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Opinion

Asia's consumers must take lead in abandoning plastic packaging

Switching to renewable sources will protect environment and boost economy

| India
Asian countries are among the world's biggest sources of ocean plastic pollution.   © Reuters

Environmental sustainability is a global hot topic. Japan produces more plastic packaging waste per capita than any other nation except the U.S., and so the Japanese government recently announced that all retailers, including supermarkets and convenience stores, must charge for plastic bags from next summer.

Solving plastic pollution is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Globally, 360 million tonnes of new plastic are produced every year and up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the oceans, which leads to irreversible harm to biodiversity and the environment. Less than 10% of plastic ever made has been recycled.

Asian countries are among the world's biggest sources of ocean plastic pollution -- more than half of the ocean's plastic waste originates from just five nations in the region. The prevalence of plastic as a cheap and durable material in Asian consumers' daily lives, along with a preference for convenience, means the region's plastic waste crisis is likely to worsen.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some governments have failed to acknowledge that the ongoing and prolific use of fossil-based plastics is unsustainable, contributes to climate change and pollutes the environment at every stage in their life cycle.

Over the years, several studies conducted internationally have shown that consumers have become more conscious of their environmental footprint and want brands to embrace sustainability.

However, the higher price of alternative materials made from renewable resources has resulted in most businesses in the region choosing to focus on cost rather than being environmentally responsible. This will continue to delay the transition from the current unsustainable, linear economic model toward a regenerative circular economy where there is no waste, only valuable resources.

The shift from plastics has also been challenging because of a lack of understanding of sustainable alternatives and a lack of enforced standards, which have resulted in the emergence of false and confusing solutions that continue to rely on cheap fossil-based plastic.

Brand owners greenwash with terminology such as biodegradable, oxo-degradable and landfill degradable, all meant to suggest the plastics break down. These products are touted as a solution to plastic pollution yet there is no independently reviewed scientific evidence that proves these claims.

Nevertheless, Asia is picking up the pace in tackling the plastic crisis. Countries across the region such as India and Japan have either begun discussions about or planned to implement initiatives to curb the amount of single-use disposable plastics.

Japan is to introduce mandatory fees on plastic shopping bags from July 2020.

Efforts have largely been focused on businesses, such as implementing regulations requiring them to take part in the recycling of plastics or banning single-use items.

Another method commonly adopted by governments has been plastic-bag charges. In Australia, where this has been implemented, it has reduced the number of plastic bags used by more than 80%.

But more often than not, the effectiveness of a bottom-up approach is overlooked and the ability of consumers to effect change is underestimated. In fact, consumers are crucial in turning the situation around as they possess the power to influence businesses by demanding and supporting those who are advocating for the adoption of more sustainable alternatives to fossil-based plastics.

By supporting brands who introduce sustainable solutions, such as compostable packaging derived from renewable resources, consumers place greater pressure on other brand owners and businesses to adopt such alternatives in their day-to-day operations if they are to remain relevant in a competitive marketplace.

My company BioPak's recent partnership with food-delivery service Deliveroo is one such example. This will replace single-use plastic packaging with compostable alternatives for Deliveroo's operations in Singapore as more consumers enjoy the convenience of food delivery services, which traditionally rely on huge quantities of single-use disposable plastic packs and utensils.

A future without greenwashing is only possible with informed brand owners and educated consumers. Businesses and governments need to do more to ensure that consumers understand the environmental damage caused by plastics and to provide them with the knowledge required to identify false and misleading claims.

Otherwise, plastic usage will continue to escalate and further exacerbate climate change, which poses a significant threat to every facet of society -- the economy, environment and human health.

Richard Fine is Founder and Sustainability Director of BioPak, a sustainable packaging company.

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