By Imelda V. Abano
Southeast Asia, home to four of the world’s top marine plastic polluters, has to face up the true cost of the plastic crisis. After China shuts its borders in 2017 on importing waste and recyclables, developed countries scrambled to divert some of its trash in the region, primarily Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan. This has led to a spike in waste imports, according to the new study of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Greenpeace East Asia on Tuesday, April 23.
“ The impacts of the shift in plastic trade to Southeast Asian countries has been staggering with contaminated water supplies, crop death, respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic, and the rise of organized crime abound in areas most exposed to the flood of new imports,” noted the study, Discarded: Communities on the frontlines of the global plastic crisis. “ These countries and their people are shouldering the economic, social and environmental costs of that pollution, possibly for generations to come.”
By refusing to be the world’s dumping ground, China’s policy—and the fallout that resulted from it—revealed the true cost of rampant consumption, plastic production, and the problems and limitations of recycling as a solution to a world suffocating in its own plastic. Plastic waste—and the environmental and health problems it causes—was diverted to other shores, stressing infrastructure and amplifying the problems of plastic pollution in developing countries awash in the trash of wealthy nations.
“Plastic waste from industrialized countries is literally engulfing communities in Southeast Asia, transforming what were once clean and thriving places into toxic dumpsites. It is the height of injustice that countries and communities with less capacity and resources to deal with plastic pollution are being targeted as escape valves for the throwaway plastic generated by industrialized countries,” said Von Hernandez, the global coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic movement.
A new Southeast Asian global dumping ground
As the crisis deepens, this report focuses on three countries in Southeast Asia, and particularly the stories of people on the ground who have been thrust to the frontlines of the world’s plastic problem. Malaysia took in more imported waste than any other nation.
“Once one country regulates plastic waste imports, it floods into the next un-regulated destination. When that country regulates, the exports move to the next one. It’s a predatory system, but it’s also increasingly inefficient. Each new iteration shows more and more plastic going off grid — where we can’t see what’s done with it — and that’s unacceptable,” said Kate Lin, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.
Thailand had the largest percentage increase in plastic waste imports of any country in the world at over 1000 percent. Indonesia’s imports increased at the end of 2018 as Malaysia and Thailand began imposing their own restrictions. Through the stories of the people dealing with plastic imports in their communities, this report uncovers the complex human dimensions of a global trade in turmoil, from grassroots organizations rising up against plastic pollution, to the challenges that developing country governments face in implementing new bans.
The report added that the sheer amount of plastic collected for recycling, without having China to ship to, is causing a big problem for exporting countries. Recyclables are being dumped in landfills, incinerated or are piling up in ports with nowhere to go. Markets for plastic scrap are drying up, and costs of recycling for towns and cities are skyrocketing. Poor communities are being subjected to worse pollution from incinerators.
Also, more governments are passing regulations to reduce single-use plastic, as it becomes abundantly clear that the world cannot recycle its way out of plastic pollution. In the transition away from single-use plastic through government regulation and other means, plastic recycling will have an important but limited role.
“As wealthy nations dump their low-grade plastic trash onto country after country in the global south, the least the international community can do is safeguard a country’s right to know exactly what is being sent to their shores. However, ultimately, exporting countries need to deal with their plastic pollution problem at home instead of passing the burden onto other communities,” said Beau Baconguis, Regional Plastics Coordinator at GAIA Asia Pacific.
This plastics crisis also has a clear origin: corporations that mass produce plastic packaging to boost profits. “Recycling systems can never keep up with plastic production, as only 9% of the plastics ever produced are recycled. The only solution to plastic pollution is producing less plastic. Heavy plastic users — mainly consumer goods companies like Nestlé and Unilever, but also supermarkets — need to reduce single-use plastics packaging and move towards refill and reuse system to get us out of this crisis,” said Lin.
Addressing plastic pollution in the Philippines
The Philippines is the world’s third largest marine plastic polluter country which generates 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, just behind two other Asian nations: China and Indonesia.
Filipinos used almost 164 million pieces of sachets daily, that means the Philippines dispose about 60 billion sachets a year, according to a recent study conducted by GAIA, the Plastic exposed: How waste assessments and brand audits are helping Philippine cities fight plastic pollution.
With the absence of policies mandating liability and accountability for the production of waste stream, cities and municipalities are left to deal with the plastic waste problem, the study said adding that more attention should be given to ensure the reusability of packaging and products and in supporting livelihoods of the people.
“ Cities and municipalities can fight back against plastic pollution using data from waste assessments and brand audits,” said Sonia Mendoza, chairman of Mother Earth Foundation. “Cities can strengthen regulations, improve waste management services, and reduce waste volume and corresponding management costs. They can also use the data to pursue plastic bans or regulations, and to compel companies to acknowledge their liability for plastic pollution.”
Cities and municipalities deal with a greater number of branded plastic waste, with at least 54 percent of total residual waste, than unbranded waste. Ten companies are responsible for 60 percent and four multinational companies are responsible for 36 percent, of all branded waste collected in the sample sites.
“The problem is the huge amount of single-use plastics being produced, not just the way waste is managed,” said Froilan Grate, executive director of GAIA Asia-Pacific. “Plastic is a pollution problem, and it starts as soon as the plastic is made. Clean-up is left to cities and municipalities who use taxpayers’ money to deal with the waste. Companies create the waste in the form of plastic sachets, and profit from these in the millions. They must be made accountable for the pollution.”
While Republic Act 9003, also known as the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, is considered as a solution to environmental waste management, it is not strictly implemented, Grate said. With the absence of national policy on plastics, some local governments in the Philippines have enacted ordinances on plastic bag regulations.
“ The Philippine case is merely a snapshot of what’s happening in other parts of the world,” Hernandez lamented. “ This is a global crisis that needs global interventions. We need a legally-binding global instrument that would force governments to put in place policies and other measures that would effectively eliminate the need for single-use plastics while making corporations accountable for the decades of plastic pollution.”
Push for a global framework to address plastic waste crisis
A new global convention to confront the plastics crisis would improve coordination between governments and existing regulatory structures, and would also provide additional financial and technical support. More importantly, its central focus would be preventing both growth in plastics pollution and harm to human health at all phases of the production cycle.
At the 4th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) in Nairobi, Kenya in March 2019, member states of the UN Environment Programme failed to meet expectations to confront the ever-growing plastic-pollution crisis threatening our waterways, ecosystems, and health.
At UNEA-4, member states considered several resolutions designed to increase international action to halt plastic pollution. The first, proposed by Norway, Japan, and Sri Lanka, sought to strengthen international cooperation and coordination on marine plastic litter and microplastics, including through considering a possible new legally binding agreement. The second, proposed by India, sought to promote the phase-out single-use plastics worldwide.
Despite sweeping agreement by the majority of countries that urgent, ambitious, and global action is needed to address plastic across its life cycle – from production to use to disposal – a small minority led by the United States (US) blocked ambitious text and delayed negotiations. Backed by a strong industry lobby with over $200 billion invested in petrochemical build-out to drastically expand plastic production, the US delegation was able to thwart progress and water down the resolutions, actions that were strongly opposed by many countries, including those most affected by plastic pollution, such as the Pacific Island States, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Senegal.
Action-oriented member states did secure, however, the basic elements that will allow the building of future actions, based on the common vision that emerged among the vast majority of countries during the discussions. Most importantly, the mandate of the expert working group established at UNEA-3 was extended to continue its work, including by identifying technical and financial resources or mechanisms, and to report on its progress in considering response options at UNEA-5 in February 2021. The extension of this mandate keeps plastic on the international agenda and provides an opportunity to consider a future legally binding agreement.
“Corporations should hear the call coming out of UNEA-4: Requirements for reduction are coming. They should support community zero-waste systems around the world by reducing the production of unmanageable waste and reinventing delivery structures for products to eliminate plastic packaging,” Hernandez said. “We have a lot of collaborative work to do in the coming years to create policies and markets that are healthy, responsive to local needs, and based on systems of refill and reuse.”