Asia’s plastic pollution crisis
Less than a century ago, the majority of the products in Asia were produced by and large from natural materials and built to last or to biodegrade easily. Food was wrapped in leaves or paper, carried in refillable containers, bottles made of glass mostly in milk provisioning were returned and sterilized for reuse, restaurants offered ceramic plates and stainless-steel cutlery, and the plastic bag was yet to be invented. Back then, Asia’s micro-retail culture, or the practice of buying condiments and other household kitchen needs in small quantities, was the prevalent practice, especially in low-income communities.
All this changed dramatically in the post-World War II period with rapid industrialization and urbanization in many parts of Asia. Asians have now become accustomed to the seeming convenience of plastic. Single-use plastics ushered in the dominant thinking of convenience and hygiene in consumer goods, kick-starting a throwaway culture on an unprecedented scale. Corporations started offering their products wrapped in single-use plastic, further emphasizing the benefits of buying in small packets especially for low-income communities in the region, which effectively hacked away at the old micro-retail culture.
This was how single-use plastics came into being. The emergence of these flexible, lightweight, and durable materials has had far-reaching implications beyond the plastic litter we see in our lands and bodies of water. More than half of the plastic produced globally comes from Asia.
The Heinrich Boell Foundation and Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific have collaborated with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies Japan to produce the Plastic Atlas Asia Edition, a publication that details the breadth of the plastic pollution crisis in the continent and puts forward possible solutions for the region. The Atlas aims to show how pervasive plastic use has become in nearly all aspects of our lives, from clothing to tourism, food, and human and environmental health.
While our lives have been turned upside down ever since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, plastic production and pollution have only accelerated. The pandemic became an opportunity for the industry to invest further in plastic products and byproducts. More than 99 percent of plastics come from fossil-fuel feed stocks. Due to the expansion of online merchandise and food delivery and the resulting surge in plastic use, the problem has only become compounded.
Despite these, there is a rising tide of community-based organizations and grassroots-led initiatives in Asia that offer the possibility that from this period of uncertainty, a system will emerge that is more inclusive, sustainable, and just. Members of the #breakfreefromplastic movement believe that decentralized, community-led innovation is the way forward in addressing the plastic pollution crisis. These groups have demonstrated how an approach involving ecological resource management and reduction, with emphasis on waste separation, product redesign, and systematic waste collection and management, is a viable remedy to the ever-growing threat of plastics in our environment.
Governments in Asia need to step up by enacting and properly implementing policies and regulations that will help scale up these bottom-up initiatives, while at the same time holding plastic producers accountable for their failure to deal with the plastic crisis. Instead of pushing for false solutions and other forms of greenwashing, corporations need to offer credible alternative delivery systems and reusable ways for their products.
Without significantly reducing the amount of plastics produced, we cannot hope to stop the plastic pollution crisis. This is the real story of the plastic pollution crisis in Asia.
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Jed Alegado is the senior communications officer of Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific. Clemens Kunze is the deputy director of Heinrich Boell Foundation Hong Kong Office. Kevin Li is the programme manager for Environment of Heinrich Boell Foundation Hong Kong Office. https://hk.boell.org/en/plasticatlasasia
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