Asia’s plastics catastrophe is getting worse
The plastic waste crisis has become deadly, even as global plastic production climbs steadily. Marine mammals die by the thousands when they get ensnared in plastic or eat it, and humans consume up to a credit card’s worth of microplastics each week.
Last year, we learnt that Southeast Asia is especially guilty of plastic pollution, with a full 60 percent of ocean-bound plastic waste coming from the Asia–Pacific region. ASEAN accounts for four of the five countries on that list.
Recognising the seriousness of the problem, ASEAN countries agreed in June 2019 to strengthen collaboration and encourage a land-to-sea approach to reducing plastic waste. However, this is challenging work. Poor infrastructure makes clean tap water a rarity even in major cities here, and disposable plastic bottles remain the cheapest solution. Plastic packaging ensures hygiene and sanitation, and the region’s drastic poverty means many buy necessities in single-use packages. Add in corporate misinformation about how biodegradable plastic really is and single-use utensils in the region’s street-food culture, and ASEAN governments have a real big problem on their hands.
But perhaps ASEAN merely shares the blame for this
For years, developed nations such as Spain, Australia, the United States, Britain, and Canada have sent their plastic trash to developing countries in Asia. Closer to home, Japan is widely seen as a model for waste management, even though the country produces the largest amount of plastics per capita behind the US and ships out much of its plastic trash. These richer countries export plastic waste because they can, it’s cheaper than building extra processing capacity at home, and it lets them meet recycling targets while cutting domestic landfill.
At one point, most of this plastic waste—about 70 percent—went to China. In 2017, China decided to stop importing vast amounts of plastic trash, as it saw recycling mixed plastic as a difficult, unprofitable venture. The plastic trash management burden of the world then shifted to Southeast Asia, sweeping the wave of plastic trash eastwards without reducing or eliminating it in any way.
Plastic trash: The gift that nobody wants
Why do Southeast Asian countries accept trash that they know they cannot process? Partly to gain recyclable raw materials used in production, but also to provide informal jobs for low-wage workers. These labourers, who pick, clean, and sort plastic trash often mixed with medical waste and sharp objects, depend on this limited income for a living. Bluntly put, this access to cheap labour explains why developed countries still deposit their trash in Southeast Asia despite the region’s underdeveloped recycling infrastructure.
But for many Southeast Asian countries today, even the promise of new recycling jobs has soured. Plastics come in various types and grades, and each requires its own treatment for recycling. Worse, if contaminated trash and rubbish gets mixed with recyclables, the whole batch becomes unrecyclable. For this reason, only a fraction of recyclable plastic actually gets recycled—and the intentional mislabelling of imported plastic waste to avoid customs regulations makes things even worse. For example, 70–80 percent of Cambodia’s waste goes to landfill, even though 65 percent of this landfill waste is recyclable.
Without proper systems for sorting and cleaning trash, imported plastic waste floods rivers and coastal banks, polluting the environment and threatening the health of locals. Sihanoukville, a small town in Cambodia, knows this better than most. Faced with ever-growing trash heaps, local residents are left frustrated and helpless about why this is happening in their backyard.
When things are handled well and unrecyclable plastic waste is collected, most of it gets incinerated for power generation or dumped in landfills. At municipal facilities, toxic ash and gases from incineration are filtered out, but cleanly disposing of the resulting sludge remains tricky. Locally, waste banks—which pay locals to clean, sort, and take in recyclables—have been gaining momentum in recent years. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of waste banks in Indonesia increased more than sixfold to almost 8,000 sites.
More common, some households burn plastic waste for fuel, and burying everyday plastic waste is common practice outside Asia’s major cities. In some parts of Indonesia, for instance, plastic waste from Australia is burnt as fuel to make tofu with, as firewood is too expensive. Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals (dioxins) that contaminate the tofu produced, which may lead to major long-term health consequences. As tofu is a cheap protein source that makes up much of the local diet, this is a health disaster in the making.
Refusing the world’s plastic waste burden in Southeast Asia
Given the severity of plastic waste mismanagement, several Southeast Asian countries have steeled themselves in response.
Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has been particularly outspoken with his anger and confusion, remarking to reporters, ‘I cannot understand why they’re making us a dump site’. After a five-year legal battle to return Canada’s mislabelled plastic waste, Duterte’s patience ran out, and the president ordered more than 100 shipping containers of the stuff sent back.
With such strong reactions from ASEAN nations, trash-exporting countries such as the United Kingdom have started investing in their own recycling capabilities, but this will be a long and difficult journey.
Of course, this does little for the plastic heaps already in our region. Plastic is a patient foe, and the coastlines covered with polymers and disposable bottles are here to stay until we find the will to reduce plastic use at its source. Many years will pass before mindsets and behaviours around plastic use shift, slowing the deluge of global plastic waste.
Until then, Asia has made its choice: We will be the trash dump of the world no longer.