If investing in large-scale infrastructure is not viable, what other options do Southeast Asian states have?
Community-based waste management systems are often suggested as a more feasible long-term solution. For example, Indonesia has attempted to tackle its waste problem by introducing a waste-bank program (bank sampah) in 2012. Households sort their trash into organic and non-organic waste, then deposit it in a central neighbourhood waste bank, which provides them monetary returns for their trash.
The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organisation focused on using technology to rid the ocean of plastic, has developed an innovative solution. While The Interceptor—a trash-eating barge that intercepts trash in rivers before it ends up in the ocean—is a very commendable effort, it still doesn’t resolve the system-wide waste management challenges that Southeast Asia faces.
Ultimately, waste management merely tackles symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. As mentioned, rapid urbanisation and rising purchasing power contribute to higher consumption rates—a worsening situation as middle-income groups in Southeast Asia grow exponentially. That said, increasing waste production is a global problem, and a handful of developed nations have taken to more drastic measures. The city of Vaud in Switzerland, for example, imposed a waste tax that saw a 40 percent reduction in waste produced.
While many countries have turned to educational programmes to raise awareness on consumption habits, this is unlikely to make a huge difference. After all, there is a distinct rich-poor divide between those who generate waste and those who handle it—a widening gap that the rising middle-class remains unable to bridge. Unless they are directly involved in handling waste, most people adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, making them unlikely to commit to drastic yet necessary lifestyle changes.
What happens then? Waste sorting and recycling are largely left to the extremely poor. All over the region, entire communities live off scavenging open dumps. In Payatas in the Philippines, scavengers expose themselves to tremendous danger just to make US$2–6 a day. Many can’t afford to buy food and are forced to pick food waste (pagpag) out of the dumps for their own consumption. It seems sinful, then, that more than 50 percent of Southeast Asia’s waste is food, which could have fed these communities instead.
As with most wicked problems, there are no easy solutions to Southeast Asia’s waste crisis. Any sustainable plan needs to address both the creation and disposal of waste, and it requires large-scale cooperation between the government and its citizens. For many Southeast Asian countries, this calls for a sobering confrontation of the inequality that grows as their nations develop.