregation of wastes, including collection and transport of solid wastes, reuse and recycling programmes, composting, waste management facilities, involvement of local government units and incentives which will hopefully lead to a systematic, comprehensive, and ecologically friendly waste management programme in the Philippines. Environmental and health impacts The study by the World Bank states that the indiscriminate dumping of wastes contaminates surface and groundwater supplies. 'In urban areas, solid wastes clog drains, creating stagnant water for insect breeding and floods during rainy season', it said. It added that health and safety issues also arise from improper solid waste management. In the year 2000, some 10 million tons of municipal solid wastes were generated. 'Generally, the greater a country's economic prosperity and the larger its urban population, the greater the amount of solid wastes generated.' These include leather trimmings. It is expected that this volume will increase by 40% during the current decade. Solid wastes originate from a wide range of sources, including households, manufacturers, hospitals, street cleaning activities and markets. As indicated in the National Solid Waste Management Status Report, which features an inventory of existing solid waste facilities, waste characterisation, waste generation projections, and other relevant information should be updated regularly. Similarly, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 requires that each province, city or municipality prepare ten year plans, which should include re-use, recycling and composting of wastes generated in their respective jurisdiction, using the national framework as their guide. Under the re-use option, all local governments are asked to divert 25% of all solid wastes from waste disposal facilities through re-use, recycling, composting and other resource recovery activities within five years. To encourage maximum participation, incentives are offered to local government, enterprises, private entities, and non-governmental organisations. These incentives include tax and duty exemptions, tax credit on domestic capital equipment, provision of grants to LGUs to enhance their technical capabilities and incentives to communities hosting shared treatment and disposal facilities. In 2001, the Act designated some 20 million pesos (US$357,000) for the operation of the National Ecology Centre, and the local government units. After this, the funding will be designated through the regular budget. In the year 2002, a total of 10 million pesos (US$178,500) were allocated for the National Solid Waste Management Commission in the Philippines. At this point, the LGU budgets for solid waste management have been limited to household collection, transportation to open dump sites, and minimal operational expenditures for disposal. The Philippines government will need to revisit its current policy of not providing any cost-sharing grants to LGUs to address pollution-related environmental issues such as solid wastes. As in any country, the government offers various incentives and subsidies to local authorities to invest in proper waste disposal facilities. It is also necessary to encourage the participation of the private sector to supplement or replace government funding. At present, the private sector is only involved as contractors for hauling, while the informal sector has a small role in material recovery enterprises. Private sector involvement can be encouraged through a regulatory environment that ensures private operators are able to recover their investments through garbage and tipping fees and avoid graft and corruption through improved and transparent contractual practices based on performance standards.

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