Asia-Pacific's plastic problem ignites waste management movement

Garbage at the beach in Baseco, Manila, Philippines. Photo by: Adam Cohn / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — Focused on stopping the flow of plastics into the world’s oceans, Susan Ruffo has long been fluent in marine protection and coastal community development.

But in 2018, she found herself at the International Solid Waste Association World Congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, mingling with waste disposal experts and learning about promising new recycling technologies. Already, she can rattle off the most common barriers to effective waste collection — an issue she predicts will be an integral part of her work moving forward as the managing director of international initiatives for Ocean Conservancy.

“If it’s a poor functioning system where there is no money in the system, there is also little scope for a private company to fix the problem because waste management is not a money maker.”

— Frank Van Woerden, lead environmental engineer for sustainable development global practice, World Bank

“I think all the attention that's being paid to the marine litter issue — people are starting to realize that there's lots of things you can be doing in terms of cleanups and skipping the straw — but that really to dive into the meat of the problem, it's going to be about waste management,” Ruffo told Devex.

Southeast Asia has seen some of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, and plastic production has boomed alongside it while waste management lags. In a region known for takeaway street food culture and single-use plastic, Southeast Asia’s limited waste management services and infrastructure contributes to mismanagement of more than 75 percent of plastic waste, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

What role for ASEAN in the fight against plastic pollution?

With four of the biggest plastic pollution culprits members of ASEAN, environmental advocacy and research groups want the group to work harder to stem the plastic tide.

A 2015 study by environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy found that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every day — with more than half coming from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and China.

Now, a collection of concerned stakeholders from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors are using growing global frustration over marine litter as a catalyst for improved waste management systems in Southeast Asia.

A local issue

Supporting countries to make critical solid waste management policy and planning decisions is key, but finance and implementation constraints at the local level still pose some of the biggest barriers to successful systems.

The challenge has always been: How do you reach out, how do you get this done at the local level? Because waste generation and the leakages of plastic to waterways is a local issue … and you need to work at that level to make it possible,” said Frank Van Woerden, lead environmental engineer for sustainable development global practice at the World Bank.

National governments can develop a five- to 10-year national strategy that details the current waste situation in the country and sets targets for the sector about recycling, financial sustainability, and public awareness. But implementation is harder in many developing contexts where local governments depend heavily on national budget allocation to arrange all public services. Waste management can quickly be deprioritized, and local administrations “also often do not have capacity for taxation to pool public funds so that things like waste management can be sustainably financed,” said Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, Asia-Pacific coordinator for chemicals and waste at UNEP.

This has to change, according to Nagatani-Yoshida, who advocates for a “polluters pay” strategy, where people who depend on waste management services must accept that there is a cost associated, and the government must help create a link between the quantity of waste created by individual households and the business case for how much they pay in through a formal system.

But in many developing contexts, “people can just chuck their garbage outside their homes and nobody is going to penalize them, so they have very little incentive to start paying for a waste management service,” said Silpa Kaza, World Bank urban development specialist and lead author of the bank’s 2018 “What a Waste 2.0” report, which states that waste management can be the single highest budget item for a local administration.

To identify local champions and help make recycling cheaper and more efficient, UNEP announced in September 2018 a $6 million project to reduce the use of difficult-to-recycle plastic, increase collection and recycling of high-value plastic, and boost public support for plastic pollution policies in Southeast Asia. Funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the project will work with governments to help collect and analyze data on plastic leakage and to develop evidence-based policies and plans to help reduce the amount of marine litter flowing from the region.

Attracting new players

Waste treatment and disposal will look far different depending on the context, but an advanced country is one that's able to minimize waste and then recover it to the extent possible, Kaza said. Recycling efforts could call on households to help sort, or material could be manually sorted out at a centralized facility, while automation also offers a wide range of choices.

Informal systems — where garbage pickers may come to someone’s door to collect recyclable items, for instance — continue to play a large role in waste collection and recycling systems in Southeast Asia. Still, countries wishing to improve their waste disposal can’t count on an informal network alone, Nagatani-Yoshida said.

“I’m not denying the very important role of the informal sector, however, the management of landfills, for example, cannot be done by [the] informal sector,” said Nagatani-Yoshida. “It’s a large investment, and landfill management or construction of incinerators has to be robust in order to maintain the public service and infrastructure.”

Proper waste management planning, funding, and other requirements that a city needs to create a functioning system are also critical factors in order to attract private sector engagement.

“If it’s a poor functioning system where there is no money in the system, there is also little scope for a private company to fix the problem because waste management is not a money maker,” the World Bank’s Van Woerden told Devex. “Private companies need money and valuable sources of waste to work from if they want to get into the business.”

Circulate Capital is one new investment facility hoping to help tackle this by creating a blended financing mechanism to remove access to capital as a barrier to the development of waste management and recycling infrastructure.

The facility plans to identify, incubate, and invest in opportunities designed to intercept ocean plastics at the source by collecting, sorting, processing, and recycling waste in South and Southeast Asian countries. At the 2018 Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia, Circulate Capital announced over $100 million in expected funding to combat ocean plastic from PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Dow, Danone, Unilever, and The Coca-Cola Company.

At the same time, the waste management community is poised to be part of a solution to a problem that an increasing number of players from various sectors are paying attention to, Ruffo said: I think it's starting to happen, and I feel like some of those bridges are beginning to be built,” she said.

About the author

  • Rogers kelli cropped

    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.