Plastic pollution is never far away in Southeast Asia. It’s in the streets, the rivers, the forests, the beaches and almost anywhere else you care to look. According to a 2018 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) analysis of plastics production, demand and waste, half of the world’s plastic is produced in Asia and around 40 percent of all plastic is consumed in the Asia-Pacific region. It is clear the region is at the heart of the global plastic waste crisis.
What was already a big problem prior to COVID-19 has been compounded by the pandemic. While valid, current concerns about sanitation are overshadowing long-term environmental initiatives and plastic waste is proliferating across all countries. Lockdowns and social distancing have also increased household plastic and non-recyclable waste, with significant volumes generated from increased e-commerce deliveries further magnifying the problem.
Nobody wants this. Consumers hate plastic waste as do businesses, for whom it’s economically inefficient. But there is a disconnect between what everyone wants and what everyone is doing.
The Perceptions on Plastic Waste survey of 2,000 consumers and 400 food and beverage businesses in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam conducted by the UNEP and Food Industry Asia (FIA) in 2020 found 91 percent of consumers are “extremely concerned” about the problem. But more than half of the consumers surveyed continue to use non-recycled containers, due to both cultural norms about hygiene and lack of understanding that repurposed food packaging is typically safe.
Similarly, 82 percent of companies surveyed in the same study expressed concerns about plastic waste. But less than half of them is part of alliances at the national, regional, or global levels working to solve the problem.
In an attempt to close the intention-action gap, governments have pledged to take a firmer stance and continue to advance efforts to mandate improved management and reduction of plastic waste. In 2019, ASEAN member nations signed the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris, which compiled commitments from around the region.
Indonesia pledged US$1 billion to curb 70 percent of its ocean debris by 2025 and Malaysia plans to eliminate single-use plastic by 2030. Thailand made the commitment to ban plastic cap seals in water bottles and plastic microbeads by 2019 and major manufacturers in the country have responded positively. It also plans to eliminate plastic bags less than 36 microns in thickness, Styrofoam food boxes, plastic straws, and single-use plastic cups by 2022.
Vietnam’s action plan targets that by 2030, the country will reduce 75 percent of plastic waste in the ocean, have 100 percent of lost or discarded fishing tools collected, and eradicate the direct discharge of fishing tools into the ocean.
Such commitments mark a significant step forward; however, consumers and businesses agree that improved waste collection is also a top priority – an area that is unfortunately lacking in many developing countries across Southeast Asia and has deterred recycling.
For years, the concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle” has been widely promoted with the goal of creating a circular economy, but recycling is often sadly disregarded. Within selected markets, over 80 percent of recycling operations have been impeded during the pandemic, increasing landfills that are quickly reaching capacity.
To tackle this growing issue, governments can increase financing to waste management schemes, improve infrastructure, and enact legislation that drives best practices in recycling.
On the consumer front, governments can improve education about recycling methods that will empower them to act, such as mandating the use of clear and consistent labelling on product recyclability. Policies that encourage household waste segregation and the use of recycled materials in packaging including food packaging, would also be beneficial. The latter would immediately improve the quality of recyclables while reducing the use of virgin materials.
Without question, good governance is part of the solution, but cooperation and support from business and consumers must follow to sustain efforts. Furthermore, in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia, collaboration across borders is also crucial as it can help smooth political discord where it might exist, and facilitate the sharing of best practices, technologies, and resources.
COVID-19 may have hindered our efforts on plastic pollution so far, but in the response, we – governments, businesses, and consumers – can make sure we build back better. This is a long-term problem that should not be ignored, and we need to grasp the opportunities we have to address it.
Edwin Seah is head of sustainability at Food Industry Asia and Natalie Harms is Southeast Asia circular program officer at the United Nations Environment Programme.