Asian states top global list of ocean plastic polluters

Copyright: GMB Akash / Panos

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  • Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are in the top ten list
  • Plastic debris ends up in the ocean due to inefficient waste management systems
  • Cogeneration plants are a technology option for countries with land constraints

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[MANILA] Eight Asia-Pacific nations were among the top ten contributors to a staggering eight million tonnes of plastic trash in global oceans in 2010, which is predicted to increase tenfold by 2025 unless waste management practices are improved.

According to a study published in the journal Science (13 February), China was the world’s worst offender along with five countries in South-East Asia — Indonesia, which ranked second; Philippines, third; Vietnam, fourth; Thailand, sixth; and Malaysia, eighth.

The other top ten countries are Sri Lanka in fifth spot; Egypt, seventh; Nigeria, ninth; and Bangladesh, tenth.

However, Chris Wilcox, a co-author of the study, tells SciDev.Net he does not advocate penalising the offending countries or even industries operating in these countries, if such things were even possible.

“To me, a much more effective solution is to address the underlying problem, which is more or less that plastic is too cheap,” he says.

Wilcox proposes various financial incentives for people to recycle, reduce and reuse, including levying a fee that is refundable at the point where the plastic was made.

He cites India as an example where an informal economy allows some people to make a living by collecting valuable plastic products on the street in lieu of a formal government infrastructure.

Juvy Serafin, a science research specialist at the solid waste management division of the Philippine Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), is not surprised that the Philippines dumps close to 125,000 kilograms of plastic wastes each day.

Serafin says that when it rains heavily, as it frequently does in typhoon-prone Philippines, garbage floats to the river system and eventually lands on the ocean floor.

The Philippines imposed a law in July 2000 that mandates local government units (LGUs) to submit a ten-year waste management and disposal plan. But according to EMB statistics, only roughly 67 per cent of the municipalities nationwide have submitted a plan while only a paltry six per cent of such plans have been approved.

Despite low compliance, some LGUs follow certain aspects of the law like segregating wastes and collecting garbage on designated days even if the trash largely ends up in illegal landfills, Serafin says.

Wilcox suggests the option of cogeneration plants, an industrial-scale power plant that burns all wastes with the exception of metals, and turns it into power. While these plants use some fossil fuels, they also burn “essentially” all domestic and commercial wastes. In Hawaii, they provide close to 30 per cent of this US state’s energy.

Wilcox says the technology can have practical applications in the Philippines, which like Hawaii, has land constraints that make waste management challenging.

But while Pacific island nations are already eyeing cogeneration plants, the Philippines stands out as the only country in the world to have banned incineration, which limits its options for waste disposal.

“Incineration doesn’t have to be a highly polluting activity,” says Wilcox. “It all depends on what you’re burning.”

>Link to abstract in Science

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.