Asean’s plastic shame

Multilateral firms are polluting oceans by selling goods packaged in plastic to the Philippines, Indonesia and their neighbours, Greenpeace argues. It singled out Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble among the worst five offenders. 

However, the Indian state of Kerala provides an example of how waste produced can be cut back and other materials recycled.

Myanmar also provides a solution to the blight of single-use plastic water bottles with its near-ubiquitous water dispensers, allowing visitors to refill bottles without leaving a trail of discarded plastic.

Greenpeace said the Philippines was the “third-worst polluter into the world’s oceans”, after China and Indonesia.

Plastic bags, bottles and straws were prevalent during a recent Greenpeace clean-up campaign in Manila Bay, the environmental group said.

Separately a joint report by McKinsey’s environmental business unit and the Ocean Conservancy suggested roughly 60 per cent of all the plastic in the world’s waters originated from just five countries: China, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Asean’s lengthy coastlines and high plastic use account from the bloc’s disproportionate environmental footprint. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation estimates that the cost to Asean to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was US$1.2 billion.

More than 54,200 pieces of plastic waste were pulled from Manila Bay in its week-long operation, Greenpeace said, including around 9,000 Nestle products, which was the most common brand.

“These corporations are the missing piece in the global fight against plastic pollution,” Greenpeace Philippines’ spokeswoman Abigail Aguilar told the media.

“When we throw something away, there is no ‘away.’ The Philippines is the third-biggest source of plastic ocean pollution because global corporations are locking us into cheap, disposable plastics, rather than innovating and finding solutions,” Aguilar added. “These corporations are the missing piece in the global fight against plastic pollution. Citizens are burdened with the social and environmental impacts of plastic waste, rather than those that are responsible.”

The group said “sachet economies”, where soap powder, shampoo and other products were largely sold in single-use quantities, were particularly polluting. Greenpeace said most of the 54,260 pieces of plastic waste collected were sachets.

Many Filipinos buy instant coffee, cooking oil, food seasoning and toothpaste in sachet form with the waste usually ending up as litter or in the sea, according to Greenpeace.

Some US cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have adopted initiatives to cut rubbish, like the “Zero Waste Challenge” started by New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who claims to have cut 60 per cent of trash and diverted almost 13,000 tonnes of garbage from landfill.

Unilever’s goods came second in the Greenpeace clean-up in Manila Bay. The group is calling for the banning of single-use plastics altogether.

Kerala in southern India offers a solution. Picture credit: Pixabay

The southern Indian state of Kerala (pictured) is touted for its successful “Zero Waste” campaign that encourages the reuse of products so no rubbish is sent to landfill and should be an example to Asean, according to activists Break Free From Plastic and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

Zero Waste works by first segregating rubbish in households and communities with recyclables separated from organic waste, which reportedly makes up 50 per cent of waste generated in Asia. Kerala’s organic waste was used in composting, biodigestion and other methods of organic management.

“People now understand it is the way forward and people are really embracing it. The public is aware. Business groups are coming forward and people are voluntarily implementing it. It is slowly becoming a cultural movement,” explains Dr Vasuki of the Kerala Suchitwa Mission, a government body involved in the state’s waste management.

Kerala’s region of Attingal reportedly has a large composting centre, a high-capacity biodigester unit for organic waste and a shredder for plastic waste in its centralised organic waste management programme.

Greenpeace said the Philippines produced 1.88 million tonnes of “mismanaged plastic waste” each year, with Asean’s Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia also among the world’s biggest ocean plastic polluters.

The group expected the problem to worsen in Asean amid rising incomes and “exploding demand for consumer items”.

Plastic waste from Indonesia’s PT Torabika Mayora and Philippine firm Universal Robina Corp was also in the top five in the Manila Bay survey.

Thailand should not avoid criticism. In the kingdom bagged goods, like fruit, are bagged again by street vendors before being handed to customers. An extra bag is often added to carry plastic straws, forks and individually bagged condiments. Thais too readily sling plastic bags into the sea and rivers, where they can be mistaken for jellyfish and swallowed by marine life.

The phrase “Mai sai tung” (not with a bag) could become a Thai catchphrase.

Many of Asean’s beaches are spoiled by unsightly plastic waste and Greenpeace’s recent clean-up operation in Manila Bay should be replicated across the region in community-led initiatives. Asean needs to end its love affair with plastic.

Manila Bay rubbish. Picture credit: Wikimedia