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.