‘South-East Asia must tighten plastic waste regulation’

Single-use plastics often find their way either to the oceans or to the dumpsites in the Philippines. Copyright: Kounosu, CC BY-SA 3.0. This image has been cropped.

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  • Up to 13 million tonnes tonnes of plastic waste dumped into world’s seas annually
  • South-East Asian nations responsible for much of the plastic reaching the seas
  • Tighter laws and better working conditions for waste pickers are possible solutions

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[BANGKOK] South-East Asian nations need stronger and more coordinated regulations across the region to stop tonnes of plastic waste leaking into the oceans, a new UN report says.
Some 8 – 13 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the oceans globally every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, the 11 – 14 November  SEA of Solutions  UN conference, on dealing with plastic pollution, heard. South-East Asia is a major contributor to the problem, with more than half of the waste coming from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The report, by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), released Wednesday at the conference held in the Thai capital, said tougher policies on reducing plastic packaging waste were needed, along with stronger enforcement of regulations.

“South-East Asia is a primary source and victim of plastic, where it is choking seas and threatening ecosystems and livelihoods”

Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UN Environment Programme

“South-East Asia is a primary source and victim of plastic, where it is choking seas and threatening ecosystems and livelihoods,” said Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UNEP regional coordinator for chemicals and waste. “If we want to solve the marine litter problem globally, we have to solve it in this region.”
The report called for a more harmonised approach, with nations aligning on measures such as targeting single-use plastic and recyclable plastics as well as agreeing on labelling of packaging, especially for products likely to move across borders.
South-East Asia could also commit to collecting comparable data to better inform policymakers and agree on key areas of focus. More recycling or recovery “hubs” could also be created to improve the region-wide trade in scrap waste, it said.
In June, ASEAN leaders had adopted a declaration to combat marine pollution, a move applauded by environmental groups. Nations have also stepped up individual plans to reduce plastic use with Thailand, this month, announcing moves to ban seven types of plastic commonly found in oceans, including light-weight plastic bags.
The conference brought together some 600, mainly South-East Asian delegates from government, industry, small businesses and the non-profit sector to share science, knowledge, policy and innovation to help find solutions. Specifically, they discussed the region’s growing cities and rural centres’ lack of adequate waste collection and sorting infrastructure where plastics can be sent for recycling.
Instead, authorities rely on millions of waste pickers and collectors in the informal sector to gather plastics and reduce leakage into the oceans. A study, presented at the conference, found the informal sector responsible for 97 per cent of PET bottles collected for recycling.
“Without the informal sector, we would not be achieving the current collection for recycling rates and more importantly, these materials would be lost to landfill or leaked into the environment,” Sumangali Krishnan, from consultancy GA Circular that conducted the study, tells SciDev.Net.
But these workers face significant health and safety issues, lack knowledge about recyclable materials and the (low) prices they can receive for them, along with the stigma attached to what is perceived to be dirty, low-class work.
“They suffer a lot from being on the fringes of society, so it’s really important that we work very closely with the informal sector to ensure that they are working in an optimal and efficient space,” says Krishnan, chief business officer with GA Circular, which works with business on waste management and recycling.
“We risk losing the informal sector if we do not incorporate them into the mainstream and remove the stigma of being at the lower end of society,” she told the conference.
Recycling is a key part of halting plastic pollution, along with changing consumer behaviour to use less plastic, curbing littering and dumping, investing in waste infrastructure such as incinerators and secure landfills, and other measures.
The GA Circular study showed only 54 per cent of PET bottles, one of the most recyclable forms of plastic packaging, were recycled in cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. If extrapolated to the country level, only 26 per cent of bottles were recycled on average, with another 26 per cent going to landfills and the remaining 48 per cent leaking into the environment.
Globally, only about 10 per cent of plastic waste is currently being recycled, although potentially almost every type of plastic can be reused, the conference was told.Investments were needed in collection and sorting systems at the local level as a first step to increasing recycling rates, said Doug Woodring, founder of non-profit Ocean Recovery Alliance that works with industry and government to reduce waste.
“One of the key issues is the first mile, (that is) getting the plastic from the consumers to the systems that can capture it. When plastic gets put in a black (rubbish) bag with all the food waste and other rubbish, then it’s just too expensive to re-sort it,” he tells SciDev.Net.
Reward programmes were also needed on packaging and other plastics as a financial incentive to recycle, which would motivate waste pickers and increase incomes.
“When there is a deposit or reward system put on a bottle, then recycling or recovery is high. The brands need to start putting rewards of some type on all of their plastic stuff,” he said, adding that governments could also alter procurement policies, mandating that all purchases contain some recycled content.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.