- Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including some of the biggest producers of the plastic waste in the oceans, have declared their commitment to addressing the trash crisis.
- Together with China, the ASEAN members Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand account for half of the 8 million tons of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans each year.
- Any meaningful action to tackle the problem should focus on reducing the production of plastic to begin with, rather than dealing with the waste after the fact, an environmental activist says.
- A growing refusal by Southeast Asian countries to take in plastic waste from developed countries for processing could provide the impetus for action by the global community to cut back on plastic production.
Some of the countries most responsible for the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans have pledged to tackle the problem together, but activists say they’re focusing on the wrong end of the production chain.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted a declaration at the close of its twice-yearly summit on June 24 to “prevent and significantly reduce marine debris, particularly from land-based activities.” The commitment, the first of its kind in the region, is expected to complement policies and actions already being taken by individual member states to manage their plastic waste.
More than half of the 8 million tons of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans every year comes from five Asian countries. Four of them are ASEAN members — Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — according to a 2017 report by the nonprofit NGO Ocean Conservancy. China, not an ASEAN member, tops the list as the largest polluter.
At the regional summit in Bangkok over the weekend, ASEAN also published a framework of actions to address the problem, including policy planning, conducting research, raising public awareness and engaging the private sector.
“Marine debris is a transboundary issue which requires integrated regional cooperation,” the bloc said in a statement. “Without immediate action, marine debris pollution may negatively impact marine biodiversity, environment, health, society and economy.”
But environmental activists in Southeast Asia say the declaration and accompanying framework of actions fall short of addressing the plastic crisis. They say the suggested efforts have a misplaced focus on managing waste, when they should instead go further up the production chain and focus on reducing the production of plastics, particularly single-use packaging.
“Plastics is a pollution problem, not a litter problem, and must be addressed throughout its life cycle, from production to end of life,” Tara Buakamsri, the country director for Greenpeace Thailand, said in a statement.
“The issue is not how to manage plastic waste so they don’t end up as marine debris, but how all nations must focus upstream, and drastically reduce plastic production,” he added.
Buakamsari also noted that ASEAN had failed to set any target or timeline for the actions, or to address the problem of waste imports.
In the past two years, imports of plastic waste into Southeast Asia from developed countries, including Canada and the U.S., increased by 171 percent. This has far outpaced the countries’ capacity to handle the waste, much of which has wound up in unlicensed dumps and incinerators in places like Malaysia, resulting in environmental problems and a growing public outcry.
The ongoing crisis is largely due to a 2018 ban on waste imports by China, which had previously taken in the most foreign waste. While many Southeast Asian countries also imported waste prior to the ban, they did so at a much smaller scale. With the trickle of waste turning into a torrent, the affected countries have begun to restrict imports, culminating in May and June this year with announcements by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia that they would start sending waste shipments back where they came from.
“The framework doesn’t mention [a] ban on single-use plastic simply because it is up to circumstances (and political will) of each member state,” Buakamsri told Mongabay in an email. “It doesn’t include plastic waste imports because of [the] issue around trade.”
Though ASEAN’s framework to deal with plastic waste is well-intentioned, Buakamsri said, a harder-line approach that builds on the growing refusal to take in other countries’ waste may be the more effective path.
“In fact, by stopping waste imports and implementing strong plastic reduction policies, the ASEAN region is in an ideal position to help spur a transformation of the global economy, forcing the West to rethink their waste generation and end all waste exports,” Buakamsri.
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