While a slew of initiatives has begun, Southeast Asia needs a concerted effort.
Think of Bali’s beaches and you picture pristine sands, cloudless skies, and warm waters lapping the shores. You don’t want that scene ruined by walking over beaches strewn with 50 tonnes of discarded plastic cups, bags, diapers, and more before you reach the waters.
The waters in the Asean region are among the most polluted in the world. Reports say Asian countries account for 81% of the plastic in the world’s oceans. More than a third comes from the Philippines alone, while Indonesia contributes nearly 6%.
Marine debris poses a very real threat, not just to ocean life and the environment, but also to the economies of the region. Bali, for instance, gets about 60% of its revenue from tourism. Dirty waters also impact shipping and fisheries, apart from the cost of cleaning up these areas. World Bank estimates place the cost of plastic pollution to ASEAN member states’ “blue” sectors at about $2.1 billion in 2015.
Trouble is, it’s not just ocean trash, but also the trash from other countries these nations have to manage. Globally, about 2.12 billion tonnes of waste is produced every year, and processing it is big business. In 2018, when China banned waste imports over concerns over the damage to its environment, the trash-exporting nations (the US and countries in Europe) turned to South East Asia.
What countries are doing
But ASEAN member states are now cleaning up their act. Thailand banned e-waste imports in 2018, while Malaysia and Vietnam stopped issuing new permits for plastic waste imports. They are also looking to reduce single-use plastic products and packaging. Malaysia has banned non-biodegradable plastic bags, while Thailand is considering an electronic scrap disposal tax.
Countries are also exploring Waste-to-Energy (WTE) solutions. In July 2022, Vietnam’s largest WTE plant, capable of burning 4,000 tonnes of dry waste every day, began operations. The Philippines is considering laws to institutionalize WTE development, while Thailand already offers subsidies and tax incentives for different types of WTE plants.
Indonesia, meanwhile, is turning to technology to provide solutions to the growing waste problem. With a goal to reduce total waste by 30% by 2030, Indonesia’s current focus is on recycling solutions. Several startups in the country have gotten into the act as well, creating recycling apps and offering rewards in exchange for recyclables.
Time to act
With the objective of reducing waste, the World Bank has approved a $20 million regional grant for ASEAN. The ASEAN nations have been relentless in their efforts to tackle the trash problem. But this is the time to amp up the efforts and strengthen policies and regulatory frameworks governing the production and use of plastics. The time to act is now.
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