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Children collect plastic bottles from the Buriganga river in Dhaka. (Getty Images)
Cover Story

Asian plastic is choking the world's oceans

More than 80% of marine plastic pollution comes from Asia

BANGKOK -- The recent death of a short-finned pilot whale in Songkhla, southern Thailand, triggered a bout of long-overdue national anguish. The creature, discovered in June, was filled to its blowhole with 85 plastic bags that it had mistaken for food. Endangered finless porpoises, Irrawaddy dolphins, and turtles have also been recent casualties of plastic ingestion in Thai waters.

A video of British diver Rich Horner swimming through dense shoals of plastic waste off the Indonesian resort island of Bali went viral in March. Appalled viewers watched as Horner, along with a lone manta ray and the occasional fish, become enveloped in cascades of plastic bags and wrappers.

And near Mumbai, a dead whale recently washed ashore from the Arabian Sea, killed by ingested plastic like its cousin in Thailand. The city's famous Marine Drive is blighted by tons of washed-up waste after high tide; in the absence of an effective municipal response, locals often take it upon themselves to clean up.

Such ominous incidents are finally triggering awareness of the environmental catastrophe caused by plastic waste. The U.K., Chile and China are among countries moving against the profligate use of plastic bags, while companies like Starbucks face mounting pressure to ban plastic straws.

Nowhere is the need for action greater than in Asia, the source of over 80% of the plastic that ends up in the world's oceans. But in most of the region, efforts to tackle the pollution are inadequate or nonexistent.

Plastic and other waste clog a river in Cambodia. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, who was appointed executive director of the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity in April, acknowledged that her group was spurred into action this year only after the scale of the region's problem was highlighted by Ocean Conservancy in Washington.

"Our efforts to protect marine biodiversity started to become more proactive this year after some [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] member states were identified as top marine pollutants," she told the Nikkei Asian Review.

In the 2017 report, Ocean Conservancy found that "Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined."

Alarming statistics are not hard to come by. A similar report by Science magazine in 2015 listed these countries, along with Sri Lanka and Malaysia, as among the world's worst plastic polluters. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, found that "more than a quarter of all the world's marine plastic waste may be pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia."

Research shows that between 8 million and 13 million tons of plastic are dumped into the global marine environment annually. A recent United Nations Environment Program report, "Single-use plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability," estimates the damage to the global marine ecosystem at $13 billion annually.

Southeast Asia has seen some of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, and production of plastic has boomed accordingly. But consumption has outpaced waste management.

The hospitality industry has spread to the region's remotest beaches -- areas that are least able to deal with tourist detritus. Travelers expect plastic containers of soap, shampoo and body lotion, throwaway toothbrushes and shower caps. There are plastic water bottles in every room and straws in every drink.

Rubbish is collected by local authorities who have few funds and even less knowledge about how to recycle properly. The waste often goes into municipal landfills and dumps that are unprotected from heavy rains, mudslides and flooding. A significant portion later washes out to sea from rivers.

A case in point is Ngapali beach in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine State, which was named one of the 10 best beaches in Asia by TripAdvisor in 2016. Development has been largely unregulated, so rubbish bags are piled up along a river. During the monsoon, the bags are swept out to sea, then dumped back on the foreshore. "I fear Ngapali could be destroyed by these environmental problems," Ohnmar Khin, who runs the luxury Sandoway Resort, told Nikkei.

Consumer habits and overpackaging make matters worse. In a single day, the average Singaporean uses 13 plastic bags while the city-state as a whole goes through 2.2 million plastic straws. Thais use a more modest eight bags a day, which amounts to over 500 million each week in Bangkok alone. 

Indonesia reportedly uses 10 billion plastic bags annually, though this may be a very conservative estimate. Official efforts to tackle the problem have failed. A three-month trial in 2016 that introduced a fee for plastic bags in several big cities reduced their use by 55%, but customer complaints against the 200 rupiah (1.4 cent) charge thwarted an extension.   

Americans and Europeans use more plastic per capita than people in Asia but recycling and waste disposal practices are generally more effective. And while the dark side of plastic has become evident, many of its applications remain essential to health, hygiene, and convenience.

A man collects plastic waste at a garbage dump in Bali on April 27. (Getty Images)

Debi Goenka, the founder of Conservation Action Trust, an Indian NGO, confirms that India, with its massive 1.3 billion population, has less plastic waste per capita than more advanced economies, but great difficulty managing it. "Our consumption patterns compared to the rest of the globe are pathetic, but we are getting to that stage now," he told Nikkei. 

Plastic, plastic everywhere

During a three-month expedition to Antarctica in early 2018, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise confirmed the presence of microplastics in the water, snow and ice, and sighted larger pieces of waste from the fishing industry. Old buoys, nets, and tarpaulins float among the icebergs.

"Even the 'world's last wilderness' is contaminated with microplastic waste and persistent hazardous chemicals," Greenpeace campaigner Louisa Casson reported.

The prognosis is bleak. The U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation expects there to be more plastic than fish in the oceans within three decades. Experts say all seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050, and 600 marine species will have been harmed.

"Plastic is not the major driver of fisheries decline, but in a precarious situation it contributes unnecessary pressure," says Jerker Tamelander, who runs the coral reef unit at the United Nations Environment Program in Bangkok. "Even if the fisheries were sustainable, plastic would be a significant problem because the volumes are so vast."

Part of the problem is abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear, or ALDFG. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, so-called ghost nets make up 10% of marine litter. There are an estimated 640,000 tons of fishing nets lost or discarded at sea, mostly made from heavy nylon. These can travel thousands of kilometers, and continue "fishing," or smothering reefs, for centuries. It has been estimated that 80% of ALDFG found around Australia originates in Southeast Asia.

On dry land, Southeast Asia's plastic waste problem has been aggravated this year by e-waste from used electronic devices and old white goods that contain large amounts of hard plastic, particularly in the casings. Hard plastics in electronic components are often treated with brominated fire retardants, many of which have been banned in the U.S. and Europe after studies found links to a variety of serious health problems.

China, the world's largest commercial processor of e-waste from home and abroad, implemented a ban on imports from the U.S. and Europe this year. It is overwhelmed by what it once hoped would be a remunerative industry. E-waste imports in countries like Thailand and Malaysia have surged since.

A man sits among massive piles of plastic and other waste on a beach in Munbai, India. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Shunichi Honda, a UNEP program officer in Japan, believes that efforts need to be made to stimulate local processing capacity of all waste if the goals of a 1989 U.N. treaty, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, are to be achieved.

"Some countries in Asia do not have proper facilities for e-waste disposal," Honda told Nikkei. "We really have to think about economic incentives, and how a country can deal with e-waste itself."

Slow to respond

ASEAN is only belatedly waking up to this dire environmental crisis. In early July, the grouping's secretariat in Jakarta inadvertently confirmed its laggardly response with a press release titled: "ASEAN joins movement to beat plastic pollution."

Lim noted that ASEAN has no official campaign or regional mechanism to compel ASEAN's 10 member states to address the problem. "The pollution cannot be addressed at the national level alone, as marine debris moves across political boundaries," Lim said.

She hopes senior environment officials meeting in Singapore later in the year will "formalize the adoption of coastal and marine biodiversity protection as a priority for the center."

But, for now, the collective response to the plastic problem in Southeast Asia is inchoate, inadequate, and uncoordinated.

Brunei has plans to ban plastic bags outright by 2019, and some vendors in the Philippines have mounted a Bring Your Own Bag campaign. Malaysia has moved against polystyrene containers and promoted recycling of household waste, but households continue to use shopping bags for trash that goes into landfills in the absence of incinerators.

Thailand has a number of plastic awareness programs, yet many of its fuel stations continue to woo motorists with free water in large, single-use plastic bottles.

The shellfish farms of Sriracha, the Thai seaside town that gave the world its eponymous hot chili sauce, are awash with plastic. Inland, dogs and monkeys rummage through overturned garbage, scattering plastic refuse to the winds.

It is estimated that Thailand fails to manage more than a third of the 27 million tons of waste it generates each year. Much of this ends up in rivers and canals that flush into the sea, particularly during the monsoon -- up to 60,000 tons each year, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources estimates.

The "pristine" resort island of Koh Tao has a 45,000-ton garbage mountain. Phuket's Maya Bay, where the Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Beach" was filmed, has been closed for four months to recover from tourism excesses and pollution. Koh Larn off Pattaya receives 10,000 visitors per day and has accumulated 50,000 tons of rubbish.

Children float on a makeshift raft as they collect recyclable plastic bottles along the coast of Manila Bay in the Philippines.   © Reuters

Other countries have been precipitate in their approach. Maharashtra, which accounts for about 15% of India's gross domestic product, is the 20th Indian state to introduce some form of plastic ban. On June 23, it imposed a blanket ban on plastic bags, bottles, disposable cups, plates, cutlery, wrappers and polystyrene containers.

With companies like Coca-Cola and Amazon banging at its door, the state government relented a week later on bottles of drinking water over 200 mL, medical packaging, wrapping materials thicker than 50 micrometers and garbage bags. Most shops in Mumbai, the state capital, are so far complying with the ban, and offer paper or textile bags at the checkout.

Use once, throw away

Between 1970 and 2016, Singapore saw a sevenfold increase in its solid waste generation to 8,559 tons a day. With only one landfill option, it opened one of the world's largest incineration plants in 2000 with a capacity of 4,320 tons per day. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which built the facility in just 38 months, has since opened a regional base in Singapore and sees significant business opportunities in the region.

Waste-to-energy incinerators have the virtue of congregating bulky waste and reducing it to ash using self-generated power; surplus power generated by steam turbines can then be sold to the national grid. As landfills become fuller, more incinerators are likely to appear in the region.

Thailand operates incinerators in Phuket, Songkhla and Phitsanulok, but not Bangkok. Last year, the country generated 171 megawatts from waste, equivalent to 1.7% of its total 10,013 MW. The modest target for 2036 is 550 MW, or 2.8%, according to the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency.

A mountain of recyclable bottles is piled up in Xa Cau Village, outside Hanoi.   © Reuters

Properly designed and operated incinerators can burn off plastics at the correct temperatures, handle dangerous byproducts like dioxins and nitrous oxide, and filter out other noxious fumes. On the negative side, they produce carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.

Tamelander believes incinerators should not be regarded as a panacea. "As a transition strategy to a lower waste society, incinerators certainly have a role to play," he said. "We must absolutely reduce waste generation, increase recycling -- and effectively stem the flow of fuel to those incinerators."

Better management and more efficient recycling will clearly be core to resolving the world's waste plastic crisis. According to the National Environment Agency of Singapore, the recycling rate for plastics in 2017 was just 6% out of 763,400 tons of plastic waste disposed.

Globally, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates only 14% of plastic is recycled, and that between $80 billion and $120 billion is lost each year to one-time use. The foundation estimates that a third of all plastic packaging leaks into ecosystems.

Plastics contain chemicals, heavy metals, and compounds known to be harmful to humans, but the consequences of eating from a manifestly contaminated food chain are still unclear. And this is where the longest-lasting effects of today's plastics crisis come into view, according to Michael Gross, an Oxford-based science writer.

"Seabirds with stomachs full of plastic waste and turtles entangled in plastic bags have become symbols of the marine litter problem, but the impact at the smaller, less visible scale may be even more severe, and science is only just beginning to explore this problem," he said.

Tamelander says microplastics are routinely found in tissue samples of filter feeders like mussels and in the flesh of fish, but more research needs to be done to determine "to what extent that is a human health hazard."

"Fish-sourced plastic in humans constitutes an additional vulnerability, an additional pressure above and beyond what we already have," he said. "Does it cause us greater harm? There are more questions than answers, and I am not sure the answers will be the ones we want."

Additional reporting by Erwida Maulia in Jakarta, Rosemary Marandi and Ken Koyanagi in Mumbai, Cliff Venzon in Manila, Gwen Robinson in Bangkok, Justina Lee in Singapore and CK Tan in Kuala Lumpur

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