Governments throughout Southeast Asia have launched a war on plastic waste.
But most are still in the early stages of creating waste management strategies and passing laws needed to implement them.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., more than half of the world’s plastic waste can be found in five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
But when it comes to combating the hazards caused by plastic waste, the Southeast Asian nations have lagged behind China, which in January banned all imports of plastic waste. China also banned shops more than a decade ago from handing out free plastic bags.
All of these nations have long shorelines and beaches that have been polluted by plastic waste.
As the Reuters news agency describes it, “Southeast Asia’s plastic addiction blights oceans.”
The website Mekong Eye says that Southeast Asia’s Mekong region is “the world’s single largest contributor to plastic waste in the marine environment.”
According to The Jakarta Post in Indonesia, that country is regarded as after China, “the second biggest marine plastic polluter in the world.”
The newspaper says that an estimated 1.3 million tons of plastic waste is produced daily across the Indonesian archipelago, creating a major threat to ocean ecosystems.
The Indonesian government has announced a target of reducing maritime waste in Southeast Asia’s most populous nation by 70 percent by 2025.
The government is also urging the public to reduce the country’s dependence on plastic in their daily lives. Plastic is widely used in Indonesia in bags, cups, straws, bottles, and other utensils.
The environmental group Greenpeace has ranked the Philippines as “the third worst polluter into the world’s oceans” after China and Indonesia.
But Greenpeace says that Western consumer giants should take the blame for polluting oceans by selling products packaged in cheap, disposable plastic to Filipinos.
China’s impact on Vietnam
Businesses in Vietnam have been making a profit through the recycling of waste imported from China and elsewhere.
But top government officials are now warning that this practice has come at a high environmental cost, and must end.
According to the website VnExpress, Vietnam’s Environmental Minister Tran Hong Ha told the country’s National Assembly that businesses will have to halt scrap imports because the country isn’t able to deal properly with the waste.
VnExpress said that China’s action in banning certain waste imports in January “left many nations scrambling to find new dumping grounds for growing piles of garbage.”
Vietnam became the biggest importer of plastic waste from the United States in the first quarter of 2018.
But major shipping terminals in Vietnam announced that they will temporarily stop accepting imported waste from June 25 until October 25.
The Tan Cang Cai Mep International Terminal located near the southern Vietnamese coastal city of Vung Tau said recently that the large quantity of plastic waste containers the port had received had caused “troublesome backups and delays.”
Two of Vietnam’s less economically developed neighbors, Cambodia and Laos, have also faced growing pollution problems resulting from the disposal of plastic waste in public places.
The Fondazione ACRA, a nongovernmental Italian organization, says that the average Cambodian household uses 10 times more plastic than its counterparts in more developed economies.
Citing ACRA’s report, the Cambodian English-language newspaper Khmer Times says that many plastic bags in Cambodia end up floating on Cambodia’s major waterways, turning the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake into “a sight to be lamented.”
Derin Henderson, The Asia Foundation’s program advisor in Laos, in a report published last year, said that urbanization and a shift to consumer lifestyles in rural areas is leading to an increase in imported and manufactured products, which are typically comprised of plastics and other non-biodegradable materials.
Sanitary landfills are limited in Laos, and community dumps are poorly managed.
As a result, Henderson said, “the majority of people must come up with their own solutions for waste disposal by burning their garbage or dumping it into vacant lots or into rivers.”
However, an awareness of the environmental impact of leaching hazardous substances into soils and water and health problems caused by the inhalation of the smoke given off given off by burning plastics and other materials, such as batteries, “remains low in Laos.”
In parts of the country, discarded trash ends up clogging canals and polluting rivers and other waterways.
But Henderson provides some good news: Some estimates show that despite a lack of sanitary landfills, recycling and composting could reduce the amount of waste being discarded by about half.
The challenge is to get the word out.
In 2016, the Asia Foundation launched a campaign in Laos promoting waste management called “Love Laos: Keep it Clean.”
The campaign included several school and community projects in three provinces aimed at teaching students and communities about the financial opportunities available from selling materials for recycling and the health benefits of composting their organic materials and using them as fertilizer in their vegetable gardens.
A film festival held in the old royal capital of Luang Prabang in 2016 introduced a short film competition encouraging Lao filmmakers to produce a three-minute video and public-service announcement promoting better ways of dealing with waste management.
A wake-up call in Thailand
Mike Ives of The New York Times reported on June 5 that hundreds of turtles, dolphins, and whales are stranded every year on Thailand’s beaches after plastic impedes their mobility or clogs their insides.
According to biologists, some of these animals are lifeless on arrival, but their deaths barely registered with the Thai public, which has been largely indifferent.
But the arrival of a pilot whale that washed ashore in southern Thailand aroused some sympathy in Thailand, thanks partly to social media.
The whale was found struggling in a canal after swallowing 17 pounds of plastic waste.
The whale vomited several plastic bags, and Thai marine environmentalists tried valiantly to save the animal, but the whale died on June 1.
A video showing the whale’s struggle and the subsequent rescue effort made headlines not only in Thailand but elsewhere in the region.
Plastics on all the world’s shores
What’s happening in Southeast Asia is part of a worldwide trend.
In a study published last year by the journal Science Advances, a team of experts reported that the near-permanent contamination of the natural environment with plastic waste has become a growing global concern.
The United Nations has declared a “War on Plastic,” while the G20, an international forum for governments and bank governors, has released a “Marine Litter Action Plan.”
More than 40 countries and municipalities have now banned or taxed the use of plastics.
But in the end there are limits to how much governments, cities, and international organizations can accomplish.
And a quick end is not in sight.
A new study from the University of Georgia published in the journal Science Advances published on June 21 estimates that more than 100 million tons of plastic waste will pile up around the world by 2030, according to a Washington Post summary of the study.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.