Sustainability in Asia: Plastic waste

In terms of sustainability in Asia, plastic waste is a huge problem. It appears that Asian countries cause most of the plastic waste that pollutes our oceans nowadays. This problem not only entails the production of plastics, but mainly the production of single-use plastics within a bigger problem of failing waste management, waste collection and the waste industry.

In the light of the World Environment Day of the UN, India has announced to focus on four particular points:

  1. The demand for single-use plastics must decrease.
  2. All plastic waste must be reduced.
  3. Microplastics in oceans should be removed, decreased and prevented.
  4. Further research on alternatives to plastics should be stimulated.

Plastic waste takes hundreds of years to be dissolved by nature. The reality is that plastics end up in nature and in our oceans. Plastic waste not only pollutes our soils and environment. The current reality is that plastics end up in the food chain. As knowledge about plastics in relation to environmental pollution and microplastics evolves, more and more we are confronted with the fact that we end up eating the plastic waste that is dumped in nature, causing a wide range of health problems.

And as our knowledge on microplastics is growing, the need to take action is bigger than ever. Concerning sustainability in Asia, plastic waste is an important factor. Different issues are important in Asia, compared to sustainability issues in Europe.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are really small pieces of plastics that flow around our oceans. They are less than 5mm long. It appears that large pieces of plastics are dissolved in our oceans into thousands of smaller pieces. These smaller pieces of microplastics are eaten by fish and sea life. Studies show that 90 percent of bottled water, and 83 percent of tap water, also contain microplastics. This is how plastics end up in our bodies.

These very tiny particles of plastic end up in our stomach, blood and lungs. As you will understand, plastics in our body cause diseases and possibly death.

Plastic waste

Five thousand billion plastic bags each year

Plastic has made our life easier and more comfortable. They are used in many things we use on a daily basis. Plastic is made of synthetic polymers. Plastic items are usually cheap, light and durable. That’s why plastic is used a lot. In 1950, about 5 million tons of plastic was used goods. This number has increased to 300 million tons of plastic in 2017. A huge increase.

A plastic product in high demand, is plastic bags. The UN estimated more than 5 thousand billion plastic bags are used every year. More than 17 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic items every year.

The remarkable thing about plastics, is that more or less half of this plastic is used to produce single-use plastics, like plastic bags, straws, cups and bottles. After only an average time of 11 minutes, these items are thrown away. These single-use plastics are dumped on landslides or on the streets and (end up) in nature.

Plastic ocean Asia

How does plastic end up in oceans?

Good question, although the answer is not so difficult. Through landslides, waste dump or the wind, this plastic waste quickly ends up in waterways, like canals and rivers. That’s how they end up in our oceans. This is not a surprise. In many Asian cities the rivers are visibly polluted.

Plastics in oceans kill about 100.000 sea animals each year. The high demand of humans for plastic goods is the main reason for the plastic waste that ends up in our oceans. Another important factor is the failed waste management in many Asian countries. However, failing waste policy by national and local governments causes plastic pollution, allowing waste to end up in oceans.

How to reduce plastics in oceans

Microplastics in oceans are not a problem in itself, but rather a result of consumer demand and failing waste policies on land. Cleaning the oceans is therefor important, but better waste management and consumer behavior prevents the problem from getting bigger. This asks for a larger attention for:

  1. Banning single-use plastics
  2. More attention for recycling plastic waste
  3. Social awareness on waste production
  4. Improving waste management in general
  5. Better policies on preventing (plastic) waste to end up in nature, rivers and oceans
Pollution Shanghai

Sustainability in Asia: Indonesia and China largest producers of plastic waste

China and Indonesia are responsible for more than one third of plastic waste worldwide, according to different studies. These countries are followed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. In fact, in the top ten worldwide producers of plastic waste, 8 countries are from Southeast Asia.

Although individual action should be taken by countries to change the perspective on the use of plastics, the global economy should also take action to actively pursue legislation to ban the production of plastics and improve the management of (used) plastics.