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Southeast Asia’s recycling woes

Environmental sustainability has been top of mind in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we witnessed the positive effects brought about by a reduction in travel and activity. In parallel, considerable pressure has mounted on corporations — not only to operate in a sustainable manner but to go above and beyond what is required of them with their environmental actions.

In the same vein, consumers are showing greater awareness of their environmental footprint and increasingly say they prefer brands that embrace sustainability. A global study by Deloitte revealed that close to a quarter of respondents will switch to buying products from an organization that shares their values on environmental issues. However, a frustrating paradox is hampering progress. Despite growing positive attitudes, few consumers are following through with their actions. An obvious case in point is the stagnation of recycling rates.

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About 80 percent of post-consumer waste should, technically, be recyclable; however, global figures have languished at around 9 percent. Southeast Asia, in particular, continues to suffer from low recycling rates despite the rapid growth of consumption.

While poor waste management infrastructure is one of the leading contributors to the problem, especially in developing markets, inadequate and lackluster recycling practices must also shoulder some of the blame.

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In Singapore, a country with an established recycling infrastructure, the National Environment Agency found that around 40 percent of contents found in recycling bins cannot be recycled owing to leakage from food and liquid waste, as well as e-waste and styrofoam.

These behaviors must change and do so rapidly if we are to prevent plastic leakage into the ocean in a sustainable way. As investment into improving recycling infrastructure and processes grows, the same, if not more effort, must be directed to narrowing consumers’ intention-action gap and facilitating positive behavioral change.

Behavior change is highly challenging. Adopting new habits requires individuals to embrace unfamiliarity and disrupt ingrained patterns of thinking. However, new research has revealed that appeals to emotional motivations, coupled with personal engagement, can have a catalyzing and enduring impact when it comes to getting people to change their recycling habits.

These interventions are particularly effective in the first two stages of the behavior change journey—awareness and ability—where barriers include a lack of knowledge of existing recycling programs and the ingrained belief that recycling is too tedious. To overcome these obstacles, first and foremost, more thought must be put into uncovering why individuals in each community would be motivated to recycle, and tailor campaigns to speak to this unique context.

In our analysis of local recycling projects, we found that standard warnings highlighting the environmental impact of plastic waste were ineffective in engaging communities in Bali. Residents on this tourist-destination island had been inundated with messaging about plastic pollution and were desensitized to the issue.

On the flip side, messaging that was aligned to Bali’s tight-knit, hierarchical culture was more effective. Informational letters carrying stamps from two important authorities—the official local government and religious adat (customary law community)—helped to build trust and achieve greater community engagement and more consistent recycling behaviors.

Mass communication campaigns will continue to play a critical role in raising awareness and providing legitimacy to recycling programs. These campaigns lay the foundations, but alone they are not sufficient to create real change.

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To drive home the message and push consumers to act, personalized bottom-up interactions are also needed. Put simply, people must feel that these outreach programs are supporting them to make the change and without much hassle.

Shifting to a circular economy across Asia is essential to addressing the region’s plastic waste crisis. Consensus on a first-of-its-kind global plastics agreement reached earlier this year will only accelerate the growth of a sector that is already seeing significant investment.

While excitement is often focused on the innovative technologies and materials that are transforming global plastic supply chains, it is crucial to remember the role of individuals and households in enabling large-scale societal transformation. We will only see success if investment into improving the system is supported by a commitment—from governments, investors, and corporations—to shift individual practices.

—The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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Ellen Martin is director of impact and insights, The Circulate Initiative. Jeremy Douglas is director of partnership, Delterra.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.

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