Geographies in Depth

4 ways ASEAN leaders can tackle plastic pollution

A worker unloads waste plastic bottles in the Changping district of Beijing.

A worker unloads waste plastic bottles in the Changping district of Beijing. Image: REUTERS/China Daily

Antonia Gawel
Head, Climate; Deputy Head, Centre for Nature & Climate Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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“Context is key” is the message that emerged from discussions as businesses, government and innovators discussed solutions to ASEAN’s growing plastic pollution crisis during the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN summit in Viet Nam last week. So what does that mean and why is it so important?

Like the rest of the world, the ASEAN region has experienced a rapid growth in plastic production and use over the past few decades. Though the per capita single-use plastic consumption is lower than in other regions, in most ASEAN countries there is a severe lack of adequate waste management that amplifies its negative impact. Six of the top 20 countries ranked by size of mismanaged plastic waste are ASEAN member states. Much of the resulting plastic pollution ends up in the ocean, given the concentration of populations along vast river systems and coastlines. The problem is real, and not just an environmental one.


The region’s rapidly growing economy and the health of its people are also at stake. APEC has estimated that plastic pollution is costing the region’s vibrant tourism, fishing and shipping industries $1.3 billion. This reality was brought to the fore when images of the sea of plastic off the shores of tourism and diving destinations in Indonesia went viral.

The challenge has now been diagnosed; the question is how to effectively move towards a circular economy for plastics in the ASEAN region. With its diversity in culture, demographics, geography and economy, regional stakeholders are calling for contextually appropriate and fit-for-purpose solutions.

1. Fit-for-purpose innovation

As innovators devise plastic alternatives in ASEAN and around the world, “fit for purpose” innovation is key. A number of bio-based solutions show promise but two considerations are critical as such solutions emerge and scale: 1) The local sustainability of feedstock; 2) the local environment and conditions necessary to ensure that bio-based plastics mitigate, rather than amplify, environmental stress. Some bio-based plastics are designed to biodegrade, others are not, or will only biodegrade under the right environmental conditions.

Indonesia-based Greenhope, for example, is advancing the development of cassava-based materials, with the dual purpose of supporting local farmers of Indonesia’s large-scale industry; and Evoware is a regional leader in seaweed-based materials. But Tommy Tjiptadjaja, CEO of Greenhope, is the first to emphasize that such solutions are right for certain applications in certain environments. “When you have a hammer, it may be tempting to go around and hit every nail with it, but we need to be smart about what solutions we deploy when and where.”

2. Scaling infrastructure investments

System-wide solutions, such as investing in waste management infrastructure, is critical for the region. This will not only support the collection, processing and recycling of plastic, but it will help resolve the broader health and climate-related impacts that result from poorly managed waste. Nearly 200 people died during a landslide at a poorly managed landfill on the outskirts of Manila, and similar incidents have been reported around the region since. The victims of these tragedies are among the most vulnerable, but they are also incredibly resourceful and should be fully engaged in scaling up safe and well-managed waste-management solutions.

While these efforts are notoriously difficult to fund and scale sustainably, new blended financing vehicles like Circulate Capital are emerging to help unlock and accelerate the deployment of the billions of dollars needed to finance the future of Asian waste infrastructure. Meanwhile, multilateral organizations like the World Bank are doubling down efforts to scale up the deployment of support and capital.

3. Economic and social-centered approaches

Solutions that put people first are critical for the region. Indonesia, for example, has led with the bold commitment to reduce plastic debris by 70% by 2025, while Viet Nam has proposed a regional partnership in South-East Asia to collaborate on regional solutions. Indonesia’s minister of maritime affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, emphasizes that as the government advances the implementation of its action plan to tackle plastic pollution, people must be at the center of their approach. With a population of over 260 million, who live across 6,000 of the nation’s 17,000 islands ,with an average annual per-capita income of $3,847, engaging the geographically spread and diverse population is key. Education campaigns and ensuring that solutions engage and empower lower-income people is a critical part of the pathway to achieving their targets.

4. Public-private collaboration

Public-private and civil society collaboration will be central to well-executed strategies, while supporting local entrepreneurs and improving livelihoods. The devil will indeed lie in the detail as government ambitions translate into targets, and targets into implementable plans with the desired impact. Governments can play a major role in setting ambitions and baselines, but the private sector can also be fully engaged as a partner given its knowledge of innovations, access to consumers, as well as widespread logistical networks, for example. India has embarked on this learning curve since it announced its ambitious targets in June, and other governments are certain to follow. Early collaboration and partnership through regional and national stakeholder collaboration will be critical for effectively rolling out strategies.

From incremental to transformational change

While these approaches will help make a dent in today’s waste crisis, as the region grows it is critical to also reflect on the real source of these challenges: an economic system that promotes high-volume, low-value through-put – a culture of “mass disposability”. Given the political momentum and focus on supporting a transition towards a circular economy for plastics, getting this transformation right will help serve as an example of what it takes to turn around our current approach to unsustainable production and consumption in a way that helps people and economies prosper.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthSustainable DevelopmentGlobal RisksIndustries in DepthNature and BiodiversityCircular Economy
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