Nature and Biodiversity

How to defeat the plastic tide threatening the ASEAN region’s green growth

Plastic pollution contaminates land and water.

Plastic pollution contaminates land and water. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Liviana Zorzi
Specialist, National Plastic Action Partnership, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Plastic pollution is a critical challenge for the future of the ASEAN region, with over 31 million tonnes of plastic waste generated annually in six out of ten ASEAN countries.
  • The ASEAN region has huge potential in terms of creativity, innovation and transformative business models.
  • Bold models of cooperation among governments, businesses and civil society can address the plastic crisis.

According to United Nations estimates, plastic accounts for 80% of waste in the ocean. Litter and improperly disposed plastic items end up in rivers, seas and eventually in the ocean.

Not all countries contribute equally to this problem. A 2021 report by Lourens J.J. Meijer, published in the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shows that the highest contributors to plastic pollution are not the countries producing or consuming the most. The highest polluters are countries that, due to their conformation, coastline, rainfall and inadequate waste management systems, are carrying more plastic to the sea through their polluted rivers.

Out of the ten highest polluting countries, six are in South-East Asia. The Philippines alone leaked 356,371 metric tonnes of plastic waste into the ocean in a year, about 35% of the global figure. This record is followed by Malaysia (73,098), Indonesia (56,333), Myanmar (40,000), Vietnam (28,221) and Thailand (22,806). Together, these countries account for more than half of the world’s ocean plastic pollution. Addressing plastic waste in the region is, therefore, imperative, not only for the region's green growth aspirations, but also for the health of the whole planet.

ocean plastic pollution
Image: Visual Capitalist 2023, data by Lourens J. Meijer et al., Science Advances
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The highest ocean plastic polluters (annual estimation in metric tonnes)
The highest ocean plastic polluters (annual estimation in metric tonnes) Image: Graphic by Louis Lugas, Visual Capitalist 2023, data by Lourens J. Meijer et al., Science Advances, 2021

Plastic pollution policy solutions

Pollution not only affects biodiversity and human and animal health, it also heavily impacts the tourism and fishing industries, which are vital to the region’s economy. Member states recognized their duty to collaborate to protect their coasts, seas and livelihoods from marine plastic pollution back in 2019, when they adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Region. Based on this commitment, in 2021, they launched the Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris. This five-year plan aims to support regional policies and improve coordination across three main areas: reducing plastic use and production; improving collection and recycling; and promoting reuse.

In September 2023, the release of the ASEAN Blue Economy Framework at the 43rd ASEAN Summit reaffirmed the members’ commitment: the plastic crisis knows no borders, therefore, it is essential to promote cross-country cooperation and policy alignment.

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Turning off the plastic tap

Bans on single-use plastic products are an example of national policies that are being developed by more and more countries in the region. The goal is to turn off the plastic tap, as a major part of plastic pollution is caused by plastic straws, bags, sachets and food wrapping.

Another policy tool that is being introduced consists of 'extended producers’ responsibility' (EPR) schemes. These require producers to rethink the way in which they design and develop products, taking responsibility for the whole life cycle, including disposal and recycling. Producers are called to respect waste reduction targets, as well as to pay fees that will fund the plastic waste collection and recycling system. These policies are key to promoting the transformation from a linear production model (produce, use, disposal) to a circular one, based on reuse and recycling. Countries that have piloted these policies have already achieved encouraging results. Japan, for example, reduced the amount of its packaging by 16% between 1996 and 2009.

Now, the European Union is calling for all its member states to develop policies related to plastic producers’ responsibility by 2024. In the ASEAN region, such adoption is still uneven and at an early stage. In 2022, Vietnam was the first Southeast Asian country to issue a decree mandating packaging, recycling and waste treatment obligations for manufacturers and importers. The Philippines followed, issuing the EPR Act in July 2022. In several cases, initiatives are only voluntary, this is the case in Thailand.

Companies are also being urged to develop reusable products, reduce virgin plastic use on one side and contribute to post-consumer collection and recycling on the other. For targets to be ambitious and achievable, it is important to consider the local context, making sure that everyone along the plastic value chain is in a position to comply.

It is essential to ensure dialogue among policymakers, producers and those in charge of waste disposal, including the informal sector (the waste pickers).

Regional collaboration becomes crucial to develop better policies. Facilitating dialogue across countries benefits governments and businesses. It provides opportunities for sharing lessons from pilot projects and scaling up successful solutions developed locally.

Shifting the paradigm together

The complexity of the plastic problem requires everyone’s collaboration and creativity. In the ASEAN region innovative initiatives and social enterprises are taking charge of bold transformations: Bye-Bye Plastic Bags; Plastic Tides Philippines; Second life; and Octopus are a few examples of how the problem of plastic pollution can be tackled from different angles. These include clean-ups; awareness-raising campaigns; and artificial intelligence technologies for plastic collection, ensuring better opportunities for waste pickers. Such initiatives address not only the environmental and economic aspects of plastic pollution, but also its social impact.

A strong integrated action to combat plastic pollution can pave the way for a new era for ASEAN: from being known as the region most affected by ocean plastic pollution, it can become the region with the boldest green ambitions, taking concrete steps to solve the crisis.

The ASEAN region has the choice to participate in the current negotiations of the Global Plastic Treaty as an ambitious regional leader, thanks to concrete cooperation and dialogue.

Indonesia and Vietnam, for example, were the first two countries to join the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) in 2019 and 2020, setting up National Plastic Action Partnerships. Cambodia followed in 2023. More ASEAN countries, such as Lao PDR and the Philippines, are exploring the possibilities offered by this global network. Plastic Action Roadmaps are developed based on sound scientific analysis and governments, business, civil society and academia are consulted throughout the process. Besides having their voice heard, they can co-design and implement concrete solutions, learning from each other within and beyond national borders.

Participation of ASEAN countries in initiatives such as GPAP, hosted at the World Economic Forum, can enable them to set up effective cooperation models and champion the paradigm shifts needed to overcome the plastic crisis.

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