Why COVID-19 shows we need a total rebrand of waste management in Southeast Asia

Bantargebang landfill site in Indonesia. Photo: 22Kartika / CC BY-SA

Southeast Asia is on a crash course to reversing any progress made on curtailing plastic waste. Mobilizing and empowering “green collar” workers is necessary now and to avoid future crises.

By Tze Ni Yeoh

Frontline workers—doctors, nurses, food packers, delivery people—rightfully deserve praise and compensation during and after this pandemic. Less appreciated is the waste management sector—waste pickers, truckers, recyclers—who work in the shadows to create a cleaner, healthier society which we all want to be a part of.

In conjunction with World Climate Change Day, it’s time to honor the essential role of the waste sector, long neglected and forgotten in our “throw away” society. We take for granted the complicated afterlives of our used products. We take for granted the toll of our consumption on the environment, turning a blind eye to mounting landfills and pollution. We take for granted the formal and informal waste workers that toil, often in hazardous and unprotected conditions, to clear our crap.

Even as the pandemic alters many things, a few truths remain: an unabated increase in the volumes of waste we churn out (now worse, with the growth of e-commerce) and an underdeveloped, underpaid and underappreciated waste management sector.

A growing waste problem, a distressed waste sector

The pandemic has inevitably forced countries to make difficult, short-term trade-offs between health and the environment. Several ASEAN countries that had banned single-use plastics are now seeing drastic increases in plastic consumption due to the pandemic.

Thailand, which banned single-use plastic bags in major stores in January, is now seeing increases in the proportion of plastic waste in almost all cities. The volume of plastic waste in Bangkok alone had increased by 62% year-on-year in April. In Singapore, estimates suggest that the eight-week lockdown generated an additional 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste, equivalent to the weight of 92 double-decker buses.

The current crisis is the ultimate stress test for ASEAN’s already weak waste management structures. The share waste that is mismanaged in ASEAN-5 countries, with the exception of Singapore, is estimated to range from 55% to 86%.  This means that at least half of the waste we produce is improperly disposed of and likely to end up as litter or ocean plastics. Four ASEAN countries (Vietnam, Indonesia, Phillipines and Thailand) and China account for half of the plastic waste that ends up in the world’s oceans.

If properly disposed, our waste typically ends up in landfills. But landfills occupy valuable land and even the biggest ones are reaching capacity. Jakarta’s Bantargebang, ASEAN’s biggest landfill, will be full in just a year from now. Incineration is not viable either: it is expensive and controversial, especially in developing countries. The overall recycling rate in ASEAN is less than 50% and dominated by the informal sector. The lack of investment in the informal recycling sector and the disenfranchisement of its workers leads to high energy and water costs and exacerbates the risk of improper waste treatment.

The pandemic puts further stress on waste management systems. It has all but shut down recycling. Without a proper plan to curb contagion risks, some governments temporarily suspended recycling operations due to safety and hygiene concerns for workers. Low oil prices put further pressure on the plastics recycling industry, diminishing already narrow margins amid high processing costs.

Meanwhile, waste sector workers bear the brunt of the pandemic. Thousands of formal waste workers are being retrenched. Millions more in the informal waste-picking sector have seen access to their usual livelihoods restricted, risking starvation for some with no promise of a safety net. Those that venture out as lockdown restrictions gradually ease are inevitably exposed to the coronavirus disease. In addition, they face immense barriers in accessing government aid due to lack of information or formal identification.

A total rebrand: recognition, compensation and investment

The global health crisis has highlighted the essential work of healthcare professionals. The global climate and waste crises should, in turn, rally us to recognize and reward the essential work of the waste and material recovery sector.

We have not yet made the leap. Across developing countries, informal waste collectors, who form the backbone of the waste industry, are still among the poorest, most vulnerable and stigmatized communities. Yet they perform critical functions: diverting waste from landfills, reducing CO2 emissions by increasing the recycling rate and keeping our cities clean.

Waste pickers in Brazil. Photo: Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brasil / CC BY 2.5 BR

ASEAN countries must begin to recognize informal waste pickers as a distinct profession and gradually integrate them into formal collection systems. In the Indian city of Pune, for example, waste pickers are given identity cards and entitled to a health insurance plan. The elevation of waste pickers not only reinstates their dignity but has resulted in significant savings for the municipality due to increased efficiency and value recovery from scrap.

Further, our willingness to consume and throw away is incommensurate with our unwillingness to pay for disposal. Where formal waste services exist, user fees are often very low and do not cover the cost of collection. East Asia and Pacific countries pay an average of US$46 for an entire year’s worth of waste collection, one of the lowest rates globally. Countries with more developed, integrated waste management services, such as those in Europe, pay double this amount.

It is unsurprising, then, that we are caught in a vicious cycle of underinvestment, a lack of innovation and persistent problems with waste pollution.

After years of neglect, efforts to re-brand the waste sector as an essential, invaluable and priority servce will not be easy. It requires cooperation, coordination and courage from all stakeholders—households, governments and businesses included.

Nevertheless, as a critical first step, we must recognize and rebrand the waste sector and “green collar” workers as serving frontline, essential functions. Without their contribution, we do not stand a chance in the global waste and climate crises.

About the Author

Tze Ni Yeoh
Tze Ni Yeoh is an economist-turned-sustainability professional. She recently graduated from Harvard Kennedy School and is working in international development. She is interested in the circular economy, waste management and sustainable and human-centered design.