The Philippines recently made headlines when they sent nearly 70 cargoes of imported refuse from Canada. But the Philippines is not alone in their rejection of plastic waste from the developed world. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have followed in China’s footsteps to establish a total ban on plastic imports. What is the broader story behind these import bans? What will Canada do with their 70 cargoes of waste? To answer these questions, here are 10 facts about plastic waste in Southeast Asia.
10 Facts About Plastic Waste in Southeast Asia
- Worldwide Production: Worldwide production of plastics reached 381 million tons of plastics in 2015, nearly doubling from 213 million tons of plastics in 2000. The packaging industry accounts for nearly 141 million tons of plastic production.
- Low Recycling Rates: Only 9% of all plastic is recycled, while 79% heads straight to landfills. Another 12% is incinerated. This means that of the estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic existing in the natural world or in landfills worldwide, only 500 million tons are recycled.
- Waste per Capita: China ranks the highest in overall plastic waste disposal, generating an average of around 59.08 million tons of plastic per year. Other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines dispose between 2.5 and 5 million tons of plastic. Comparably, the United States produces an astounding 37.83 million tons of plastic waste, making it the country with the highest political waste per capita ratio. This fact, among these 10 facts about plastic waste in Southeast Asia, highlights that waste management cannot be considered a purely regional issue. It is a global issue.
- Plastic Management: Countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and other low-income countries have the highest shares of plastic waste that is deemed inadequately mismanaged. Just five countries–China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam–produce half of all plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
- Growing Alarm: The growing amount of plastic is alarming for many reasons. According to a WasteAid report, nearly 9 million people die each year from diseases related to waste pollutants. There is also a growing concern that microplastics found in the tissues of fish could be dangerous to human health. Additionally, tons of plastic are diverted to dumpsites, which could contribute to 8-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
- Huge Imports: While Southeast Asian countries are culpable for mismanaged plastic waste and contamination of the worlds’ oceans, they also import more plastic waste than any other region in the world. Before its ban on plastic, China imported 6.4 million tons of plastic waste in 2017. In the last quarter of 2018, the UK alone exported nearly 18,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia.
- The US Plays a Key Role: Plastic waste and pollution particularly in Southeast Asia is a problem of poverty and represents a broader dynamic between the developed and developing world. In 2018, the United States sent an equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of plastic to developing countries who already mismanaged 70% of plastic waste. Workers in places like Vietnam sort contaminated, hazardous plastic waste from the U.S. in poor working conditions for meager pay.
- Impact of a Total Ban: With the recent rollbacks on plastic imports to the poorly regulated shores of Southeast Asia, researchers believe China’s ban alone displaced 120 million tons of plastic in 2017. Thailand has followed suit, stating that it will enforce a total ban on plastics by 2021. The introduction of these bans ironically has Australia, Canada, and European countries, facing growing piles of low-quality plastic scraps, a problem they can no longer export away.
- World Bank Initiatives: The World Bank has confronted poverty and lack of infrastructure as one of the main ways to address the colossal problem of plastic waste and its relationship to poverty and poor regulations in developing countries. The World Bank has committed $4.7 billion to more than 340 solid waste management programs to improve waste disposal methods in predominantly developing countries. They particularly seek to bolster waste disposal infrastructure, legal regulations, and health and safety, among others.
- A Shifting Paradigm: In the developed world, import bans have forced countries like the U.S. to renew investments in recycling infrastructure and public education on issues of plastic waste. Some states have imposed strict regulations on plastic production and consumption, and with more public awareness and subsequent political pressure, more states can follow. On a corporate level, companies like Intel, Eaton, and Texas Instruments recycle more than 85% of their waste, hopefully, with more to follow.
In developed countries, one of the main ways to mitigate this issue is to limit the consumption of plastic products and review the laws that have allowed the harmful trade of plastic waste to places like the Philippines. In developing countries, banning contaminated plastic waste the first step in ensuring that every country takes responsibility for their own waste. These 10 facts about plastic waste in Southeast Asia highlight the numerous components in this growing crisis.
– Luke Kwong