More plastic bags than fish: East Asia’s new environmental threat

Protecting marine environments is a growing priority in East Asia

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Photo by The Ocean Cleanup Project

Photo by The Ocean Cleanup Project

SINGAPORE (East Asia Forum) -- In March 2019, the fourth Session of the UN Environment Assembly convened in Kenya to discuss the environmental and climate challenges outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 agenda. The protection of oceans with a specific focus on curbing marine plastic pollution was among the points discussed.

Protecting marine environments is a growing priority in East Asia. In 2016, the World Economic Forum predicted that there would be more ocean plastic waste than fish by 2050 without effective intervention. The conference adopted resolutions on promoting sustainable development, including cooperation in reducing marine plastic debris.

Marine plastic pollution can threaten the security and development of regional countries and destroys the marine ecosystem by killing sea creatures and polluting the marine environment. Seafood contaminated with microplastics threatens food safety and public health across Asia as many people in the region rely on seafood for their protein intake.

Unsustainable practices in marine-related economic sectors are contributing to the surging amount of plastic debris in regional seas that harm local businesses. Bali and Boracay depend on revenues from tourism. Severe plastic pollution in the coastal areas damages their reputation as popular tourist destinations, while disruption in the marine ecosystem can also intensify competition between states for marine resources.

China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand accounted for 60 per cent of the plastic waste disposed of in the oceans according to a report by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment in 2015. Japan ranks second globally at the per capita level.

But some countries are taking action to tackle the challenge. Indonesia has set a target to reduce marine plastic debris by 70 per cent by 2025. The central government imposed a trial of taxing single-use plastic bags in some cities in 2016. In 2017 they pledged US$1 billion to reduce marine plastic debris and other wastes.

In Singapore, the National Parks Board and the International Coastal Cleanup, a non-governmental organization, started a two-year study in 2017 at nine coastal sites. Conservationists and scientists presented The Blue Plan to the government in October 2018 outlining recommendations on how to monitor and reduce marine plastic waste.


(Photo by Pixabay user Bilyjan)

Vietnam and the Philippines are developing a national action plan to deal with the mounting challenge. The Japanese government started the discussion to draft a national strategy with specific goals and targets in August 2018. There are also discussions on strengthening regulations and laws related to the issue, with a bill passed in June 2018 aimed at reducing microplastics.

Indonesia held the Our Ocean Conference in October 2018 where Indonesia, New Zealand and Japan called for regional cooperation in tackling marine plastic waste and invited regional countries to join the initiative. The East Asia Summit (EAS) adopted the Leaders’ Statement on Combating Marine Plastic Debris in November 2018.

Indonesia is pushing for the development of a Regional Plan of Action to be adopted by the EAS in 2019. Thailand — as Chair of ASEAN — sees addressing the issue of marine plastic debris as part of its overall effort to promote sustainability through cooperation and partnership. ASEAN held the Special Ministerial Meeting on Marine Debris in Bangkok in March 2019 to discuss how the region can address the challenge through strengthened cooperation. A regional declaration on combating marine plastic wastes is likely to be presented to ASEAN leaders later this year.

The increasing attention to marine plastic waste reduction is encouraging government commitments and public awareness. But more needs to be done.

The approach to effectively reduce marine plastic debris and microplastics should include restrictions or prohibition on single-use plastic products and improve waste management, legislation, law enforcement, the transformation of consumption and production, financing and the application of technology.

Despite the increasing awareness and commitments, challenges remain. Restricting the use of single-use plastic products is likely to increase business costs and meet resistance from the business community, influencing government policies. For example, the Indonesian government drafted a regulation to tax plastic bags in 2018 but the draft is still being debated by different ministries and the release is likely to be later than expected.

Reducing single-use plastic products and increasing recycling means gradual changes in people’s consumption habits. To seek public understanding and cooperation, raising awareness and providing incentives is necessary in the initial phase. Grassroots groups — both governmental and non-governmental — are on the forefront of facilitating these changes.

The Philippines and Thailand closed down tourist islands in 2018 to tackle coastal and marine pollution. This raised concerns over the livelihoods of the local communities that are dependent on the tourist industry. Incentives and alternatives are needed to ensure understanding and cooperation from locals.

Technological advancements that make degrading plastic less harmful for the environment is also part of the solution. Japan initiated cooperation with ASEAN by providing technological and financial support for the Knowledge Centre on ASEAN Marine Debris. The epistemic community and the private sector have important roles in providing technological expertise and financing schemes. A holistic approach that addresses different dimensions of marine plastic pollution and involves multiple actors is essential for effective solutions to the challenge.


(photo by pixabay user olafpictures)

Lina Gong is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article was first published here by RSIS, and subsequently on East Asia Forum on April 20, 2019.