How ASEAN can defeat the plastic ocean


Plastic pollution is a crucial challenge for the future of the ASEAN region, with more than 31 million tons of plastic waste generated annually in 6 out of 10 countries. But there is potential to solve the problem

By Tommaso Magrini

Plastics are a major problem in Southeast Asia and one of the main obstacles to the region's transition to a green economy. Of the ten most polluting countries, six are in Southeast Asia, according to data from the World Economic Forum. The Philippines alone dumped 356,371 metric tons of plastic waste into the ocean in one year, about 35 percent of the global figure. It is followed by Malaysia (73,098), Indonesia (56,333), Myanmar (40,000), Vietnam (28,221) and Thailand (22,806). Together, these countries are responsible for more than half of the plastic pollution in the oceans.

However, ASEAN seems determined to tackle the problem head-on. Member states recognized their duty to work together to protect their coasts, seas and livelihoods from marine plastic pollution back in 2019 when they adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Region. Based on this commitment, they launched the Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris in 2021. This five-year plan aims to support regional policies and improve coordination in three main areas: reducing plastic use and production, improving collection and recycling, and promoting reuse.

A further step was taken in recent weeks, to be precise at the September ASEAN summit in Indonesia, at the end of which came the publication of the ASEAN Blue Economy Framework. Bans on single-use plastic products are an example of national policies being developed by an increasing number of countries in the region. 

Another policy tool being introduced is "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) schemes. These require producers to rethink the way they design and develop products, taking responsibility for the entire life cycle, including disposal and recycling. Manufacturers are required to meet waste reduction targets and pay fees that will finance the plastic waste collection and recycling system.

In 2022, Vietnam became the first Southeast Asian country to issue a decree imposing packaging, recycling, and waste treatment obligations on producers and importers. The Philippines followed, enacting the EPR law in July 2022. In many cases, the initiatives are only voluntary, as in the case of Thailand. Companies are also urged to develop reusable products, reduce virgin plastic use on the one hand and contribute to post-consumer collection and recycling on the other. For the goals to be ambitious and achievable, it is important to consider the local context, ensuring that all actors in the plastics value chain are able to meet them.

Regional collaboration, as the World Economic Forum always emphasizes, becomes key to developing better policies. Facilitating dialogue between countries is beneficial for governments and businesses. It provides an opportunity to share lessons learned from pilot projects and to disseminate successful solutions developed locally. Strong integrated action to combat plastic pollution can pave the way for a new era for ASEAN: from being known as the region most affected by plastic pollution in the oceans, it can become the region with the boldest green ambitions.

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