There’s been a steady increase over the last two or three years in international awareness on the issue of marine litter and plastic waste. The topic is particularly relevant in ASEAN. According to seminal research by Dr Jenna Jambeck published in Science in 2015, approx. 50% of plastic waste in the ocean comes from 5 countries: China (the #1 global contributor at approx. 28%), Indonesia (the #2 global contributor at approx. 10%), the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. These 4 ASEAN countries contribute approx. 25% of global plastic waste leakage in the ocean. Awareness, concern and attention have been ramping up within and across ASEAN, driven by governments, civil society and the private sector.
- Insufficient waste infrastructure from national governments and therefore ineffective collection of plastic waste (75% of ocean leakage of plastic from land is due to uncollected waste. 25% is due to ‘leakage’ once plastic has been collected i.e. through dumping or poor landfill management).
- Plastics without enough value to warrant collection (plastics like plastic bags and thin film convenience items that have low value cannot generate enough economic returns to sustain a recovery system, and are more likely to leak into the ocean).
- Historically a low priority for governments in this region
- Lack of development finance funding into waste management (less than 0.3% of development finance institution lending went to waste management in 2012 compared to 8% for water infrastructure)
- Lack of waste separation and recycling culture/habit amongst the public
- No mandated or enforced separation of waste and home/source
In the absence of proper solid waste management systems, the informal sector (recycling pickers, scavengers, junk shops) is responsible for the vast majority of current collection for recycling in ASEAN, especially for PET and aluminium. This sector faces many challenges such as poor health and safety standards, low job security/stability etc with low and fluctuating material prices. As incomes rise through the emerging middle class, fewer individuals will choose to stay in the informal collection business. So we need to find ways to incentivize them and improve their livelihoods.
PET is a visible contributor to the problem of ocean plastic but not as big a contributing factor as some would suggest since this type of plastic has a higher economic value and therefore enjoys higher recovery rates than other lower-value plastics (e.g. plastic bags, film). Overall PET packaging contributes less than 20% of the issue due to comparatively higher value - waste pickers can earn income from them. (Source: “Stemming The Tide”, a report by The Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, 2015). Average PET collection for recycling rates in ASEAN are around 20-30% driven by the informal sector/scavengers. In some urban cities such as Jakarta and Yangon, these rates can go up to around 70%.
Finding ways to incentivise collection and support the informal sector is therefore key to boosting plastic recycling rates in Southeast Asia. We hope that through driving a circular economy for plastics we can stem the tide of land-based pollution into the oceans.