By: Danny Marks, Dublin City University in Dublin
Growing marine pollution is choking the world’s oceans and rivers, especially in Southeast Asia – and it will only get worse unless something changes.
The countries bordering the Mekong have become the global dumping ground for waste. The waste ends up in the water, killing marine animals and clogging animals with plastic which is then eaten by humans. And it only got worse during the pandemic.
COVID-19 has caused an increase in plastic waste in Southeast Asia, particularly with the widespread disposal of single-use face masks, take-out food containers and packaging from online purchases.
In April 2020, Bangkok’s daily average of 2,115 tonnes of single-use plastic waste per day increased to over 3,400 tonnes per day. Lockdowns have interrupted more than 80% of the recycling value chain in Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
Even before the pandemic-induced waste, only 9% of all plastic packaging was recycled and about 12% was incinerated. The remaining 79% accumulates in landfills, dumps and the natural environment.
Much of this waste, especially plastic, ends up in our oceans. According to a 2018 study by UN Environment, no less than 13 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year.
Marine plastic pollution is a major cross-border problem, costing an estimated US$2.5 trillion annually. Some 267 species of marine animals – such as turtles, whales, fish and seabirds – have been affected by plastic debris through entanglement or ingestion, although this number will invariably increase as smaller species become studied.
Humans also swallow plastic when eating these animals, which contributes to health risks such as cancer and infertility. This debris creates huge ocean slabs and the plastics also wash up on the shores. About 80% of waste is land-based and has ended up in the ocean via rivers and other waterways.
By 2050, plastic will overtake fish in the oceans if current trends continue according to calculations. Three of the six countries with the highest plastic pollution – China, Thailand and Vietnam – are present in the Mekong, and many countries in Southeast Asia have become dumping grounds for global plastic waste.
As the Global Alliance for Alternatives to Incinerators pointed out in 2019, waste across Southeast Asia is causing contaminated water, crop failures and respiratory illnesses. Fish ingest plastic. Dead whales are showing up in Thailand and Indonesia with several kilograms of plastic in their stomachs.
Transboundary governance of marine plastic pollution in the region is not working. There is no plastic treaty with binding targets and deadlines at the international level. The fossil fuel and plastics industries have successfully pushed back against policies that would limit plastic consumption, such as plastic bags and import bans. Instead, these well-funded industries have invested in marketing strategies aimed at convincing consumers to take responsibility for their own waste.
Collective action by governing bodies in Southeast Asia remains limited. In January 2019, ASEAN countries agreed to tackle marine debris and plastic pollution in the region with the Bangkok Declaration. Yet ASEAN itself recognizes that the challenges of tackling marine plastic pollution are enormous and difficult to overcome, especially as its own geopolitical culture emphasizes non-interference in the internal affairs of each country and on a non-confrontational approach to solving cross-border environmental problems.
Asia absorbs 75% of the waste exported in the world, often coming from rich countries without treatment capacity to do so at the national level. For example, the UK exports around 70% of its plastic. Since July 2017, when China began banning imports of plastic waste, Southeast Asia has become a dumping ground for waste from rich countries.
After China’s ban, the amount of plastic waste imported into countries like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia more than doubled.
As foreign trash piled up and resentment grew among local populations, Southeast Asian governments began to refuse to serve as a global dump. Malaysia and the Philippines have already returned mislabeled waste to Spain and South Korea, respectively, and Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have also restricted imports of plastic waste, with a complete ban expected in the years to come. coming.
However, the changes needed to radically improve plastic management in these countries have yet to take place. Single-use plastic consumption is still high in these countries. Complete bans or taxes, such as on single-use bags, are rare, if any. Voluntary measures have often been promoted, but still show limited effectiveness.
Waste management in these countries also does not meet global standards. Recycling rates globally, but especially in Southeast Asia, remain low. In many places there is no separation of household waste. Debris remains ubiquitous. At the household and community scales, inadequate infrastructure contributes significantly to the problem of plastic pollution. Bins are often too small, uncovered and seldom picked up.
Many landfills in Southeast Asia are unprepared to deal with the growing volumes of plastic waste. Of Thailand’s 27.8 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018, at least 27% was improperly disposed of, including through open landfills. Much of this plastic ends up in waterways and then flows into the oceans.
More than half of Indonesia’s landfills are open landfills, the waste is poorly piled up, which increases the risk of floods, fires and waste avalanches. This has resulted in deaths in the Philippines, Indonesia and India. Some waste is also incinerated illegally, releasing toxic gases harmful to human health.
Thailand is a striking example of a country where the increase in waste imports has had a significant impact on segments of the population, particularly low-income groups.
Overall, Thailand produced two million tons of plastic waste in 2018, but only a quarter was recycled, mostly plastic bottles. The country, like others along the Mekong, has also struggled to expand its domestic capacity to keep pace with the increased imports of waste that China had previously absorbed.
Many of these recycling companies that treated the waste discharged untreated sewage to save money. This treatment of plastic waste has contributed to worsening sewage in recent years, affecting the livelihoods of aquaculturists in Bangkok’s southern peri-urban area, such as Bang Khun Thian and parts of Samut Prakarn. Epidemics caused by sewage intrusion have added another element of precariousness to their livelihoods. And it is not only in Bangkok and Samut Prakarn that smallholder farmers are suffering from sewage intrusion, but also in other parts of the country.
If Southeast Asian countries no longer accept waste from high-income countries, where will that waste go? Only nine percent of plastic waste worldwide is recycled. Western countries have few simple solutions to deal with plastic waste, as it is often too expensive for them to recycle it themselves. Unlike China, they cannot easily convert waste into new products. Given this drop in demand and the deleterious effects of waste recycling, it would be wise for Southeast Asian countries to follow China’s example and also adopt an import ban on all waste.
Manufacturers could help by making products that can be better recycled. But some materials, such as plastic packaging films and composite materials, cannot be reprocessed easily. Reducing the consumption of single-use plastic in Western countries would also help the process.
Grassroots environmental collectives can also help mitigate the cross-border spread of plastic waste. The Zero Waste program, launched by Chulalongkorn University in Thailand in 2016, taught students how to reduce plastic consumption during their orientation week. Within a year of the program’s launch, plastic bags consumed on campus had dropped by 90%.
Political will is generated by these types of successes, which can be replicated across borders. Political will will also help mobilize community activities.
At the regional level, bodies such as ASEAN have a key role to play in supporting civil society, plastic producers, retailers and governments in the region. With its hands-off political culture, ASEAN’s emphasis on protecting regional commons through sustainable development strategies is not only palatable but attractive to member countries as it emphasizes collective economic, health and social rewards while avoiding blaming individual governments.
In March 2019, ASEAN Environment Ministers took a positive first step in laying the foundations for such cross-border cooperation by endorsing the Bangkok Declaration in principle. Considerable work remains to be done to translate the framework into policies, but a region-wide consensus on the common threat posed by marine plastic pollution is a good starting point.
Danny Marks is Adjunct Professor of Politics and Environmental Policy in the Faculty of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He has spent several years conducting research and working in Southeast Asia, particularly in the area of environmental governance. His research interests are political ecology, environmental justice, climate governance and disaster risk reduction.
Danny has declared no conflict of interest in relation to this article.
This article was republished for World Rivers Day. It was first published on February 21, 2022.
Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.
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