MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The oceans are filling up with plastic trash; much of it is packaging material. So environmentalists are demanding that corporations that sell consumer goods find new packaging that doesn't last for decades or even centuries. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, the movement is germinating in the Philippines, and it's led by a man who calls himself a simple island boy.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Late last year, Froilan Grate got a surprising invitation. Grate's an environmental activist in the Philippines. He was asked to come to Washington, D.C., to talk with some of the very people he'd been fighting, some of the biggest corporations in the world - the companies that make and use plastic.
FROILAN GRATE: Hey, how are you?
JOYCE: Welcome to Washington.
I meet him on a cold sidewalk last December.
GRATE: Perfect weather here.
JOYCE: You've had two days of meetings.
GRATE: Yes, two days of meetings.
JOYCE: How are they going?
GRATE: Quite insightful and quite exciting.
JOYCE: Grate's barely known outside the Philippines, but two years ago, he caused a stir, and that's why he got the invitation. He says he almost turned it down until he learned only one other Asian was invited.
GRATE: Because we are in D.C., the room is full of white people talking about the problem and solutions. And for me, it was very important that what's happening in countries where people who see the impact of this issue every day, they're being considered.
JOYCE: Grate hardly looks like a fire-breathing revolutionary. He's a boyish 35, maybe 5 feet tall with a wispy goatee. Grate grew up in a village in the mellifluously named province of Iloilo. He loves the feel of hot sand on his feet and swimming in the ocean, but he has a serious soul. He wanted to be a priest and help the poor.
GRATE: I like the simplicity of it. I like the idea of just dedicating yourself to service.
JOYCE: At 18, though, he decides instead to go to university in the capital, Manila. On the 19-hour boat trip, he wonders if he's done the right thing, but he's also excited about a new future. As his ship pulls into Manila Bay, Grate grabs his bags and heads out on deck.
GRATE: It was just excitement, you know, and then slowly I see garbage.
JOYCE: Plastic garbage as far as the eye can see. Grate feels sick.
GRATE: I realize that moment that this is what could happen to the place where I grew up.
JOYCE: And it scares him.
GRATE: I'm scared because I was feeling powerless because the problem is just - it feels like it's beyond me.
JOYCE: At university, Grate does what he can.
GRATE: You know, refusing plastic bags.
JOYCE: But he realizes that's not going to change the world. After university, Grate joins an environmental group, Mother Earth Foundation. The foundation teaches people to separate plastic from the rest of their trash, and neighborhoods start to look better.
GRATE: It feels good because you see communities change.
JOYCE: But many, try as they may, can't keep up with the onslaught of plastic. Grate realizes he's just bailing water instead of turning off the spigot.
GRATE: It would take several lifetime if I only work in a community, you know? At some point, we have to change the entire system.
JOYCE: He decides to shift the battle from city streets to the source, the giant brands - Unilever, Procter & Gamble, McDonald's. In 2006, Grate and other environmental groups write a letter to McDonald's executives about their restaurants Styrofoam packaging. Grate takes it to the corporate offices in Manila, and no one will talk to him.
GRATE: And that very moment really crystallized for me the imbalance in the power dynamics, you know, that this corporation feels that they can actually just shut off a door from us. You know, we were not violent.
JOYCE: So what next? In 2016, Grate and his colleagues come up with another strategy, a much bolder one. Could they embarrass those companies? What if they could turn the very logos that companies used to advertise themselves against them, to weaponize them? At their next beach cleanup, they don't just collect trash. They write down the logo stamped on the plastic and publish what they find so the world can see who's making this stuff. They call it a brand audit, naming and shaming.
JOYCE: I go to see how it's done in a neighborhood called Navotas, a compound of rundown, water-stained buildings near Manila Bay.
GRATE: (Foreign language spoken).
JOYCE: Grate and about a dozen volunteers are sifting through piles of garbage heaped on the cement floor of a basketball court.
GRATE: Colgate toothpaste sachet - Colgate, Palmolive, Philippines.
JOYCE: Grate reads labels off of pieces of plastic trash taken from households here while a colleague keeps a list. They're sachets, as they're called in Asia, little pouches that once contained things like shampoo or toothpaste.
GRATE: Sunsilk shampoo sachet - Unilever.
JOYCE: And they're a problem. They can't be recycled. Empty sachets float out into the ocean, and Asian countries get blamed for the pollution. But Grate says no, plastic in the ocean is not just Filipinos' fault. It's also the fault of the companies that make and profit from that packaging.
GRATE: These people know the problem. They know the [expletive] they've been giving to these communities, to the country, to the oceans. But for the longest time, they've been trying to get away with it.
JOYCE: But the big brands are trying to change their packaging. Unilever couldn't provide someone for NPR to interview but said in a statement that they are experimenting with ways to make recyclable sachets. They and other brands, such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Nestle, have pledged to make all their packaging recyclable by 2025. They're investing millions of dollars in research to find alternatives. Crispian Lao is a former plastics executive who represents major brands in the Philippines. He says they're planning to convert waste plastic there into valuable products.
CRISPIAN LAO: We will take the materials, packaging materials, that nobody wants, like the sachets, we will convert it in to a value-added product.
JOYCE: Paving tiles or chairs, for example. But Grate says he's still going to keep the pressure on. With help from the environmental groups GAIA and Break Free From Plastic, he's done more than 20 brand audits now in the Philippines.
GRATE: Because they feel there's value in their brand, so we want to use it against them, OK?
JOYCE: And that's why Grate came to Washington where he sat across from executives with major oil companies that make plastic and big consumer goods producers and people from the chemicals industry. They asked him to keep their company names confidential.
One other thing - do you think the brand audit made this happen?
GRATE: (Laughter) They weren't happy about it, and they have questions, but I would say the brand audits contributed to the pace of the discussion that's happening right now.
JOYCE: How do you feel about that?
GRATE: It's great, and I was made to feel that I have a voice, and people would want to listen to what I say.
JOYCE: It's taken 18 years to make the journey from a sandy island beach in Iloilo to a conference room in Washington, D.C. Clearly, things are changing. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
KELLY: Our stories on plastic in the Philippines were produced by NPR's Rebecca Davis.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON LONDON SONG, "FOR REAL/GOT LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.