Winning the war on plastic
Asia is picking up the pace in tackling the plastic crisis. In Bangladesh, the High Court last Monday ordered the government to ban single-use plastics in coastal areas and in hotels and restaurants in one year. It also ordered the government to strictly enforce the ban on polyethylene -- the main ingredient in many plastic bags -- under the existing law.
The south Asian nation in 2002 was among the first countries in the world to ban plastic and polyethylene bags in an effort to stop them collecting in waterways and on land, but the ban has had little success.
In Indonesia, meanwhile, Jakarta aims to ban single-use plastic bags from its street markets and shopping malls from the middle of this year. The second worst polluter of the world's oceans with plastic after China, Indonesia now aims to reduce its contribution to plastic pollution in the ocean by 70% in 2025. A presidential decree also calls for plastic waste from upstream sources to be cut by 30%.
The regulation signed by Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan on Dec 27 stipulates that shopkeepers and stallholders should provide environmentally friendly carrier bags. Penalties for violations will range from written warnings to fines of anywhere between US$360 and $1,800, and finally suspension or termination of trading permits. That follows steps taken by Bali, which enforced a ban last year in despair over the trash washed up on the beaches of the country's top tourist island.
In Thailand, single-use plastic bags have been banned at major stores since the beginning of this year as the government and retailers aim for a complete ban in 2021 to reduce waste and debris in the sea. Last year, plastic bag use decreased by 2 billion or about 5,765 tonnes as a result of a campaign to encourage consumers to voluntarily refuse plastic bags from stores.
Between now and 2025, Thailand plans to ban seven types of plastics most commonly found in the ocean, including bottle cap seals, disposable bags, cups and straws. The policy is projected to eliminate 45 billion single-use plastic bags a year, or 225,000 tonnes, from incineration or landfills.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Southeast Asia is a major contributor to land-based plastic waste leaking into the world's oceans, with more than half of it coming from just four nations -- Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand -- along with China, the top single polluter.
Many countries in the region struggle with poor waste sorting and disposal systems, while population growth and explosive demand for consumer products mean more single-use plastic ends up in landfills or leaks into the environment.
Japan, which produces more plastic packaging waste per capita than any other nation except the US, also has ordered all retailers, including supermarkets and convenience stores, to charge for plastic bags starting this coming summer. In Australia, plastic-bag charges in effect since December 2018 have reduced plastic bag use by more than 80%.
But besides bans or charges for plastic bags, governments and retailers should provide alternatives for consumers. 7-Eleven Japan, for example, provides recycled paper bags to shoppers while 7-Eleven stores in the Philippines have for many years distributed thin paper bags every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Governments also must do more to alert the public that fossil-based plastics are unsustainable and contributes to climate change in every stage of their life cycle. Consumers need to understand the environmental damage caused by plastics and be educated to identify false and misleading claims.
At the same time, efforts should be stepped up for proper management and recycling of plastic waste. Globally, 360 million tonnes of new plastic are produced every year and up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the oceans, which leads to irreversible harm to biodiversity and the environment. Less than 10% of plastic ever made has been recycled.
Consumers, in addition to doing their part by shunning plastic bags, will be crucial in influencing businesses to adopt more sustainable alternatives to fossil-based plastics.
By supporting brands that introduce sustainable solutions, such as compostable packaging derived from renewable resources, consumers place greater pressure on other businesses to adopt such alternatives in their day-to-day operations if they want to survive in a competitive marketplace.
We are all have roles to play in creating a less-plastic society for the sake of our planet. Otherwise, plastic usage will continue to escalate and further exacerbate climate change, which poses a significant threat to every facet of society -- the economy, environment and human health.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor