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The Curse of Sachets in Asia: why western companies should be held accountable

Written by Zero Waste Europe Policy Officer, Delphine Lévi Alvarès after experiencing the incredible amount of plastic waste on beaches in the Philippines.

On the morning of Saturday 16th of July some of Zero Waste Europe’s staff took part in their first Philippines beach cleanup. It was only 8am, and a swarm of volunteers were already in action on Freedom Island’s beach, armed with bags and gloves to clear the sand from layers and layers of garbage carried downstream into the Manila bay from all the small canals and rivers crossing the megalopolis.

Our first impression when we arrived at the beach was shocking. It was almost uniformly covered by little used sachets of shampoo, detergent, and instant coffee… an ocean of colours and brands among which many were recognised by the sharp eye of a western consumer. Nescafé, Maggi, Ariel, Palmolive, Colgate, Head & Shoulders, Mentos and many others, directly coming for the marketing brains of American and European multinationals such as Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Unilever.

Why such a flow of single use sachets in this region of the world, to package the same products that we have in bigger containers in Europe and the US, and how do they end up in the rivers and the ocean? Speaking with our colleagues from South East Asia, we understood that behind the false affordability (the so-called ‘pro-poor’) argument made by the companies manufacturing these products (i.e. that for people with low income it is cheaper to buy these products on a daily basis than buying larger quantities despite the fact that the total cost they will end up paying is higher) there is a more significant marketing argument. Hence the appealing colours and glossy packaging. And even if it’s not part of their strategy, the absence of sound waste collection and management systems in most of the places where people use these sachets leads to massive littering both on land and in waterways increasing their brand’s visibility even more than the market stalls.

Some of the branded plastic waste found on the beach.

Yet the solutions to replace these sachets exist and many Zero Waste groups have been promoting them in front of these brand’s corporate leaders. In low-income areas they should be replaced by dispensers from which people could get one pump of their required product (oil, shampoo, detergent, etc.) in small returnable and reusable containers. It would be even cheaper to buy on a daily basis, because a large part of the product’s price is in the cost of the packaging itself. Improving the waste management systems in these areas is of course of high priority, but in regardless case it’s better to prevent than manage waste, and even more so because these sachets, made of multilayered material, are not recyclable.

The response of the brands to this proposal has been a resounding ”no”.

It is necessary for the producers to take responsibility for the products they put in the market and if they are sold in places where the means to manage this waste are not available they should -at the very least- shoulder the costs of collecting and treating this waste. If they do it in Europe, why can’t they do it in Asia?

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Matt Franklin

I am the Communications & Programme Officer for Zero Waste Europe. I joined Zero Waste Europe in July 2015, moving to Manchester, UK after living in Bologna, Italy, and working as a freelance campaign communications consultant. Before Bologna I worked for People & Planet as a Corporate Power Campaigns Co-ordinator, supporting UK student groups campaigning around workers’ rights in the garments and electronics industries. I have been long been involved in grassroots social movements, and campaigns for social and environmental justice. I graduated from the University of Birmingham with a degree in Anthropology and Classical Literature & Civilisations.

There are 20 comments
  1. bom bom

    going to the source to make them stop producing all this trash? the Producers do not have responsibility to what the consumers do with their products!@!!! if blame were to be attributed, point the finger at the ignorant masses who do not know where to throw their trash.

  2. Edward

    It’s not just Western companies, all companies here sell products here in small sachets. However, it is not thye companies that are to blame for the litter. but the consumers. specifically those people who just throw litter away without any regard for where it goes. Anyone just needs to take a walk around anywhere in the Philippines and they will see rubbish everywhere, from people who are too lazy or, more likely, too stupid to take their litter home.

  3. Dennis

    The problem is littering. Train a child in the why they should go and they will not depart from it.

  4. Sylvia

    Using dispensers for products is not actually new in the Phil. We can buy cooking oil, soy sauce and other liquid condiments in the sari sari stores or public markets from dispensers. You just need to say how much you need and it will be measured to you. So, I don’t understand why it cannot be done for shampoo, conditioner. Maybe because they will lose the advertising that comes from the packaging?

  5. One key problem is that waste management services are completely lacking in most developing countries. Where there is no waste collection service, people have few alternatives but to discard their waste in the street or ditches (where plastics block drainage and contribute to flooding). Open burning is also very hazardous to people and the environment. We need governments to provide decent waste management services, which could be paid for in part by the brands through Extended Producer Responsibility initiatives. Communities can also do a lot of waste management themselves, please visit to find out how. We need a two-pronged approach to prevent a global crisis.

  6. Jayton

    Sadly, currently the packaging costs more than the product contained, and the customer pays for both, along with providing free advertizing for the product.
    My contribution and suddestion to deter this crisis:
    Have the manufacturers provide (for free) refillable pump containers, printed with their logo, advertising, instructions for use, etc. The customer can then take that container to their marketer and purchase the required amount. Although difficult to police, I could be a requirement that the product can only be provided in the correctly named container, or a free correct replacement container is provided.
    Increase the price of satchels to 500 plus percent of the current price.
    Or better still, let the current prices remain the same and place a token of say 25 cents per satchel returned and charge that back to each company that has their name on the satchel, bottle, package. Kind of like the current recycling fee on drink containers, etc. This will provide gainfully employment for many cleaning up the beaches, the harder they work, the more thay collect, the more they earn and huge incentive to move away from disposable packaging. Hit em in the pocket.
    This concept should also be used to fund removal of the floating trash Islands in the Pacific & Atlantic oceans.

  7. James

    This is complete nonsense. People who pollute their own land, water, their own yards and gardens and streets – those people are accountable. STOP throwing trash all over the place and use bins, then segregate and recycle. To blame western companies, when certain cultures lack responsibility in terms of own hygiene is unintelligent to begin with. “It’s their fault” mentality

  8. Annie

    Enforce anti-littering laws with hefty penalties. Litterbugs cut across social classes. I have witnessed people in their fancy cars tossing trash into the streets.

  9. Pete

    one problem with pump dispensers in many countries is that the shop keeper can refill the pump bottle with a cheaper product or water the product down to increase their profit margin

  10. Anne

    People will only respond to waste management if they get something out of it. Multi national companies who make products in sachets, bottles, tetra packs, plastic wraps should have a method of collecting them in supermarkets, stores and other outlets by paying them one sachet for every twenty empty ones they return, something like that. There should be compensation for keeping wrappers and turning them over to the manufacturers. Case in point is batteries. We know that we cannot just throw them away coz they might leak noxious chemicals into the ground. So battery makers like Eveready should have waste bins in supermarkets, etc where we can throw the used batteries. In fact, I have been keeping a whole bag of used batteries coz I don’t know where to throw them. If I
    get 1 battery free for every 20 used ones I turn in, that would be a good incentive for me to keep them first until I can come up with enough and get a free one. Then I am sure the batteries will be disposed of properly. There oughta be a law!

  11. Daniel Yokota

    Companies will not go for reusable containers. The only solution to this problem is: stop buying all this shit. We survived without it before; so we don´t need it now.

  12. Konrad

    Its the litter bugs stupid, one I’d inclined to say and it needs fines like in Singapore to break the habit

  13. Joan Abong

    True enough, waste segregation and collection needs a lot of improvement in the Philippines. Educating consumers is key here. Enforcement of proper management is not just the problem. The bigger problem is the VOLUME of waste and the speed by which they are thrown in the landfill —- or elsewhere, particularly waterways. These multinationals are profiling their consumers that is why they make these sachets and small packaging which sometimes cost more that the actual product contained therein . The decision is theirs now to act more responsibly towards reducing waste matter and still not hurt their bottomlime. Before, enforcing the use of ecobags met a lot of dissent but consumers eventually do adjust. Why can’t this be done with these plastics? Blaming the govt and consumers is just not helpful anymore. A constructive compromise should be found now.

  14. Rolande

    Of course you can ask the companies to sell products with less packaging…but the real true problem is the fact that people don t want to bother and throw everything on the ground…they walk in dirt and don t even see it ! They go fishing but don t see the plastic mess around them…stupidity ? Selfishness ? There are no excuses : only by taxing people when they throw their hings on the ground….today again i picked up a plastic bag and a bottle that people left on the sidewalk…

  15. Beth Massa

    I disagree that the responsibility lies with the individual. It is much easier and more practical to install change at the source, a single massive corporation, than it is to ask millions of people to think collectively on a small, repetitive actions of using a sachet. Plus, people often to attempt to dispose of things properly but if infrastructure can’t handle overflowing trash, lightweight disposable packaging like this ends up in the environment.

  16. Beth Massa

    You can also see this problem on a much smaller scale in Amsterdam, where I live. Restaurants often offer individually packaged mints with your dinner receipt. I’ve started taking pictures of those mint wrappers lying on the ground just next to the trash cans that are too full. People try to throw them away. But they blow out and land on the ground and then in the water.

  17. Carolina

    Corporations need to be held accountable for the trash they sell us. But it is up to the people and government to enact legislation to ban single use sachets. Poverty and ignorance is an excuse. Educate the people campaign against this.

  18. LC5

    Sachets are a symptom of the culture of consumerism and anthropocentrism prevalent in how we lead our lives. We consume and use and throw away things based on convenience, even if it HARMS our environment. The campaign for zero waste is difficult to achieve because of the demand for products, but with dedication, perseverance, and a clear moral mindset, we know we can change the world and how we treat it. ???

  19. Darren

    Based on our discussion, the use of sachets are a blessing yet is mostly a curse. We are anthropocentrism, not thinking of the effects of our actions but only for our convenience. These sachets are used for daily one time uses, this is why the zerowasteeurope program plans to produce these products in a bigger size and re-usable containers. This is shown by our selfishness not thinking only about ourselves and not about how this will affect our surroundings. We must inform the masses about the effects of using these sachets and promote awareness to each and everyone to show them that there are different ways to both save the earth while at the same time giving us benefits.

  20. LC4
    There are several reasons as to why the production of sachets still continues today. They are produced to satisfy the company’s need for larger profit margins, luring customers under the false pretense of cheaper tags. The production of sachets is, as discussed by the group, a curse that disregards the multidimensional aspect of stewardship. While it is good that these companies are growing, the health of the environment should be protected. We support the campaign against sachet-production, as it is our belief that it is not only companies that should benefit from the production of these goods, but all stakeholders (environment, consumer).

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