Between 1950 and 2015, the world created 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste. It is estimated that 9% was recycled, and 12% incinerated, leaving almost 80% to accumulate in landfills or in nature, often times in the oceans. Today, approximately 8-12 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans every year, making plastic the top pollutant of marine systems.
Over half of land-based plastic waste leakage comes from just 5 countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. Marine plastic pollution is detrimental to marine ecosystems, harming marine wildlife with negative implications for ecosystem health. Plastic pollution also poses risks for human health. The presence of plastic in seafood, including fish and shellfish, and their subsequent consumption by the public has led to concerns about chemical bio-accumulation in the food chain. Research has found microplastic contamination in tap water and bottled water across several regions, including Europe, the United States and Asia .
So what are we doing to address this issue? When looking at plastics as part of waste streams, the dominant solution approaches in the last decades have mostly been centred around improving waste collection, sorting and recycling. The truth, however, is that we cannot recycle our way out of it. Plastic recycling has not kept pace with rising demand for plastic production. And while improving waste management and increasing recycling rates are important, they are only part of the solution; they need to be combined with upstream solutions. “Upstream measures are aimed at reducing the waste volume, while downstream tries to tackle the problem of the existing waste. So they address different material cycle steps and levels on the waste hierarchy,” explains Clara Loew, a researcher at the German-based Öko Institute, a think tank for applied ecology working with the Collaborative Actions for Single-Use Plastic Prevention in South-East Asia (CAP SEA) project.
Why are upstream approaches important? An often-cited metaphor sums it up nicely: “when your house is flooded it is of no use using a mop unless you turn the tap off first.” So how do we turn off this “tap” i.e. how do we reduce the amount of virgin plastics entering the market? There are different approaches: The CAP SEA project is supporting Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in implementing them as follows:
Design for Recycling: One approach is to ensure that the plastic that is used for a product (e.g. a plastic drinking bottle), is easy to recycle, so that more recycled plastic finds their way into an increasingly circular material stream. And what makes a plastic product easier to recycle? As a general rule of thumb: products consisting of one polymer are easier to recycle than compound materials (sachets for example). This, in combination with recycled content requirements (e.g. in the EU, from 2025 onwards, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles need to contain at least 25% recycled PET, by 2030 at 30%) contributes to reducing the use of virgin plastic, thereby closing the tap a little bit. Within the CAP SEA project, government agencies, standardisation bodies, industry representatives and other relevant stakeholders are working to develop Design for Recycling Standards in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. For this, the project creates space in the form of regular technical working group meetings, provides international best practice from Europe through studies, as well as technical guidance and capacity building. While CAP SEA hopes to introduce a minimum standard for recycling content and design-for-recycling, we are also aiming to introduce a voluntary ambitious standard for the Thai and Malaysia eco-label system.
Another approach is Re-Use. Packaging Waste, the single biggest contributor to marine litter in the form of single-use plastics, can be significantly reduced through reusable beverage and food containers, but also refill solutions for household products like shampoo, detergents, etc. For Re-Use systems to flourish, they need a functioning market. On the supply side, we need companies offering solutions, alternatives to single-use plastics. To this end, CAP SEA project, in partnership with ENVIU, a venture builder, has set up 2 start-ups in Malaysia that will provide re-use applications. Second, the demand: To create the demand, CAP SEA supports Shah Alam Municipality in Malaysia and Phuket Municipality in Thailand in developing action plans and policies on how to increase re-use and prevent single-use plastics. In Indonesia, CAP SEA will help set the framework conditions for Indonesia`s first re-use food container system for food delivery. As part of CAP SEA`s pilot project in Jakarta, a food delivery service and ENVIU will develop food containers and (reverse) logistics to provide food delivery in re-usable packaging aiming to reach the Blue Angel standard for Environmentally Friendly Returnable Transportation Packagings.
To tackle the plastic crisis, and move towards a more circular economy, a wide range of innovations and changes are necessary. “The CAP SEA project comes at a good time, where the Thai government is giving importance to this topic, especially with the BCG (Bio-Circular-Green Economy) model”, says Dr. Wijarn Simachaya, President of the Thai Environment Institute.
CAP SEA is helping to address the plastic crisis in Southeast Asia by focusing on upstream approaches and embedding those in broader Circular Economy Strategy Advice to the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.