Currently, 82% of global plastic waste flowing into our oceans comes from 19 Southeast Asian countries. Five countries alone account for over half of that total; China, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. A rapidly expanding and urbanizing population, combined with rising consumption from a growing middle class, goes some way to explain these figures. At the same time, however, the ecosystem for waste disposal, collection, treatment and recycling is weak or non-existent in many Southeast Asian countries, where 90% of rubbish is dumped or burned.
There is an elephant in the room; western countries export a vast amount of plastic waste to Southeast Asian countries, piling pressure on already weak and strained waste infrastructure systems in ways that aren't always legal This problem has become more acute since China implemented an import ban on plastic waste, driven by serious, local environmental concerns. This confirms that the plastic problem does not start, or even end, in Southeast Asia—especially since plastic waste is damaging our essential ecosystems, killing sea life, wildlife and us. If our current approach to the consumption and disposal of plastic continues, by 2030 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish. Where the health impacts aren’t alarming enough, the loss of marine ecosystem services (the benefits we derive from our oceans) costs us up to USD 2.5 trillion a year.
But the plastic tide may be turning. In recognition of the work that needs to be done, last year ASEAN leaders adopted a declaration to combat marine debris flowing into the world’s oceans from Southeast Asia. On January 1, Thailand implemented a plastic bag ban on all major stores as part of their 2020 roadmap, which will soon include plastic straws and disposable coffee cups. Malaysia has similarly ambitious plans.
According to the UN, solutions entail effective and efficient waste policy to incentivize and regulate action, as well as developing regional, shared technology hubs for waste monitoring and treatment. But all this requires investment. Experts suggest that the financing gap to stem the tide of plastic from Southeast Asia stands at USD 5 billion per year. Once mobilized, targeting this investment at the top five polluters (China, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia) could reduce up to 45% of global plastic leakage by 2030. That sounds like impact.
The Southeast Asian waste management and recycling sector is ripe for disruption, with local and entrepreneurial solutions ready for investment—and this investment is happening. In December 2019 Circulate Capital closed a USD 106 million fund to support local and entrepreneurial solutions to the plastic crisis in Southeast Asia; founding donors included Procter & Gamble, Dow, Danone, Unilever, the Coca-Cola Company and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company.
This signals a positive start. Yet the waste infrastructure and management system across Southeast Asia remains underdeveloped and underfunded. Further investment is sorely needed to address the quantities of plastic waste imported into—and produced within—the region.