Questioning the sustainability of polymer banknotes

Highlights of the manifestations of Senator Pia S. Cayetano
Inquiry on the use of polymer instead of abaca fiber for Philippine banknotes

Part 1

I would just like to go on a few issues on sustainability. I chair the Committee on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Innovation, and Futures Thinking. So, my interventions are precisely to ask the agencies if we are really looking at the entire picture of sustainability and the SDGs that we have, and if we are using the resources we have to balance those different interests.

So I note, listening carefully to the presentation, that it is the view of BSP, basing it on studies conducted by similar agencies in other countries, that the shift to polymer notes is a sustainable move, right? That is the overall theme that I received.

I’d just like to go into that a little bit. You mentioned that the shift to polymer is more sustainable because of the use of less water, the carbon footprint is smaller, and that you can then recycle it into chairs, tables, etc.

But my question is, polymers are not biodegradable, right? As opposed to abaca and cotton, which are the main ingredients for the current paper that we use. Offhand, polymer is not biodegradable. There are ways that you can recycle it, but it is not biodegradable.

So in that sense, it is not truly sustainable. There are different ways we define ‘sustainability.’ Of course, reusing is one way, in a better direction than not. But it is not biodegradable, as opposed to abaca and cotton, is that correct?

I was listening very intently because it boils down to these kinds of issues. There are a lot of things we can produce out of plastic,[but] one of the biggest issues is collection. So I am shifting just to have a general discussion on this.

For example, the use of PET bottles, other products that can supposedly be broken down and reused – the difficulty is in the collection. So in the case of bills, that problem will be eliminated because when [BSP] retires old bills, people will then surrender it to you. So in terms of collection, that’s not that big of a problem. And then you can proceed to repurpose it in the examples you gave. Is that correct?

That does simplify it compared to other plastic products that are in the market, and then we claim that we can reuse it. But collection is one issue that we have. I hope the Committee has invited environmentalists to discuss this.

I’ll emphasize that [polymer] is still not biodegradable. When we look at the sustainability picture, we always have to take different factors into concern. It may in fact use less water, may have a smaller carbon footprint, but it will not biodegrade. It will still be there and it is a product we created and will stay there forever, as opposed to abaca and cotton.

The other SDG that I would like to point out is SDG 8, which is Decent Work [and Economic Growth]. So I think you know where I am going here. Decent work requires that we support our industries and one of those is the abaca industry. So when we look again at the whole sustainability of this program, we also look at how it affects work.

So there is an impact on the abaca farmers. I noted how you expressed that there are other ways to help the farmers, that only a small percent [is involved]. I listen and am conscious of that. But the fact remains that there is an effect.

And maybe if I look at another SDG to present a complete picture is that abaca farmers and the products they make form an integral part of our history, and in a way, our culture. We have always been known to be abaca exporters. Interestingly, yung manila folder came from that history, I was pleasantly surprised to be educated on that. So abaca production is a big part of who we are. There have been decisions made in the past in other countries, wherein they preserve the use of a certain product despite [the availability of new] technology to move towards a different way of production, because the original way of producing symbolizes who we are as a people. So that’s another reason that should always be taken into consideration.

I am not trying to minimize the advantages that you have presented for polymer. I am simply trying to present the complete picture coming from the SDG committee, which I chair.

So decent work and economic growth is a part of it and it affects who we are as a people because abaca production has been with us for a long time.

I think I will mention SDG 11 because sustainable communities are part of who the abaca farmers belong to. We want them to continue to be a sustainable community. And when we take away a part of what they rely on for work, then that affects their sustainability as a farming community. And it may actually not be totally sustainable because you are shifting to a product, as I said, that is not biodegradable.

And then, I wanted to point out that SDG 3 on Good Health. As you mentioned, you got the green light from DOH. Is that correct? I note that and I appreciate the work you did there because I like the fact that you looked at the different aspects. So if that is in fact a positive thing, then we have to recognize that and I commend you for looking at that. But yun nga lang, yung sa communities natin and digging further into the definition of sustainability, I think that’s something you might want to also look at.

So those are basically the main points that I wanted to raise because it is very possible that these points may affect your decision.

Let me just talk about historical and cultural preservation. By law, we actually protect buildings or other structures that are 50 years of age or older. We give it the benefit of the doubt that they have cultural significance. I see the Deputy Governor nodding his head so you are familiar with that. It’s not set in stone, [the structure] has to be assessed by the experts. Pero parang ganun din. And I appreciate the presentation by my good friend, Tony Lambino, on the use of the Philippine Eagle and how other countries use designs that are ‘personal’ to them. So ganun din, the use of abaca as a fabric is also ‘personal’ to us. It is your job in the Central Bank. Thank you also for a very thorough presentation on the mandate that you have on this.

On the part of legislature, we also look into this in aid of legislation. So that is just my role. I am trying to find a balance here. I have often been in situations where I need to propose legislation that balances the interests of different groups and sometimes they are conflicting. There may be reasons that point to one decision versus another, but I am always happy to hear all the reasons that may help me make a better decision. So that’s really the reason we are sharing this with the BSP.

I think that is all for now. I’ll just finally read into the record and mention Sustainable Cities and Communities earlier. I just want to read that because I think that may be a pivotal factor in any decision we make in changing the use of abaca in our money:

Culture has a crucial role to play in SDG 11, in making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, reliant, and sustainable. Specifically, target 11.4 calls for strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

So I’ll build that into the argument also that there is a special role in the use of abaca for us. By the way, that is a quote from UNESCO. So yun lang, Mr Chairman, I will continue to monitor and learn from this. Thank you for calling this hearing, thank you rin sa BSP.

Part 2

As I mentioned when I asked questions earlier, I will be listening intently to all the presentations. And now that I have heard all, may I already place my request that BSP responds in writing to all those concerns? Because there were a lot of concerns raised that basically support the questions that I asked. I’d like point-by-point [responses] because when I dissected the issue on sustainability, narinig ko yung ibang side, there may not be complete truth to the conclusion by BSP that it [use of polymer] is in fact sustainable.

And when you speak of the health aspect, tama nga naman po ang pinoint out. There are studies that show…that you can’t really get COVID from touching surfaces. Of course, you should be mindful and always use sanitary practices. But by simply touching something, hindi ka magkaka-COVID that way. So if that is the main reason for the shift, because it’s safer, then we have to really study this.

And let me end by saying that I recognize the authority of BSP. Wala naman akong question doon. They are a very professional organization. They went through the process. Pero tayo naman po as senators, we also have our oversight power in aid of legislation, and that’s why we are having these inquiries. Yun lang naman, I just like a really thorough response to that, and I am hoping that I can hear from BSP that they are willing to really look at these issues again before we make that final decision, Mr. Chairman. That’s all. #

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