FINDINGS from a study released late last year determined that the majority of the world’s oceanic plastic waste comes from five Asian countries.
China, rapidly developing, the world’s most populous country and home to circa. 9,000 miles or 14,500km of coastline, is understandably the source of most of the plastic waste entering the Pacific. The remaining four countries are all major Southeast Asian economies: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
Now, according to new research, there has been enough plastic manufactured since World War II to coat the entire world in plastic wrap.
From the Observer:
Just consider the fish in the sea. A vast proportion of them now have plastic in them. They think it is food and eat it, just as seabirds feed plastic to their chicks. Then some of it is released as excrement and ends up sinking on to the seabed. The planet is slowly being covered in plastic.
—Jan Zalasiewicz, geology professor at the University of Leicester
Disposable income without waste disposal
While wealthy Western countries like the United States have long consumed and disposed of more plastic than their Eastern counterparts, Asian nations are catching up and even in some cases surpassing the West.
As Asian economies grow and Asians adopt more Western consumption-based, lifestyles, they buy more plastic goods and products with disposable plastic packaging. Unfortunately, the infrastructure for waste disposal in these countries is not keeping pace with changing industry and consumer habits.
— GreenAct2020 (@greenact2020) January 25, 2016
A painful transition
Traditionally, as is common in industrializing societies, waste products are often reused and repurposed due to practical and economic necessity. Many poor people in developing countries still struggle to eek out a living by this rudimentary — though arguably more environmentally friendly — method of “recycling”.
Without glorifying this sometimes-unofficial sector — which is rife with ethical issues from human health and safety to exploitation, extreme poverty and class discrimination — it plays a vital role. Yet plastic wrappers and bags do not command much value and are therefore generally not collected by independent recyclers. So these increasingly numerous items pile up, are informally or irresponsibly disposed of, and end up in waterways and eventually oceans.
Going against the tide
Despite this alarming trend of plastic entering the Pacific Ocean via the coastlines of transitioning Asian economies, there are areas in the region that are adopting some of the strictest anti-plastic waste policies in the world.
- The Malaysian state of Malacca has banned petroleum-based plastic bags from supermarkets and malls
- All disposable plastic containers are now forbidden in a popular pilgrimage site and tiger conservation park in the Indian state of Kerala
- Plastics are also banned in Mawlynnong, Meghalaya State, dubbed India’s “cleanest village”
- Last April, the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, banned plastic bag-use
Nonetheless, despite talk and even legislation in some countries and cities, little has changed. For example, Bangladesh’s ban struggled from a lack of alternatives and enforcement, and the plastics industry has found success in fighting bans across Asia.
— CECHR (@CECHR_UoD) January 24, 2016
Plastic packaging set to increase in Asia, world
Unfortunately, without proper waste regulation, enforcement and management things will only get worse. A recent industry study projects that Asia, already the largest market for plastic packaging since 2014, is driving global growth in the sector to unprecedented levels.