How Close is Asia to Fixing its Plastic Pollution Problem?
May 01 2023
Plastic pollution is a growing environmental problem across the world, but Asia is particularly vulnerable. With high population density, rapid urbanization, and inadequate waste management infrastructure, plastic waste is accumulating in Asian waterways and ultimately ends up in the ocean, where it poses a significant threat to marine life and ecosystems.
The Scale of the Problem
According to a 2017 report by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, more than half of the plastic waste in the ocean comes from just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. These countries are also members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is among the world's biggest sources of plastic pollution.
Every year, 8 million tonnes of discarded plastic end up in the ocean, and the situation is getting worse. A report by the World Economic Forum estimates that, unless we take action, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050. This is a grave concern as plastic pollution is already impacting marine life and threatening human health.
The Sources of Plastic Pollution
Much of the pollution comes from rivers that carry mismanaged plastic waste to the ocean. A study by scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research found that 90% of ocean plastic originated from only 10 rivers, eight of which are in Asia. These rivers include the Yangtze, Mekong, and Ganges, among others.
The region's key waterways all support large populations living nearby who rely on poor - and sometimes non-existent - waste management systems. Uncollected waste is discarded into rivers, which then carry it to the sea. While clean-up efforts are commendable, picking up debris washed ashore on beaches and along coastlines deals with the effect rather than the root cause of the problem.
The Need for Action
To combat the rising tide of ocean pollution, it is essential to work on changing the central role that plastic plays in daily life. Governments across Asia are waking up to the devastating ecological and financial costs of polluted rivers and oceans. China, the biggest producer of plastic waste, has begun to tackle the problem. In addition to banning waste imports, it has pledged to reach a 35% recycling rate across 46 cities by 2020.
India has set a goal to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022 and has introduced an immediate ban in Delhi. Other Asian nations, such as Bangladesh, have banned plastic bags, though enforcement has been patchy.
However, pointing an accusatory finger at consumers for using too much plastic is like blaming car owners for traffic congestion. If plastic production was decreased, there would be less available for people to use. Government policy can guide the behaviour of producers by imposing taxes and limits on the quantity and type of plastics produced. Another potential government approach is to provide incentives to encourage producers to develop alternatives to non-biodegradable plastics.
Building and urban planning regulations can also be designed to encourage the use of environmentally-friendly materials. Increasing recycling rates and reducing the amount of plastic in everyday use are positive first steps, but government policy could go much further. For example, through raising public awareness of the problem and providing alternatives to dumping waste in rivers by creating workable waste collection and management systems.
Private firms can also play a significant role in creating alternatives to plastic, developing circular economy-based solutions, and finding uses for the mountains of waste that already exist. Compostable alternatives to plastic packaging that biodegrade quickly, eliminating the problem of debris hanging around for years, have been developed by private firms. Some companies have gone even further, producing packaging that can be eaten along with the food inside it. For example, a UK-based firm has created edible packaging made from seaweed that can dissolve in hot water, while an Indonesian start-up has produced food wrappers and sachets from seaweed that can also be consumed.
Numerous small-scale initiatives are being launched each year, some of which can be scaled up to meet regional demand. However, there is a need for more government funding and incentives to support the development of such alternatives on a larger scale.
Another promising approach is to exploit the plentiful, cheap supply of waste plastic. In parts of rural India, workers have constructed more than 34,000 km of roads from shredded plastic waste. These roads have an unusually high resistance to the country’s searing temperatures and each kilometre costs 8% less to construct than conventional roads. The scheme creates work for local fishermen who are paid to dredge debris from the ocean and also for plastic pickers on land. Several small privately-owned shredding businesses have also sprung up in the area, creating further employment opportunities.
As population growth and industrialization continue across Asia, more demands will be put on its fragile ecosystems. Finding ways to reduce plastic waste, manage it responsibly, and encourage the creation of viable alternatives will be key to a sustainable future for the region.
To conclude, Asia’s plastic pollution problem is one that needs to be tackled urgently. Five Asian countries account for more than half of the plastic waste in the ocean, with rivers being the main sources of pollution. Governments, private firms, and individuals all have a role to play in reducing plastic waste and promoting environmentally-friendly alternatives. To this end, many Asian countries have already taken steps to address the problem by banning single-use plastics, increasing recycling rates, and imposing taxes and limits on plastic production. However, there is a need for more concerted efforts at the regional and international levels to combat this growing threat to our planet's health. Only by working together can we hope to create a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.
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