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Plastic waste is a growing menace, and a wasted opportunity

Southeast Asia has emerged as a hot spot for plastic pollution

| Southeast Asia
A rubber duck pictured among various plastic trash on a garbage-filled shore on Freedom Island, off the coast of Manila in the Philippines.   © Reuters

Alfonso Garcia Mora is IFC Vice President for Asia and Pacific. Victoria Kwakwa is World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific.

The use of plastics is deeply embedded in our daily lives, in everything from grocery bags and cutlery to water bottles and sandwich wrap. But the quest for convenience has gone too far and we are failing to use plastics efficiently, wasting valuable resources and harming the environment.

Plastic overconsumption and mismanagement of plastic waste is a growing menace, causing landfills to overflow, choking rivers, and threatening marine ecosystems. This has a negative impact on sectors that are critical to many economies, including tourism, shipping and fisheries.

Southeast Asia has emerged as a hot spot for plastic pollution because of rapid urbanization and a rising middle class, whose consumption of plastic products and packaging is growing due to their convenience and versatility. But local waste management infrastructure has not kept pace, resulting in large quantities of mismanaged waste. COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation due to increased consumption of masks, sanitizer bottles and online delivery packaging.

In Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, more than 75% of the material value of recyclable plastic is lost -- the equivalent of $6 billion a year when single-use plastic is discarded rather than recovered and recycled, according to a series of landmark studies by the World Bank Group.

With only 18 to 28% of recyclable plastic recovered and recycled in these countries, most plastic packaging waste is not only left to pollute the environment, littering beaches and roadsides, but its value to these economies is also lost. This needs to change. Transforming how we use and manage plastic is imperative and we must help countries shift to a circular economy that seeks to design products that create no waste, or are reused and recycled.

Momentum is building to combat this issue. Countries, corporations, and communities are developing strategies and taking actions to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. Governments in Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia have prepared circular economy road maps to prioritize plastics-related policies and investments in target sectors and locations. Leading global brands and retailers have made voluntary commitments to make their plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

The public and private sector are joining hands to realign priorities, rethink approaches and change mindsets toward seeing plastic as a valuable resource and business opportunity rather than waste. These include public-private platforms such as the Thailand Public-Private Partnership for Plastic and Waste Management, the Malaysia Sustainable Plastic Alliance and the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability.

But more needs to be done. The World Bank Group studies show models such as reuse and refill are at a nascent stage in these three countries and currently aren't scalable enough to match the magnitude of the growing plastic waste problem. Alternate materials based on renewables rather than fossil fuel-based feedstocks are still a niche market not yet supported by local standards or infrastructure.

Despite the opportunity to make money from plastic recycling, several market failures constrain private sector investment. Moreover, the economics of recycling continues to be challenged by cheaper virgin plastics. Local, small and medium-sized enterprises hard hit by COVID-19 are unable to capitalize on the growing demand for recycled content from global brands.

There is an urgent need to invest in local collection and recycling infrastructure to divert plastic waste away from landfills, open burning, and the marine environment. Often, countries import plastic waste scrap because of its better quality, while exporting recycled plastic to meet overseas demand. Emerging markets like the Philippines are net exporters of plastic waste scrap because they lack the capacity for domestic recycling and better economics for exports. This is where the public and private sectors can step in.

Fabric recycled from plastic bottles. Transforming how we use and manage plastic is imperative to help countries shift to a "circular" economy.   © Reuters

Governments can play a crucial role in developing standards and policies to strengthen demand for recycled plastic, level the playing field for global and domestic companies and help drive a circular economy for plastics. Toward this end, the World Bank Group is promoting "plastic-smart investments" by developing innovative economic instruments, creating incentive mechanisms and identifying investments across major economic sectors that could reduce plastic waste.

Policy options include holding producers and importers of plastic goods responsible for the disposal of plastic waste, and economic instruments, including taxes, to help phase out nonessential plastic items. Policies, standards and guidelines must be harmonized through specific regional actions aligned to national agendas.

To create an enabling environment, it is particularly important to develop and implement recycled plastic content standards for major consumer products. This can help decouple recycled and virgin plastic prices and create local market demand for recycled and upcycled plastic products.

The private sector must be a critical partner in driving solutions to the plastics challenge -- leading material, technology and financing innovations, contributing to education and engagement, and intensifying cleanup efforts. For its part, the International Finance Corporation is developing a framework to help create a new "asset class" of blue loans and bonds to mobilize capital for the nascent market to tackle marine plastic pollution.

To catalyze the transition to a circular economy, the private sector needs to advance eco-friendly alternatives to plastic and innovative business models to support its reuse and recycling. This will help investors align with government interests and create value from used plastic, and most importantly, pave the way for a more sustainable future.

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