Southeast Asia is in the spotlight for a series of pollution-related quarrels between the Global North and South.
Only 9% of plastic in the world is recycled. Almost 80%, according to National Geographic, is stuck in landfills.
The Philippines is one of the biggest contributors of plastic waste globally—2.7 million tonnes, or 6% of the world’s waste, and almost double the waste of Central Asia and Europe combined.
The rest of the world has started a fight against plastic waste. The year 2018 brought a lot of apparent wins: Montreal implemented a ban on plastic bags with less than 50-microns thickness. December 2018 marked a Boston-wide ban on plastic bags. The European Commission began its extensive directive towards the reduction of plastic pollution.
But a recent series of diplomatic events has shown that the problem of plastic pollution—or waste, in general—isn’t so easily solved, as the Global South, particularly those in Southeast Asia, have spoken out against taking trash that’s been dumped illegally from the West.
Last week, President Duterte hovered over the possibility of severing diplomatic ties with Canada over 1,500 metric tons of waste which were exported to the country in earlier years.
The Philippines has been taking trash exports from other countries; it is a practice that is common within the industry, particularly among Southeast Asian countries. But this dispute between the Philippines and Canada over trash has highlighted how the power discrepancies between nations creates an inaccurate portrayal of where the world’s trash problems are coming from.
The Malaysian government recently announced that waste from the UK, Australia and the United States has been illegally dumped on their grounds for years.
“A country’s development is related to plastic use.”
— Tara Abrina, research officer at Marine Science Institute.
The World of Plastic
According to statistics, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines are the three biggest plastic polluters in the world. But this pollution largely occurs due to “mismanagement,” rather than actual production.
Studies show that high-income countries have the tendency to generate more plastic per person, but are also managing their plastic waste much more effectively than low-income or middle-income countries. And while plastic waste carries big consequences, like contaminating global waters, not all countries are equipped to handle the burden.
“In a way, it is still a kind of privilege to implement policies surrounding plastic waste,” Anna Reyes, a researcher and consultant for NGOs, says. “Advanced economies have the allocations and resources to respond. In a way, the UK’s new taxation law is also a responsive measure to the recycled plastic crisis,” Anna says, referring to China’s recent ban on imports of recycled plastic, a part of which came from the UK.
The ban displaced more than 100 million metric tonnes of plastic, forcing countries that were large exporters to find alternative ways to manage their recycled plastic. Among the top ten countries exporting plastic waste are Hong Kong, US, Japan, and Germany.
As Malaysia and the Philippines are returning their contaminated plastic waste back to the countries they came from, will nations be forced to deal with their plastic problems at the source?
“Plastic pollution can be tackled via its different life cycle stages… production, disposal, recycling… Development economists are saying that the system, the economy that houses this cycle is crucial,” Tara Abrina, research officer at Marine Science Institute, says. “A country’s development is related to plastic use.”
Is there a solution for our national consumption?
In a press release dated November 22, Senator Loren Legarda states, “Plastic bags are ubiquitous components of the world’s consumer culture. Single-use plastics symbolize the throwaway culture, which the Philippines and many other countries have developed.”
In fact, Legarda filed a bill back in 2011, calling for a “Total Plastic Bag Ban.” Recently, she filed a revised version (Senate Bill 1948, or the “Single-Use Plastics Regulation and Management Act of 2018”), which takes a softer approach. Instead of a ban, it places a levy of five pesos on single-use plastics. 20% of all levies will remain with businesses, and 80% will be remitted to the government.
Tara cautions that this levy shifts the burden onto consumers. “Twenty percent goes to the enterprise. Why? If government disbursements were more transparent, it would be easier to digest, but instead it adds another hidden cost for consumers.”
The Philippines has a fraught relationship with plastic bans, which have been seen as a band-aid solution. In September, the Local Government Unit of Malay, Aklan passed an ordinance to ban single-use plastic in Boracay Island, in support of President Duterte’s latest push for a “clean-up.” Critics point out that the island suffered decades of abuse from tourists before it attracted any sort of environmental policy. They also point out that the ban hasn’t proven to be sustainable.
“A ban on plastic would be a win for nature ultimately, but the right mechanisms have to be in place so that businesses and consumers can adapt,” says Ann Dumaliang, a National Geographic Explorer and conservationist.
“We [Filipinos] know that plastics are non-reusable and that they don’t promote a circular economy where everything is maximized while waste is being minimized. But it will involve some cultural changes… It’s not just a policy issue. It’s a cultural issue, an economic issue. Locally, even where plastics bans are implemented, people don’t follow. Government has to care enough to drive implementation. It costs money, it costs resources… you can’t just have a policy and then not put the resources behind it.”
The 2019 budget for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is roughly 25 million pesos, 6.5% more than what it was in 2018.