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Over 8 billion kilograms of plastic enter the world’s oceans every year. Marine plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental concerns facing the world today. Asia, in particular, has been detrimental to the oceans, with 5 countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – generating ~60% of this marine plastic waste leakage.
This trend is not surprising. These Asian countries are grappling with a huge appetites for plastic in industrial and consumer applications. At the same time, proper waste management infrastructure is not being developed as quickly to mitigate waste. Without a strong network of stakeholders, proper awareness building, knowledge dissemination and disciplined enforcement of policies and strategies, it is no wonder that most ocean plastic waste come from land-based sources such as beach litter and sewage.
Marine plastic pollution – a systemic, ecosystem-wide problem
The impact of marine plastic pollution goes far beyond what we see floating on the surface of the oceans. The severity of this issue hits closer to home when research also shows that more than 80% of global drinking tap water samples are tested positive for plastic content. Toxic gases emanating from open dumping grounds, reduction in fishing catches, loss in tourism, and more – all add to the large-scale systemic problem we are facing with marine plastic pollution. If this trajectory continues, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
The circular economy, by using plastics to their maximum value through recovering and regenerating products even after the end of their service life, is a viable alternative to the current linear plastic economy of take, make, use, dispose. There is about USD 4.5 trillion on business opportunities to be tapped on within this space which, along with environmental and social benefits, can have significant cost savings. Solutions within the plastics circular economy can therefore encourage an alternate production system and address the challenges faced with increasing consumption, waste management and end of life of plastics and turn it into an opportunity.
With a spotlight on four Southeast Asian countries – which are also the biggest marine plastic polluters in the world – I have highlighted key investment opportunities that can help move us towards a circular economy.
Build ecosystem-wide infrastructure support
Improve downstream communication systems
While national policies, strategies, programs and projects are in place, there is a lack of coordination and knowledge capacity among institutions and stakeholders downstream. With such inconsistencies, it is, therefore, rare to see large waste management companies investing on a regional level.
Investing in advanced downstream communication channels to effectively build capacity across various stakeholders.
Encourage transparent data-sharing
Most of these countries have limited data and information on waste inventory. It is important to build up-to-date data to assess the severity of the challenges at hand, develop relevant policies, and execute the right interventions.
To take on this massive challenge and start tracking data, government agencies, local communities and private sector participants need to be engaged.
Adopt sustainable business models and sustainability strategies
Integrate informal waste management markets into business value chains
Collecting and buying recyclable waste has historically been managed by informal waste pickers for many decades. As such, it has been a deterrent for big recycling businesses to navigate through the informal waste management system.
Nonetheless, there are opportunities for corporations to become inclusive businesses by integrating these informal stakeholders into their formal business value chains. These private sector companies can not only expand their market base but also provide income opportunities for people at the bottom of the pyramid.
At the same time, mobilizing private efforts – both financial and non-financial capital – to support front-end solutions such as mechanisms for waste reduction and sustainable consumption is also important. Kopernik in Indonesia sources the best technologies and distribute them to last mile communities. Evergreen Labs in Vietnam, on the other hand, advises environmentally-conscious business solutions in frontier markets and prototypes recycling machines that can produce new tradable products. For these solutions to scale, however, a blend of philanthropic and business approaches has to be harnessed to cover the upfront cost of developing and sending technology to the last mile.
Develop sustainable business models to maintain constant availability of feedstock
A key challenge in developing a strong recycling business in Southeast Asia is the availability of waste feedstock. Even though governments offer subsidies and tax incentives, a lack of waste sorting causes the industry to struggle to establish a constant supply of recyclable waste. Formalising the waste management sector and developing business models that increase the waste recycling rate across value chain could address this challenge.
Foster community behavioral change
Increase public awareness and best practices
Historically, there has been inadequate environmental awareness programs to encourage sustainable public consumption and waste segregation practices. With emerging waste streams including e-waste, waste management companies have to grapple with complex waste composition and contamination as all waste is simply dumped into the same landfill. A shift in community behaviors will be required for lasting change. Social purpose organizations like Mother Earth Foundation in Philippines works with schools on waste reduction while Trash Hero in Thailand supports local businesses and volunteers to build movements around consumer behavior change.
There are still a myriad of opportunities to address marine plastics pollution. With this canvas in mind, our published report Surfacing Innovative Solutions for Reducing Marine Plastic Pollution has surfaced some solutions across the four markets that are investment ready. Reach out to us at [email protected] to get connected and catalyze an environment for circular economies to thrive in Southeast Asia!