You won’t believe how Asia is tackling ocean plastics
Written by Ariane Desrosiers, staff writer at Sustainable Asia
We’ve done a lot of research lately on how to tackle ocean plastics in Asia. We decided it was finally time to write a summary with key highlights from our Eight Million and Plasticity podcast series.
“China’s role in the issue is critical… but there are hopeful signs that stricter environmental regulation by Beijing will have a positive impact on ocean plastics. I should say upfront that my interest in the subject was piqued by Sustainable Asia’s terrific podcast, Eight Million.” — Jill Baker, Forbes
The Ocean Plastics Problem
Imagine dumping one and half grocery bags full of plastic into the deep blue ocean. Now, imagine if all seven billion of us on the planet did the same. That’s roughly how much plastic pollution enters into the ocean every year: eight million tonnes. So yes, ocean plastics are a grim reality that we have to confront. From plastic ruining our ecosystems to ending up in our stomachs, its ramifications are simply becoming too hard to ignore. The need for a circular economy is clear.
Although there is some international initiative towards combating our ocean plastic crisis, most of the pressure is coming from the western world. Meanwhile, around 40% of the world’s ocean plastic pollution is estimated to originate from Southeast Asia and China alone. So what’s going on throughout Asia? How are governments, NGOs, and the private sector trying to resolve this massively wicked problem? Let’s dive into it.
Recycling in Asia
Currently, there is already an exciting movement to raise awareness and increase conservation efforts throughout Asia. Doug Woodring, founder of the Hong Kong-based Ocean Recovery Alliance, hosts the annual Plasticity conference, which brings hundreds of stakeholders from all over Asia (businesses, NGOs, and government representatives) together to create solutions to ocean plastics. They’ve found that most people are excited to make their operations more circular, but consistently come up against two major obstacles. The first is consumer demand for recycled materials. As Ashwin Subramaniam, the founder of GA Circular (a business consultancy promoting the circular economy in Asia), puts it, “consumers play a very, very important role in the recycling industry. It begins with them.” By actively going out of their way to buy recycled materials, consumers can create the pull for this new market and drive companies to change. They can also demand that governments put good waste segregation systems in place and provide education for how to clean materials. This measure would actually help with the second obstacle, which is the lack in supply of recycled materials.
The Issue of Collection
We all know that recycling is a critical solution to reducing our plastic pollution — but why is it so difficult, especially in Asia? The answer lies not so much in our recycling infrastructure but in our collection systems. According to Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey’s “Stemming the Tide” report, in China, for example, an average of 65% of waste gets collected in cities, while in rural areas, it’s an astoundingly low 5% collection rate. Outside of China, about 40–45% of waste in most Southeast Asian cities — especially plastics — is being collected by the informal sector, composed of independent workers sorting through trash to send potentially recyclable content to processing centers for little money (hence the nickname “waste pickers”). And while the informal sector plays a crucial role in waste recovery, Asian countries cannot continue to rely on them as a backup plan. In order to increase the recyclables supply, governments need to incorporate the informal sector in developing sustainable collection processes that educate the public on how to sort their waste. That way, the supply chain has transparency and larger businesses can use their materials.
The Issue of Scale
But this brings us to our next problem: scaling up our recovery systems. As Doug Woodring puts it in Episode 2 of Plasticity: “the real cost of recycling is getting the economies of scale in the volumes of plastic that are of the same type, quality and cleanliness. The cost associated with the collection and cleaning are really what causes recycling to be problematic in terms of cost-advantage versus virgin material.” There are over 40,000 types of plastics in the world today. Coupled with the fact that many flexible plastics are either multi-material (i.e. juice boxes) and/or extremely lightweight, the required effort for sorting them means that getting large amounts of plastic waste sent to recycling centers just isn’t cost-effective. On top of that, if the plastic is contaminated or mixed with wet recyclables, then it requires a whole other level of treatment, which again adds to the cost of recycling.
So two things need to happen: first, brands have to design for the circular economy by using more monomaterial items, and second, consumers have to learn how to properly sort and clean their waste. By doing so, they can decrease the cost for collection/processing, increase the worth of waste plastics, and thus incentivize further collection by both the informal and private recycling sectors.
The Issue of Education
Lastly, there needs to be a culture change for recycling to really catch on. As Brian Thurston, senior advisor to the Plastic Disclosure Project, says in our final episode of Plasticity: “in order for the circular economy to scale, recycled material isn’t labeled ‘recycled material.’ It’s just material. It’s not of less quality. It’s not of higher price. It’s not all these things that are relegating it to being exclusive.”
Other Potential Solutions
But besides recycling, what other solutions are out there? Waste-to-energy is a big one, especially in China, where investments in WTE plants have skyrocketed over the past few decades. China currently has somewhere between 230–300 WTE incinerators, and there are targets to build 300 more. Yet incinerators usually aren’t the greenest solution, as many old plants release toxic pollutants like dioxins into the air.
Another budding yet promising solution is chemical recycling. Although still in its inception stages, chemical recycling breaks down plastic flakes into molecules which makes them virtually indistinguishable from virgin polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. By erasing any contamination and being able to process plastics of all colors, chemical recycling could be an enormously helpful process that, if scalable, could solve a lot of our recycling problems. (See here for graphic)
Conservation measures are also key in resolving the problem of ocean plastics. To stop pollution from flowing into river systems and oceans, governments need to execute proper legislation that holds leaders accountable for keeping their areas pristine. China has set a good example with their river chiefs mechanism, which assigns responsibility to certain officials for keeping their rivers clean.
So it’s clear that several solutions exist. Now, however, consumers must create the demand for them, which in turn will cause Asian governments to implement them. Resolving this plastics problem is also a matter of increasing data collection on waste management and pollution — oftentimes, datasets are published with several years of space between them, meaning that policymakers could be making decisions based on 5–10 year-old data, which isn’t effective. But if we take this into account, and apply all of the above measures in a multi-pronged approach, then Asia might have a good shot at fixing the ocean plastics issue.
“This podcast series provides listeners foundational knowledge on the issue, which we can all use to reflect on solutions ranging from our individual actions to corporate responsibility and waste management.” — Nicholas Mallos, Ocean Conservancy
“Plasticity is a wonderful, innovative platform for anyone interested to understand the plastic waste situation in Asia and some of the solutions needed to tackle this complex challenge. I would recommend it especially to any organisation that is already involved in the plastics or recycling business or looking to get into it.” — Ashwin Subramaniam, GA Circular