Plastic and other garbage litter the coast of Manila Bay in the Philippines. Photo by: Adam Cohn / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — Southeast Asian nations are among the worst offenders when it comes to sending plastic pollution straight into the ocean. With four of the world’s biggest culprits also members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, environmental advocacy and research groups are calling on ASEAN to play a stronger regional role to help stem the tide of plastic.

Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand — along with China — account for up to 60 percent of the plastic waste leaking into the ocean, according to a 2015 report by environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment.

“We are asking the ASEAN membership to take this issue with a sense of urgency and demand that our leaders initiate bold steps to address plastics pollution through regional cooperation, exacting corporate responsibility, and massive public education,” said Abigail Aguilar, detox campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines, in a statement.

ASEAN is already in talks on these issues, according to Theresa Mundita Lim, who took on the role of executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity in April. The Philippines-based group serves as the secretariat of the ASEAN Heritage Parks Program, part of which includes overseeing the preservation of genetic diversity in several marine heritage parks in the region.

“We recognize [plastic pollution] is a threat to biodiversity, to food security, to climate adaptation measures, and all of the services that marine biodiversity can provide to all of ASEAN,” Lim said. “So what we want is really to establish all these linkages to strengthen the resolve to come up with a regional action plan.”

Although leaders have addressed the issue at recent ASEAN meetings, Lim doesn’t have a sense of if or when the intergovernmental body will present a regional action plan to decrease or better manage plastic waste. For now, ACB is working with other ASEAN technical working groups under the environmental pillar to support education efforts as well as data generation on the interconnectivity of marine areas within ASEAN countries. This includes “looking at the volume of trash and the movement of the trash so that we have a stronger case for transboundary work,” Lim said.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, an intergovernmental forum for 21 Pacific Rim member economies, is also looking closer at plastic pollution, considering its economic impact. In 2009, the forum estimated the costs to tourism, fishing, and shipping industries to be $1.3 billion for the region. In April, the Philippines closed the popular island of Boracay to visitors to conduct a massive cleanup of dumped sewage and build upgrades to its drainage systems. And in October, Thailand announced the indefinite closure of its famous Maya Bay to allow it to recover from the pollution and destruction caused by millions of tourists.

“I think these are good opportunities to link up the countries to be able to see how the issue of marine pollution and trash affects other industries,” Lim said. “The urgency is there. Each country is already doing [its own] action, which we appreciate very much, but it's the regional action that we think is the gap at the moment.”

Susan Ruffo, managing director of international initiatives at Ocean Conservancy, counts the fact that governments are prioritizing the issue as a win for the region. Now it’s time to focus on tangible actions, she said. These must be tailored to individual country contexts, but a regional action plan could provide a way to standardize recycling so that every town is not trying to process different types of material, Ruffo said.

Governments could also work together to establish larger collection areas that feed into the same recycling markets, as well as share best practices in engaging municipal leaders.

“Ultimately waste management is a very locally driven and locally run thing. I think one of the things that we haven't seen as much in those [regional] discussions has been the municipal voices and the people who are actually out there running these systems,” Ruffo said.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, 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 reported from more than 20 countries.