Since Jan. 1, when China stopped accepting the rich world's recyclable plastic waste, it's gotten a ton of criticism for worsening the already deep crisis of ocean plastic pollution.
Since Jan. 1, when China stopped accepting the rich world’s recyclable plastic waste, it’s gotten a ton of criticism for worsening the already deep crisis of ocean plastic pollution. But China isn’t the only culprit here. This is a crisis made — and growing worse — throughout developing Asia.
Just eight countries in the region are responsible for about 63 percent of total plastic waste flowing into the oceans. Little of that junk has been exported by rich economies. Instead, it’s almost solely generated by Asia’s newly minted consumer classes, the vast majority of whom lack access to garbage collection, modern landfills and incineration. Any progress in reducing ocean plastic will have to start with them.
A boom in garbage is almost always the result of two related phenomena: urbanization and income growth. Rural dwellers moving to the city shift from buying unpackaged goods to buying stuff (especially food) wrapped in plastic. As their incomes rise, their purchases increase. That growth in consumption is almost never matched by expanded garbage collection and disposal. In typical low-income countries, less than half of all garbage is collected formally, and what little is picked up tends to end up in unregulated open dumps. In 2015, scientists estimated that as much as 88 percent of the waste generated in Vietnam is either littered or tossed into uncontained dumps. In China, the rate is about 77 percent. By comparison, the U.S. rate is 2 percent.
Every big city in developing Asia faces this problem. Jakarta’s waterways are choked with plastic trash. In Kuala Lumpur, instances of open dumping line the high-speed train route to the airport. On the outskirts of any Chinese city, loose plastic bags and instant-noodle cups litter every road’s shoulder. Much of this junk ends up in waterways — and, eventually, the ocean. One study found that eight of the 10 rivers conveying the most plastic waste into the oceans are in Asia. China’s Yangtze alone delivers 1.5 million metric tons of plastic to the Yellow Sea each year.
Solutions to all this have proved chronically elusive. China has prohibited retailers from providing free plastic bags for a decade, to almost no effect. In Indonesia, longstanding efforts to tax plastic bottles and containers have run into the reality that few locals have access to piped or uncontaminated water. Although recycling is common in Asia, plastic presents an often insurmountable challenge: Technical and environmental factors render much of it unrecyclable, especially in developing regions. In fact, only about 9 percent of plastics are recycled globally.
Yet there’s another, far more promising option: Improve regular old trash collection. A recent study by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment found that boosting trash collection rates to 80 percent in just five Asian countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — could reduce ocean plastic waste by a whopping 23 percent over a decade. No other solution can promise such an immediate or lasting impact.
Pulling it off won’t be easy. Garbage collection and disposal is often the most expensive line-item on city budgets in the developing world, and achieving the study’s goal would require $4 billion to $5 billion per year. But that’s not impossible: In the U.K., aid organizations are pushing the government to spend 3 percent of its annual foreign aid on waste collection and disposal in the developing world (currently, it spends 0.3 percent). If that goal were adopted by other rich countries, it could be a game-changer for ocean plastics.
The private sector could also help. An American advocacy group called Closed Loop Ocean is raising $150 million from global corporations — including 3M Co., Coca-Cola Co., and Procter & Gamble Co. — to invest in scalable waste collection and disposal businesses in India and Indonesia. Petrochemical and plastics companies should be next to join.
All this is just a start, of course. Developing Asia will eventually need many more modern landfills, incinerators and self-funding recycling programs. But for now, one reform could have a bigger global impact than just about any other: Start picking up the trash.