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Commentary: Recycle or reduce waste? Why Southeast Asia’s ocean plastic pile has no easy answers

A great number of reasons are fuelling a great deal of ocean plastic, says Tim Hill.

Commentary: Recycle or reduce waste? Why Southeast Asia’s ocean plastic pile has no easy answers

Plastic waste in Lampung Bay, Indonesia. (Photo: AFP/PERDIANSYAH)

SINGAPORE: At this time of year, the Northeast monsoon season has made the windward shorelines in Southeast Asia ripe with the harvest of single-use plastic. 

The sheer volume of plastic trash on the region’s beaches should come as no surprise considering the input.

More than half of the 8 million tonnes of plastic waste that end up in oceans come from five countries -  China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, according to a 2017 report from environment group Ocean Conservancy.

The impact on marine life in a region that hosts a third of the world’s coral reefs and a quarter of the world’s fish production can be catastrophic.

Southeast Asian countries are starting to wake up to the seriousness of this plastic epidemic.

However, limited packaging and waste management-related policies along with weak enforcement are aggravating the problem, according to a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme in November 2019.

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A report by Food Industry Asia and AlphaBeta in 2018 also suggested that supply-side solutions with the highest impact (including reducing business use of plastic, enhancing collection rates, plugging leakage and creating value for waste reuse) were not areas of focus for most Southeast Asian countries.


A regional solution under the ambit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that holds each member-state accountable could help set the tone for industry and consumers. 

The ASEAN Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris signed in 2019 is therefore a welcome move.

Industry, spurred on also by the recent global backlash against plastic, seems to be making some of the right noises about intentions to clean up its act and curb the use of plastic.

CEO of NTUC FairPrice Seah Kian Peng helping to bag a shopper's groceries in a reusable bag at the FairPrice Xtra in Hougang One. (Photo: Ang Hwee Min)

In Singapore, NTUC Fairprice has recently announced it will be extending its 10 to 20 cents charge for plastic bags to 25 of its stores.

Globally, multinational companies are starting to examine strategies to address the issue. Unilever has announced a target of using 25 per cent recycled plastic in its packaging by 2025 and is testing some initiatives in Southeast Asia. 

Governments are getting there gradually, with tourist spots like Bali and Penang taking the lead with plastic bag bans.

The Philippines too closed Boracay for six months and reopened with new rules to curb the footprint of tourism and waste.

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At the national level, Indonesia has pledged US$1 billion to curbing ocean plastic waste by 70 per cent by 2025.

More ambitious policies to curb plastic bag use nationally have also been rolled out in Thailand and Indonesia this year.

The white-sand resort of Boracay island was closed for six months AFP/NOEL CELIS


Some consumer preferences regarding the use of plastic in Southeast Asia are shifting for the better.

In a recent survey of consumer behaviour by GlobalData, an average of 49 per cent of 3,248 respondents from a demographically representative cross-section of society in five Southeast Asian economies indicated their food choices were often or always influenced by how ethical, environmentally-friendly, or socially-responsible the product is.

This consideration was strongest for Philippines and Thailand.

When it comes to plastic packaging, however, the region seemed less prepared to change its ways completely. Only 27 per cent of Southeast Asian consumers agreed they would purchase more products if they were not wrapped in plastic.

Shoppers from Thailand (35 per cent) and the Philippines (38 per cent) were more supportive of a plastic ban, but there was less enthusiasm for this in Malaysia (18 per cent), and Indonesia (21 per cent).

Singaporeans seemed least interested in changes in packaging, with 36 per cent of respondents indicating their shopping behaviour would not change if products were packaged without plastic, perhaps owing to many never seeing ocean plastic waste as most garbage goes straight to incinerators and landfills.

READ: Commentary: When did Southeast Asia become a dumping ground for waste?

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The problem of ocean waste is not just about disposal.

Across many Southeast Asian countries, the different level of resources and systems in place for waste management may explain why countries have been slow in mounting a comprehensive response to plastic waste.

A view of shipyards, seen through a window, in Batam Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia, Apr 3, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Henning Gloystein/Files)

Rural and urban areas in the same province can have vastly different experiences. Five-star resorts in the Indonesian Riau Islands display recycling bins for visitors. Yet nearby kampongs dump their plastic waste in the sea.

The annual Neptune Regatta yacht race from Nongsa Point Marina in Batam, Indonesia through to the Lingga archipelago 60 miles south advises participants to bring all waste back to their ports of origin as the small islands have no facilities to dispose of waste.

Often, the problem is out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the affluent, who continue to buy single-use plastic products and dispose of them in recycling bins, feeling they have done their bit for society.

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Yet, challenges to proper recycling process - including food contamination and the varying price of recycled materials - mean most single-use plastic will end up as garbage. 

Only 9 per cent of the global production of 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics has been recycled, according to estimates from Science Advances.


Encouraging ethical and sustainable behaviour alone cannot sufficiently tackle the scale of the crisis as the growing waste on Southeast Asian beaches shows. There have been many calls for governments to get tougher with both industry and consumers.

Popular tourist destination Kuta beach in Bali, Indonesia, is regularly covered in waste, most of it plastic that washes ashore during the rainy season. This picture was taken on February 15, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Antara/Wira Suryantala)

Over 50 per cent of Southeast Asian respondents from the same GlobalData survey agreed that financial incentives would encourage them to purchase less plastic packaging. 

Consumers from the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand were most likely to reduce or stop their purchasing of plastic wrapped items if their governments implemented a tax.

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There is a gap between what consumers claim they do and the actual actions they take, which is not unique to the region.

A Harvard Business Review article published in July 2019 reported a survey in which 65 per cent of respondents said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26 per cent actually do so.

Despite the gap between claims and actions, the appetite for change seems present in Southeast Asia.

The proposed plastic bag bans in Penang and Bali met with little consumer resistance. Similarly, in Singapore, 71 per cent of respondents to a survey from NTUC Fairprice indicated support for plastic bag charges at supermarkets.


However, the culture of our throw-away habits will take a long time to break. A stronger nudge from governments as well as serious change from industry are critical if we are to rescue our seas.

READ: Thai shoppers get creative after plastic bag ban

Fortunately, there are many global examples of goals for addressing plastic pollution that the region can look to.

The European Union has voted to ban single-use plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws, balloon sticks and stirrers by 2021. Member-states will need to ensure a 90 per cent collection target for plastic bottles by 2029. Bottles will need to be made from at least 30 per cent recycled plastic by 2030.

With industry having to adjust to these requirements from one of the world’s biggest trading markets, it would make sense for Southeast Asian countries to consider adopting the same standards.

Local manufacturers should look for both global and local solutions to sustainable packaging rather than hold out with legacy solutions for cost reasons.

Workers sort through trashed plastic at a recycling plant in Singapore. (File photo: TODAY/Jason Quah)

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In some instances, this can simply mean reverting to traditional Southeast Asian methods such as banana leaf plates.

An ice-cream vendor in Jakarta has gone a step further by pioneering edible seaweed cups for ice cream. According to the Science Times, Evoware’s “Ello Jello” cones may be more expensive than regular cones or plastic packaging, but prices should come down when it achieves economies of scale.

This type of initiative could be encouraged and perhaps subsidised throughout the region.

Otherwise, the region will simply wait for the onset of the Southwest monsoon in June to lift up the trash from one set of beaches to deposit it on another.

Tim Hill is Key Account Director at GlobalData.

Source: CNA/sl


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