A person measuring a sack of PET bottles at the scrap shop (File Photo).

Plastic Atlas: Asia is the key toward better, or worse plastic waste crisis

The Plastic Atlas report highlights the large and rapidly growing role of Asian economies as plastic producers, consumers, contributors to the plastic refuse deluge, and dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste. The publication also focuses on particular challenges facing the region, along with potential solutions.

Source: Pixabay

On Earth Day (April 22), the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Break Free From Plastic movement, and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) published the Asia English edition of the Plastic Atlas, a report on plastic issues in Asia. 

Currently, over half of the plastic produced in the world originates from Asia. The region has also become a major destination for the plastic waste trade, where south and southeast Asia emerge as hotspots. The Plastic Atlas Asia edition highlights Asia’s growing role and impact on plastic production, consumption, and disposal since the post-war period. 

With overconsumption exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlas also highlights the more recent surge in single-use plastics and how the oil and gas industry plans to ramp up production in the coming years. Further, the publication also explains that recycling is not the solution to the plastic crisis, an idea which has been widely promoted by governments and corporations.

Key facts 

  1. Between 1950-2017 a total of 9.2 bn tons of plastic were produced. This amounts to over 1 ton/living person on earth. Most comprises single-use products and packaging. Less than ten percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.
  2. Annual global plastic production has reached nearly 370 million tons with Asia now accounting for 51 percent. Hong Kong SAR and South Korea are among the world’s highest plastic waste producers per capita annually. 
  3. In 2018, Malaysia and Thailand were among the top plastic importers. Hong Kong SAR was one of the region's biggest importers and re-exporters in 2019.
  4. According to February 2021 data from the Customs Department, Thailand imported 7,998.7 tons of plastic waste under HS Code 3915 (plastic waste, parings and scrap). In terms of volume, this was less than the 8,715 tons reported in October 2020. However, the overall price calculated as the Cost, Insurance, and Freight value (CIF) increased from 10,038,664 baht to 69,603,086 baht. 
  5. The Yangtze River in China is the most plastic-polluted river in Asia, with 333,000 tons of plastic input per year, followed by the Ganges (India/Bangladesh), Xi (China), Huangpu (China) and Brantas (Indonesia). The Mekong is ranked 9th with 22,800 tons of plastic input per year.
  6. From manufacturing to disposal, plastic poses many threats to health. Women in Asia are more prone to come into contact with plastic both at home and work, such as via sanitary pads, synthetic fibres in garment factories or cosmetics.
  7. The production of bio-based plastics also leads to huge demand for raw materials like sugarcane, cassava, maize and potatoes, resulting in wide-scale monocultures that use considerable amounts of pesticide. Loss of natural habitat, desertification, water shortage or species extinction have already happened in some parts of the world due to this expansion of agricultural raw material production.
  8. In 2020, Asia accounted for over 46 percent of global bioplastics production, with Thailand as a major source of raw materials and thousands of companies handling different stages of the bioplastic value chain. This development followed the creation of the Eastern Economic Corridor, which spurred the country to seek a bio-based solution to its plastic waste problem.
  9. Recycling rates for all waste streams vary from 8-61 percent depending on each country's context. The majority of Asia's biodegradable plastics ended up in incinerators or landfill.
  10. During the pandemic, new plastic has become cheaper than recycled plastic due to lower oil prices.
  11. In Asia, most waste regulation focuses on disposal, followed by reduction, segregation, recycling and landfill. In 2018, Thailand, Malaysia, and South Korea announced or began implementing comprehensive roadmaps for the management of plastic waste.

Source: Plastic Atlas and Customs Dept

“We think that Asia actually, even though is an important region and very significant region for plastic production and pollution. But at the same time, Asian ppl has a lot of things to do with plastic crisis,” said Kevin Li, Programme Manager for the Environment, HBS Hong Kong office.

Li said among the top 20 plastic polluted rivers in the world, 15 are located in Asia. Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are catching up with Hong Kong SAR and South Korea in terms of plastic waste generation per capita per year. Plastic consumption per capita in Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia is on par with Spain, Japan and Canada which have much higher incomes per capita. 

The HBS officer said the effort to reduce, refuse and redesign the use of plastic is very important. Recycling is only an approach to mitigate the crisis but does not address the real issue because people do not stop using plastic as a result of recycling. 

Premakumara Jagath Dickella Gamaralalage from the IGES said there are many good initiatives that have begun in reusing, reducing, refusing and recycling waste. Many local governments, companies and communities combine different approaches to policymaking, awareness campaigns and collaboration with the private sector.

The Atlas cites many examples such as Alaminos, Tacloban and the City of San Fernando in the Philippines which carried out policies integrating local Zero Waste plans with mandating waste segregation, banning single-use plastics, increasing material recovery and converting organic waste into compost.

Another example is the city of Kamikatsu, Japan, which runs a waste segregation centre, informing citizens about why waste segregation was necessary via booklets and visual signs. 

In Osaki, known as the town with the highest recycling rate in Japan, it took more than 450 sessions with 150 self-governing associations of residents to ensure that the purpose of waste segregation and the methods involved were understood.


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