Source Asia Sentinel

HONG KONG, SAR: In the wake of China’s 2018 ban on plastics recycling, criminal organizations have been illegally shipping waste to Southeast Asia, passing through “multiple transit countries” to camouflage the origins of the shipments, according to Interpol, with “significant use of counterfeit documents and fraudulent waste registrations.” Some plastic waste reaches Asia from Italy by way of its neighbor Slovenia.
It is a problem that an OECD committee, meeting this week in Ottawa, is attempting to address by seeking to thrash out legally binding controls to stop what is called “waste trafficking,” which remains insidious and is growing.
But Asia’s plastic problems will by no means be solved in Ottawa. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam themselves dump more plastic into the world’s oceans than all the other countries on Earth combined. China dumps so much plastic directly into the sea near Taiwan’s outlying Matsu Island, just 9 km. from the Chinese coast, that almost 900 tonnes of it was collected in 2023 by the island’s government, which is seeking to return it to China.
A significant portion of this comes down to ordinary citizens dumping refuse directly into rivers that flow into the sea, and fishermen throwing all manner of plastic overboard on the high seas is yet another cause for the problem. The amount of plastic and waste tossed into Java’s world-infamous Citarum “River of trash” by local Indonesians would make the polluting residents of Manaus, Brazil blush. The Brantas, Solo, Serayu, and Progo rivers in Indonesia rank among the most polluted 20 in the world. 
The Philippines is also one of the world’s worst plastic polluters, discarding up to 750,000 tonnes into the seas every year, clogging Manila Bay, sullying the archipelago’s once-pristine beaches and mangroves, endangering marine life everywhere in the region. Plastic breaks down in the oceans into microplastics that fish consume and that inevitably ends up in the food chain, with as-yet unknown health effects. Much of it eventually feeds the five gargantuan trash vortexes in the world’s oceans, the biggest of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that plagues the Pacific Ocean and covers an area three times the area of France.
Public relations campaigns to cut consumption, educational initiatives, and clean-up events have been launched in all or most Asian countries in an effort to tackle citizen and corporate bad habits, to little avail. The OECD’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, meeting in Ottawa, views the industrial-scale plastic exports to places like Malaysia and India as a major threat to getting a handle on waste.
Ahead of this week’s meeting, the OECD published a paper titled “Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): Basic Facts and Key Principles” to clarify policy perspectives. The group explains: “EPR is a policy approach that makes producers responsible for their products along the entire lifecycle, including at the post-consumer stage. An EPR policy is characterized by the shifting of responsibility (physically and/or economically; fully or partially) upstream to producers; and the provision of incentives to producers to take into account environmental considerations when designing their products. Governments that embrace the EPR approach use a suite of policy instruments to shift financial–and sometimes operational–responsibility of waste management and material recovery from governments to producers.”
The OECD’s producer responsibility policy makes use of an institutionalized mechanism not only to hold plastic waste exporters to account for their exports, but to track and tax them as well. It is a significant step in the right direction and is already tightening things up on the international business of exporting plastic to largely developing or non-OECD countries.
But is it enough to stop the tidal wave of plastic engulfing the region? According to Nikkei, in 2018 China banned the imports of both plastic and electronic waste on the grounds that it was unrecyclable, with the result that most of those imports flowed down into Southeast Asian countries instead, sullying once-sparkling beaches from Java to Myanmar’s Andaman Sea coast and smothering them in layers of plastic, with the sand nowhere to be seen as illegal recycling sites sprouted across the region.
As a result of China’s ban, for instance, illegal plastic recycling facilities quickly popped up in Malaysia, with some operators establishing recycling plants and waste dumpsites in oil palm plantations to hide them, according to the environmental blog New Security Beat. In 2019, Malaysian authorities closed 170 illegal recycling factories in a series of raids, according to the blog, declaring that the country wouldn’t become the new dumping ground for western waste. Customs officials started refusing waste imports. In total, some 225 containers filled with plastic waste were returned to 21 countries. From 2016 to 2018 alone, the region saw plastic waste imports grow by 171 percent to 2.26 million tonnes, according to Greenpeace in 2019.
However, Malaysian import companies with approved permits continue to bring in plastic waste. While these imports are a hot button issue, they make up a smaller portion of Malaysia’s total plastic waste—the bulk stems from domestic consumption of single-use plastics. In 2018, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry recorded that 167 open dump waste disposal facilities were still operating.
Virtually anyone who travels to the islands and beaches of Southeast Asia can quickly notice the curse. Even those who haven’t visited the region have likely seen photos of sea turtles and marine mammals dying of plastic waste entanglement. And this is the part that the OECD, with its best plans and intentions, can’t tackle: the average citizen’s habits of littering, and that of local companies that agree to take in waste but later “recycle” it in ways that don’t align with the initial terms of agreement with OECD countries who they have signed contracts with.
More developed Asian countries such as Taiwan in recent years have touted plastic straw bans, and the island has also pledged to halve plastic bag usage by 50 percent in the next two decades. The Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries have also banned certain kinds of consumer plastic bags, to be replaced with paper. They have also begun charging nominal amounts for plastic bags that remain in use. Such goals are also a step in the right direction, but are they enough? It remains to be seen, but with huge amounts of plastic still found all over Taiwan’s shorelines, one would feel skeptical.
Are the white powder beaches and once-clear rivers of Asia a memory of a bygone era? The challenges to cleaning up the plastic waste problem in the region might well be beyond the scope, or even the imagination, of an international organization such as the OECD, or that of national or local governments. Nonetheless, the beauty of natural Asia and the health of its people—and that of the rest of the world—requires an all-out effort, despite the challenges.