As nations have gone into lockdown and tourism numbers have dwindled, citizens in polluted cities have enjoyed cleaner air and blue skies.
By Joelyn Chan
An unexpected but welcomed impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its positive effect on the environment. In Southeast Asia, sea turtles are revisiting deserted Thai beaches, air quality is improving in Singapore and river basins are cleaner in Malaysia. However, these changes may not last.
The pandemic shows the power of individual choices
When governments issued restrictions on movement to curb spread of COVID-19, it was immediately clear that the absence of human activity was benefiting ecosystems and environments across the region. But a more long-term change in human behaviour is needed to make the changes last.
COVID-19 has shown buyers that habits of consumerism could be replaced by simple lifestyle choices. Dr. Alex Lin, interim CEO of innovation firm NTUitive at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, suggests that COVID-19 has shown how overconsumption is a choice.
“COVID-19 shows us that our economy that is driven by overconsumption is not sustainable when lockdowns happen,” he said. “People are now aware that they can consume less and yet live comfortably.”
Assuming people do not slip back into their old consumption habits, the new normal will also change how businesses operate. Dr. Lin says companies can better serve their customers and reduce costs by focusing on recycling and actually selling less.
“By embracing the ‘3Rs’ concept—reduce-reuse-recycle—a grocery business owner can help clients to buy the right amount [of food] instead [of overconsuming]. The reduction in purchases reduces the inventory carrying cost from stocking, logistics, manpower and especially interest-bearing costs, which enables the business to have more cash flow for business expansion.”
COVID-19 has also generated extra waste
Southeast Asia, like many places, has seen in increase in medical waste due to the pandemic. According to a survey by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Manila is projected to produce more COVID-19-related medical waste than most large ASEAN cities. ASEAN nations are expected to produce four-to-six times more medical waste compared to pre-pandemic days. The waste generated has to be sterilized before reaching the landfill or incineration plants.
Medical waste, such as disposable gloves and gowns, is inevitable and necessary as people adopt precautionary measures to prevent transmission. However, ASEAN nations can still do more to reduce other types of waste—specifically plastic waste.
Consumers can play a role in reducing single-use plastic waste
On top of medical waste, Southeast Asia is also seeing more plastic waste as food delivery services see a rise in business.
The increase in takeaway and delivery meals in Singapore during the country’s “circuit breaker” period from April to June generated an additional 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste.
Comparatively, Thailand’s daily plastic waste level has increased from 5,500 tonnes to 6,300 tonnes a day. Thailand’s increase in plastic waste further adds to the nation’s troubled waste management system. On a global scale, Thailand is the fifth-biggest contributor to waste that ends up in the ocean.
Acknowledging the spike in plastic use, some delivery companies are encouraging the switch to reusable containers. Services using reusable containers, like Thailand’s Indy Dish, also see more repeat customers as users return to the same food platform to order food from eco-friendly vendors.
Reusable containers may also reduce restaurants’ packaging costs. Food delivery firm Foodpanda, for instance, has partnered with barePack, a zero-waste reusable container system. Once a customer accumulates five containers from deliveries, barePack will schedule a home collection. This is a win-win situation for consumers who prioritise convenience and restaurants that need to stay profitable.
Better waste management systems are needed
Single-use plastic wastes takes at least 100 years to decompose. For higher-quality plastic, it can be recycled and repurposed—in some cases mixed with asphalt to build roads. However, recycling and reuse are only possible with good waste management systems.
Speaking with ASEAN Today, Jacob Duer, president and chief executive officer of the Singapore-based Alliance to End Plastic Waste, said, “The pandemic is a wake-up call to national and local governments and companies [about] the need to invest in solid waste management systems. Any dedication towards waste management, including plastic waste management, should not take a back seat.”
“When we witness how governments and the private sector are leading to solve the pandemic crisis, I know that they can equally do so for a challenge like ocean plastic waste,” Duer added.
COVID-19 has given us a glimpse of a cleaner and greener world. Even in the most polluted cities, people have witnessed the possibilities of clear blue skies, cleaner water and fresher air. To make this temporary respite permanent, everyone has a role to play.
Thought leadership alone will not change the amount of waste generated. Eco-conscious consumers hold the power to boycott brands with environmentally unfriendly practices and avoid single-use plastic bags. Governments and businesses need to maintain focus on their sustainability goals and pump investment into solutions and actions where they matter the most.