Beating plastic pollution in three steps

Asean states need to unite on a common stand to beat plastic waste, but national and local efforts matter too.

Plastic bottles_recycling_Singapore
Southeast Asia has emerged as a hot spot for plastic pollution. Within Asia, its emerging markets attracted the largest amount of private capital, at US$1.6 billion, over a five-year period, according to new data. Image: Nick Fewings / Unsplash

Plastics are one of the contributors to global pollution causing today’s triple planetary crisis. For every minute, one truckload of plastic waste is being dumped into the oceans which is about 80 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. If unabated, this will cause oceans to have more plastic than fish by the year 2050, and about 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastics by then. 

The Asean region, being endowed with very diverse terrestrial and marine life forms, stands to lose much in natural wealth if nothing is done about the threat of single-use plastics. According to the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, plastic pollution in the Asean region has increased tenfold since 1980.

What is worse is that the region accounts for about 20 per cent of the global plastic production. Marine species and ecosystems bear the brunt as plastic wastes are carried from land to the ocean by inland waters that connect them. 

Despite recycling efforts, Asia is expected to increase its solid waste generation by 140 per cent, from 0.76 million tons per day in 2000 to 1.8 million tons per day in 2025. With this foresight, how can plastic pollution be minimised, or at best, eliminated in Asean?

There are three practical ways. First, by strengthening ties among Asean Member States by solidifying an Asean stance on plastic wastes and promoting biodiversity-friendly and nature-based solutions. Second, by advancing policy frameworks and regulations at the national level, including sustained nationwide communication and public awareness campaigns and programmes.

And lastly, by developing innovative approaches at the local and individual levels.

1. ‘One Asean’ vs. Plastics

Undoubtedly, beating plastic pollution is a daunting yet necessary task to ensure the future and wellbeing of the people in Asean. The region with its fast economic growth and a promising path towards sustainable development, has the capability to deal with this global challenge by fostering cooperation at the regional level and finding innovative means to address transboundary issues such as this. 

The Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the Asean Region, adopted by the Asean Member States (AMS) in 2019, is the region’s primary response to the issue of pollution including plastic waste.

In 2021, the AMS launched the Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris, a five-year plan aiming to support regional policies and and improve coordination across three main areas: reducing plastic use and production; improving collection and recycling; and promoting reuse.

The Asean also released the Asean Guidelines on Green Meeting in 2020 to act as a guide for AMS, Asean bodies and centres, and other organisations planning Asean-related events to ensure that they are more ecologically conscious and resource-efficient.

The guidelines encouraged the AMS and other Asean bodies to avoid single-use plastics and food waste, and minimise printing documents and waste, among other environment-friendly practices in regional dialogues and events.

In addition, the Asean Blue Economy Framework was released in September 2023 at the 43rd Asean Summit to reaffirm the AMS’ commitment as the plastic crisis knows no borders, therefore it is essential to promote cross-country cooperation and policy alignment within the region.

In the same Asean Summit in 2023, during the Asean Climate Forum, the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and the Asean Business Advisory Council (ABBI) formally launched their partnership through a memorandum of agreement that gave birth to a novel regional platform called, Asean Business and Biodiversity Initiative (ABBI), which aims to promote biodiversity and nature-based solutions in business operations across Southeast Asia.

One of the goals of the ABBI is to help empower micro-, small, and medium enterprises to adopt sustainable business practices to create nature-positive business initiatives in Southeast Asia. ABBI can help develop business models that can assist in minimising plastic production, facilitate better waste management, pioneer businesses that utilise alternatives to plastics or eco-friendly materials, and promote recycling or upcycling. 

Furthermore, the ACB and the AMS are currently crafting the regional biodiversity action plan or the ‘Asean Biodiversity Plan,’ which would help translate the targets and objectives of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework into strategic actions. This Plan is seen as the main framework by which the Asean region will contribute to global biodiversity targets and implement these actions at the national level.  

2. Strengthening national policies 

At present, the AMS have various national policies related to plastic pollution. These efforts, along with the revision and updating of National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans of each Asean country, national policies are being aligned to global and regional biodiversity goals that include solutions to challenges including plastic wastes.

Brunei Darussalam launched their “No Plastic Bag Everyday” which aimed for a 15 per cent recycling level in 2020. At least 50 stores participated in this campaign which reported to have saved US$2,000 per month from reduced plastic use.

Other AMS such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar made efforts to ban and/or impose taxes on the use of plastic bags. Moreover, Thailand has drafted its action plan, which banned single-use plastics in 2022, and single-use plastic cups and straws by 2025. The Bring Your Own Bag scheme of Cambodia, Lao PDR, and the Philippines, encouraged the recycling or reuse of shopping bags while in Viet Nam, businesses and enterprises have introduced eco-friendly bags for shoppers, and the government imposes environmental tax on plastic bags at US$1.76 per kilogram. 

In Singapore, the government envisions being a Zero Waste Nation through recycling and reusing of materials. Almost all of their non-recyclable waste is incinerated, with the ash and some solid waste shipped to a man-made island nearby that doubles as a nature reserve.

The country also passed the Resource Sustainability Bill in 2019, which mandates a system-level approach to enable nationwide reuse and recycling, by establishing the mandatory reporting framework for packaging that was initiated in 2020. Enterprises were required to report annually on the type and amount of packaging materials they bring into the market as well as their packaging waste reduction plans.

Nationwide communication and public awareness campaigns are also significant to complement national policies, as well as to translate leaders’ statements and regional frameworks.

In 2019, the ACB launched the campaign, “Oceans are Fitter without Our Litter,” to help amplify their commitment to the AMS to combat plastic pollution as stated in the Bangkok Declaration Combating Marine Debris in the Asean region. Campaigns help continuously educate the public on the effects of plastics to the environment and help drive transformative change at the institutional level.

3. Encouraging community and individual actions

With the global problem as complex as the plastic problem, no small effort becomes insignificant as it requires multi-stakeholder participation.

There have already been creative ways and social enterprises launched by various groups in the Asean region such as, Bye-Bye Plastic Bags; Plastic Tides Philippines; Second Life; and Octopus, as cited by the World Economic Forum in 2023. Noteworthy activities such as beach clean-ups, raising public awareness, the use of artificial intelligence for collecting plastic wastes, and highlighting the wellbeing of waste pickers, and many more have been already organised.

Such efforts straightforwardly deal not only with environmental and economic factors, but also social considerations of these plastic pollutants.

With a whole-of-society approach coupled with sound regional frameworks, science-based and creative national policies, and adaptable solutions fit to the multicultural communities in Asean, beating the plastic problem in the region is never impossible.

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