Southeast Asian nations are taking measures to reduce pollution from plastic waste and to promote the recycling of plastic products in keeping with the focus of this year’s Earth Day on April 22, but efforts in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar are falling short.
Started in 1970, Earth Day is the world’s largest environmental movement celebrated globally by more than a billion people in 192 countries, including those in Southeast Asia where plastic pollution is a huge problem.
After China decided this year to stop accepting low-quality scrap plastic from the West and Japan for recycling, countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand that have attracted Chinese investors in plastic recycling, stepped in ad agreed to accept the messy work of processing plastic waste.
In the meantime, Southeast Asian countries are struggling with efforts to recycle their own growing stockpiles of plastic waste, much of which too often ends up in land dumps or waterways.
In 2017, people in Hanoi and Saigon, the two largest cities in Vietnam, discarded about 80 tons of plastic waste, including plastic bags, according to a report by the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Plastic waste — what environmental experts in Vietnam call “white pollution” — accounts for seven or eight percent of the 4,000-5,000 tons of rubbish thrown out by residents of Hanoi each day.
Each household in Vietnam uses five to seven plastic bags daily, many of them given out by food sellers, adding up to millions of bags discarded every day, according to state media.
“The problem is mainly from plastic bags, especially from polymer materials, because when they break down into smaller polymer parts, they make the soil arid,” Ho Son Lam, director of Vietnam’s Academy of Science and Technology, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “After a long time, the affected area turns into a desert. That is the most important issue.”
Environment expert Hoang Duong Tung told Vietnamese state media that plastic waste not only looks messy, but also causes blockages in water sources where it is discarded.
“It takes hundreds of year for it to break down completely,” he said.
As a result of the growing amounts of plastic waste, many cities and provinces have launched campaigns to eliminate plastic bags.
In 2013, a women’s union in Co Nghia village in northern Vietnam’s Hoa Binh province initiated a program eliminating the use of plastic bags to protect the environment.
That same year, Hanoi and the city of Hoi An in central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province also started a program to limit the use of plastic bags and urged people to use paper or leaves to wrap to wrap up food and to carry reusable bags for shopping.
A tough sell
Not everyone has adopted the practices as plastic bags continued to be heavily use by those who work in local markets.
“Nowadays, we don’t see environment unfriendly plastic bags in supermarkets, but they are still being used in small markets on account of their convenience,” environmental expert Hoang Duong Tung told Vietnamese state media. “People use them when they buy vegetables. The bags are small and thin, so they are very convenient for them. The bags are provided by small family-run businesses.”
Ho Son Lam noted that though there are many businesses making environmentally friendly bags, they mix materials with synthetic resins known as PVCs, so that the bags cannot break down completely when they are no longer usable and are discarded.
He also said that the polymer material used to make the bags is very expensive, not only in Vietnam but also in the rest of the world.
Neighboring Laos, where littering is widespread also suffers from heavy amounts of pollution from discarded plastic material.
Piles of trash dot city streets and yards and can be seen floating in creeks, rivers, lakes, and rice paddies throughout the country, especially along the main thoroughfare that runs through the capital Vientiane.
In the tourist town of Luang Prabang, residents discard plastic waste and other rubbish along the banks of the Mekong River or directly into the waterway.
Part of the problem is a lack of capacity by city services to collect and recycle the overwhelming amounts of waste, sanitation and recycling workers said.
Residents and businesses in Vientiane, for example, produce more than 600 tons of garbage a day, but city sanitation services can collect only 400 tons, while the rest is scattered around the city.
“Speaking of trash, there are not enough trash bins around the city, so, people just throw away waste anywhere after they eat,” an environmental worker in the capital told RFA’s Laos Service.
There are some efforts afloat to try to change the situation and get more people to recycle plastic water bottles, metals, and milk cartons.
“Vientiane residents can now collect recyclable trash by themselves, then sell it to the recycling facility,” said a worker at a recycling plant, who declined to give his name.
But a skeptical homeowner in Vientiane told RFA that residents will collect and sell only their recyclable trash, while they continue to bury or burn the rest.
‘Too little, too late’
Cambodia's Ministry of Environment issued a decree on the Management of Plastic Bags on Oct. 10, 2017, aimed at curbing the production, distribution, and use of plastic bags and waste.
The new law, which came into effect on April 10, requires customers to pay for plastic bags that they receive with their purchases in malls or shops.
Cambodians say they are not very optimistic about the effectiveness of the government’s action in addressing an issue that has worsened since plastic bags started appearing in the 1990s.
“It is too little, too late now,” But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, told RFA’s Khmer Service. “Such education and awareness should have started long ago in school.”
“The speed of environmental destruction is higher than the efforts to stop it,” he added.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the Spanish founder of the NGO Mother Nature, who was expelled from Cambodia in 2015, told RFA on Friday that the people and government should both be blamed for the large-scale use of plastic bags.
“In the more than 13 years that I was in Cambodia, I noted that people always wanted plastic bags when they shopped because it was convenient,” he said from Spain. “That has become a routine. Education and awareness should start from Cambodians themselves.”
“On the government’s part, I think the most effective way [to reduce the use of plastic] is to increase the tax on plastic bags or straws,” he said.
Some stores in Myanmar also have started charging customers for plastic bags whose use is widespread throughout the nation, though the move appears far from resolving the problem.
Environmentalists in the country say citizens must be made aware of the negative impact of discarded plastic bags and bottles on the environment and that the government must roll out such an educational campaign before it’s too late.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, and Myanmar services. Translated by Viet Ha, MaxAvary, Nareth Muong, and Nancy Shwe. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.