Executive summary

Nowhere is the threat to the environment from discarded plastic waste greater than in Asia. According to one estimate, over half of the plastic waste leaked into the world’s oceans in 2015 originated from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Plastic leakage puts the marine, freshwater and land ecosystems of the entire region at risk, but South-east Asia faces particularly difficult challenges due to relatively undeveloped plastics management infrastructure in its largest countries.

Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are already among the largest generators of plastic waste in the world, all figuring in an infamous list of top 20 countries in 2016. Their predicament has only been exacerbated by the covid-19 crisis: the volumes of plastic waste generated have, if anything, increased since early 2020 (due partly to increased usage of PPE—personal protective equipment—and lockdown surges of home deliveries), according to anecdotal accounts from experts interviewed for this study.

The enforced idling of recyclers and informal waste collectors during pandemic lockdowns has compounded these difficulties. And the region’s continued importing of plastic waste from other parts of the world—which climbed sharply after China discontinued the practice in 2018—adds another layer of complexity to its plastics management challenge.

The enormous leakage of plastic waste in Southeast Asia currently shows no signs of abating, but there are reasons for optimism:

  • There are signs that plastics lifecycle management is being put on a firmer foundation in the region’s largest countries. After years of neglect, governments are finally putting policies in place to regulate different aspects of plastics production, use and disposal.
  • Recognising that plastic waste reduction is a cross-border challenge, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also taking action, launching a regional action plan for combatting marine plastic waste in May 2021.
  • While their governments get up to speed with policy implementation, a vast informal sector of waste collectors and aggregators is performing a critical role in the region’s plastics ecosystem, delivering waste to numerous recyclers. Although fragmented and unwieldy, the informal sector can be a significant contributor to future plastics circularity if integrated more closely with the formal parts of the ecosystem.
  • Finally, non-government organisations (NGOs) and social enterprises have sprung up across the region to stem the tide of plastic waste where governments and the private sector have been inactive or ineffective. These are attracting the material support of international organisations, which are also advising governments and mobilising multi-stakeholder initiatives to promote plastics circularity.

However, there is no understating the scale of the challenge the region’s countries face—no less than the creation of a new framework for managing the lifecycle of plastic products, extending from design to production to consumption to disposal and beyond. The ultimate goal must be to close this loop and achieve plastics circularity.

Key South-east Asia findings of The Plastics Management Index

As detailed in this programme’s flagship report, the Plastics Management Index (PMI) compares how 25 countries manage their plastics lifecycle. The PMI includes four South-east Asian nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The countries’ scores and ranks are based on their performance in three categories of indicators: governance, capacity infrastructure and stakeholder engagement. The index’s main findings specific to South-east Asia are as follows:


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