Activists say Southeast Asia’s plastic problem is solvable – if leaders act now

Photo:Greenpeace Thailand

ASEAN governments know they have a plastic problem. At this week’s ASEAN summit, environmental groups are calling for a commitment to stop importing plastic waste and limit production of single-use plastics.

By Skylar Lindsay

A small mountain of dirty plastic bags, greasy fast food wrappers, water bottles and other trash greeted ASEAN diplomats and government officials as they arrived in Bangkok this week for the 34th ASEAN Summit. Environmental activists collected this pile of garbage outside a building where summit proceedings were taking place to draw attention to the region’s plastic pollution problem and call for leaders to take decisive action.

Activists protest outside the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.
Photo: Greenpeace Thailand

A coalition between Greenpeace and Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) is demanding that ASEAN leaders ban plastic waste and recycling imports and establish a regional policy to cut production of single-use plastics. The coalition is also calling for a ban on electronic waste imports.

The advocates say ASEAN must build an environmentally sustainable economy – one that allows for growth without intensive resource extraction, production and consumption that damages the environment.

According to Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks, who’s helping to organise the ASEAN Summit, Thailand is willing to consider a regional ban on plastic waste imports. “In principle, I think all countries are concerned with the trade of plastic waste,” she said.

ASEAN has become the world’s newest plastic dump

Plastic waste imports to ASEAN grew by 171% from 2016 to 2018, from 836,529 tonnes to over 2 million tonnes – over 25% of the world’s plastic waste imports. Some plastic is imported for recycling but much of it contains contaminated plastics and miscategorised waste that can’t be processed and is instead burned or added to landfills.

The activists say that plastics injure marine life, contain harmful chemicals, deter tourism and may transport invasive species across the ocean.

Plastic waste is a climate issue: by 2050, the plastics industry is projected to account for 15% of the world’s carbon budget – the maximum allowable level of emissions allowed in order to restrict global warming to a maximum increase of 2°C.

EARTH Director Penchom Saetang says the region’s leaders must act together to solve the plastic and electronic waste problems in part because of the threat to ASEAN economies.

Most of the region depends on healthy environments and responsibly-managed natural resources to supply food and support local livelihoods. This is especially true in rural areas, where any threats to livelihoods from waste and pollution can drive migration.

Governments have stemmed waste imports but the problem is getting worse

Governments around the region are struggling to implement policies that would address the problem holistically, and most efforts fall short of what the environmental advocates call for.

After China banned imports of many kinds of plastic waste in 2017, ASEAN states became top targets for plastic exporters. Plastic waste imports spiked fin 2018 as governments scrambled to implement policies to stem the tide.

The Philippines and Malaysia have both responded by sending cargo ships of mislabeled or illegally traded waste back to their countries of origin.

Malaysia and Vietnam have both put a hold on new licenses for importing plastic waste. But neither of these efforts have been encoded into law.

Indonesia saw plastic waste imports quadruple from late 2017 to mid-2018 and subsequently pledged US$1 billion to reduce waste and clean up its oceans. But due to the country’s sprawl and the remoteness of many Indonesian islands, it’s often left to local non-governmental groups to tackle the problem.

Thailand saw waste imports triple over the same period and the government has since announced plans to ban plastic waste imports in 2021.

Domestic plastic use also continues unabated – Thailand still uses almost 200 billion plastic bags per year. But the Thai government has announced a roadmap to ban some single-use plastics and convert to 100% recycled plastics by 2027. Malaysia has a similar plan to ban all single-use plastics by 2030.

Protesters demonstrate outside the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.
Photo: Greenpeace Thailand

In the past, activists have struggled to get the regional bloc to address plastic waste. In 2017, Greenpeace called for ASEAN to ban single-use plastics but the group says little progress has been made since.

Without a coordinated regional effort, ASEAN governments have struggled to implement cohesive policies and plastic waste imports have again started to climb. When individual countries reject waste, the trade routes often simply reroute and the plastic and electronic waste ends up elsewhere in the region.

During the summit, ASEAN leaders are expected to endorse the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris, a regional commitment to clean up and manage ocean pollution, including plastic.

But a coordinated and more comprehensive campaign is necessary. An ASEAN-driven campaign would put pressure on governments that may be reticent to tackle the problem. It would also lend support to local activists who are pushing for change within less receptive or democratic governments.

According to Thai government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak, ASEAN is focusing on marine waste because it affects “the food chain of people worldwide.” But it’s impossible to address marine waste without reducing plastic and electronic waste.