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Plastic pollution plagues Southeast Asia amid Covid-19 lockdowns

  • Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia have seen a surge in plastic waste as environmental awareness takes a back seat to health concerns
  • There has been a heavy reliance on food-delivery services and online shopping amid the pandemic, while recycling has dropped off

Adam Reza is among those for whom environmental awareness
took a back seat to health concerns during Malaysia’s national lockdown
earlier this year to curb the spread of Covid-19
. Despite making a conscious effort to be mindful, he estimates his use of plastics increased by up to 80 per cent as people were confined indoors for more than 90 days as the pandemic raged.

“I’m not exactly a green conscious guy, but before the lockdown I did make a conscious effort to be mindful,” said management consultant Adam, 29. “Now I just don’t care as much. Even at food courts, now that things are open, I make a point to use the plastic single-use cutlery because I am worried about germs.”

With consumers around the world stuck at home amid the spread of Covid-19 – which has infected close to 19 million people and killed more than 700,000 – the utilisation of single-use plastic has skyrocketed, raising concerns about recycling and surging pollution. Many people are reliant on food delivery services and online shopping platforms to obtain goods and stay connected, with a corresponding increase in disposable packaging.

Southeast Asia is no different. More than 50 per cent of the eight million tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in the world’s oceans every year comes from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam
and Thailand, environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy estimates – partly because richer Western countries such as Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States have sent massive shipments of waste to these countries for decades.
In recent years, however, the region has taken a cue from China’s 2018 refusal to accept foreign waste and pushed back against these unwanted imports – with leaders such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte
last year threatening to sever diplomatic ties with Ottawa and “sail to Canada and dump their garbage there” if it did not take the refuse back.
Other nations then scrambled for alternative dumping sites, with Malaysia
being one of the countries on the list until its government in a pointed move last May said it would ship back 3,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste to the likes of the US, Japan and France.

LARGER PROBLEMS AHEAD

While environmental concerns have been put on the back burner amid the Covid-19 outbreak, activists and environmental watchdogs say this could lead to larger problems in the future.

Medium and long-term concerns regarding plastic waste must be considered even in the face of a pandemic, said Alizan Mahadi of the technology, innovation, environment and sustainability division at Malaysian think-tank the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

“The surge in clinical waste and plastic packaging is a common issue worldwide, as was the slowdown of regulatory practices aiming to cut down on waste generation,” he said.

“But more of a looming concern is what will happen after borders and trade return to normal and the practice of western countries shipping their waste to other countries returns. There are many illegal recycling centres here, and at one point Malaysia became the top dumping site for richer nations. Can we expect an increase in foreign plastic?”

Alizan said policymakers had to stick to plans put in place before the Covid-19 outbreak, including a push for extended producer responsibility in a circular plastics economy that would see manufacturers move towards eco-friendly design and manage the end-of-life impact of plastic products.

“Producers must manage their own waste to some extent. Malaysia was looking into that and it remains an important policy instrument to have,” he said.

Although there is no data for the increase in plastic waste generated by packaging during the lockdown, the Malaysian Plastics Recyclers Association feels any surge will be exacerbated by the lack of recycling activities during the lockdown.

“During Malaysia’s movement control order, collection and recycling centres were not allowed to operate,” said association secretary Daniel Loo. “My personal experience during that period was that all my separated plastic and aluminium cans were dumped into the garbage truck. The garbage collectors told me that as collection centres were not operating there was no point sorting and separating.”

Medical waste has also skyrocketed, according to statistics from the Environment and Water Ministry. Waste went up 27 per cent in March from the previous month, 31.5 per cent in April and 24.6 per cent in May, with tonnage consistently exceeding 2,500 metric tonnes.

“Clinical waste during the movement control order period includes [personal protective equipment], gloves, Covid-19 swab test tools and similar,” said environment and water minister Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, who took on the role in March after a week of political upheaval that saw the nation’s previous government turfed out of power.

WORRYING INCREASE

In the Philippines, plastic waste generated by food-delivery services and e-commerce activity have similarly become a point of concern for environmental advocates. With millions returning to lockdown this week after a previous restriction on movement one of the world’s longest was lifted in June, consumers will once again rely heavily on deliveries for essential goods.

Not helping the issue is that some of the cities in Metro Manila have scaled back their fight against plastic. Parañaque, one of four cities lining the troubled Manila Bay, shifted the full implementation of a single-use plastic ban from June this year to January 2021 as businesses complained of difficulties complying while simultaneously grappling with the economic impact of the lockdown.

Quezon City the country’s largest city, home to 3 million people has also relaxed its policy against single-use plastics. Instead of a total ban starting July, the city government is allowing establishments to use up the plastic packaging resources still in stock as long as they give notice to environmental protection and waste management authorities.

The Philippines’ National Solid Waste Management Commission, however, suggests that waste generation has also decreased due to the slowdown of economic activity in the country.

“There is a significant drop in consumption and it is limited to essentials given that the majority of the population in the urban areas has not gone to work and unemployment has increased in the country,” said vice-chairman Crispian Lao.

Indonesia has also had to stall its waste generation management plans, with activists pointing out that the government must take a hands on role in a country that generates 6.8 million tonnes of plastic waste each year a figure estimated to increase by 5 per cent annually. Some 48 per cent of plastic waste is burned out in the open, and nearly 10 per cent leaks into rivers and the sea, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

“The increase in the amount of plastic waste is certainly very worrying, especially if it is not managed and is leaked into the environment. Even disposable medical waste used by the public, such as masks, has also been found to pollute rivers,” said Muharram Atha Rasyadi, an urban campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

“Multi-stakeholder policies such as the NPAP [National Plastic Action Partnership] do indeed have a crucial role in handling the domestic plastic crisis … But as long as reduction is not the most important priority, both in concept and implementation, this crisis will be difficult to unravel.”

Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Indonesia’s minister of environment and forestry, recently said Indonesia had accumulated more than 1,100 tonnes of medical waste from March to June.

To combat the problem, Indonesian activists have suggested measures such as more stringent regulations. Dwi Sawung, urban campaign and energy manager at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, recommends a ban on disposable plastics or plastics that “absolutely cannot be reused, like sachets and styrofoam. Sorting from the source is also a key to waste management, not only for plastic waste. Without sorting any of the sources, it will be difficult and very expensive.”

THE LIST GOES ON’

Thailand has also increasingly turned to single-use plastics since its lockdown began in late March. Citing the Thailand Environment Institute, Pichmol Rugrod, plastic-free future project lead at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said Bangkok’s daily average of 2,115 tonnes of single-use plastics waste per day pre-lockdown rose to more than 3,400 tonnes a day in April. Across the country, plastic waste went up from 5,000 tonnes per day to 6,300 tonnes.

Thailand produced some 2 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018, but only 500,000 tonnes were recycled, largely plastic bottles. About 1.2 million tonnes among the remainder that were not recycled were plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic boxes, Pichmol said.

“Many items are from food deliveries, cutlery, toothpicks, boxes and bags,” she said. “Thais are not in the habit of sorting waste. About 80 per cent of these items will not be recycled because they are contaminated by the food they contain. People don’t know that they have to clean the items first, at least with water, before throwing them away.”

Thailand imposed a ban on plastic bags in early 2020 as part of a government-initiated programme that was partly a response to the country’s alarming plastic pollution in recent years.

“Waste is man-made and we have to stop using single-use plastics completely,” Pichmol said. “Thais are not usually responsible towards trash, they see it as something to be thrown away and forgotten about. We have to think about it from the beginning, how to dispose of it, keep it or where it ends up.”

Global environmental watchdogs expect an alarming 40 per cent jump in plastic pollution over the next decade. Malaysia-based recycler EcoKnights reports that although it received more recyclable waste drop-offs during the lockdown, larger attitudes towards plastic waste still need an overhaul.

“After the lockdown was relaxed, Malaysians started going on short holidays and there were reports that documented the amount of plastic waste in public areas that were very visible. So perhaps while the pandemic may have prevented us from littering public spaces, when the restrictions are lifted, Malaysians are still behaviourally the same in terms of how they treat and dispose of plastics,” said EcoKnights president Yasmin Rasyid.

It looks as if plastic in Southeast Asia will remain a burgeoning problem, especially due to quarantine measures in a region known for cross-border work. For postgraduate student and former analyst Ryan Chua, quarantine in Singapore has meant staying in a hotel with government-provided meals thrice a day all, invariably, tightly wrapped in plastic.

“Inside a fairly big-sized plastic bag there’s a plastic case or package for the food, as well as plastic cutlery,” he said. “While I am grateful for what’s being provided, it is fairly alarming to note how much plastic has been used including for plastic water bottles, food packaging, soap packaging – the list goes on.”

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