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BRIEFMay 12, 2022

Technologies and Solutions to Manage Plastic Waste in Small and Remote Islands: Using the TOPIC Toolbox for Islands in Malaysia


Plastic waste scattered over a shoreline.


Small and remote islands are especially vulnerable to plastic pollution. While there is no single solution to turn the tide on plastic pollution for these islands, a combination of technologies and other solutions to manage plastic waste can help. This study developed the Technology Options for Plastic waste in Island Contexts (TOPIC) Toolbox to support island decision-makers in identifying technologies and a potential mix of technologies and other solutions to treat plastic waste for their island.

All communities and ecosystems are susceptible to the harmful impacts of plastic pollution, but small and remote islands are especially vulnerable given their high coastline-to-area ratios and their reliance on the fishery and tourism sectors. Compounding the issue, solid and plastic waste management is complicated in the context of small and remote islands due to the limited scale of plastic waste, inadequate collection and treatment facilities, and high transport costs.  

A combination of technologies and other upstream and downstream solutions can help these communities effectively manage plastic waste, safeguarding their valuable ecosystems and livelihoods. New innovative technologies to treat plastic waste only work effectively in very specific island contexts - viability of these technologies can be impacted by many different aspects including the volume and type of plastic waste, existing solid waste management systems (organization, legal, finance), infrastructure, and community awareness. Any treatment technologies should be considered alongside other solutions such as reducing the plastic input to islands upstream, before it becomes plastic waste, as well as sorting and then transporting plastic waste to a viable recycling market.

This study combines a global assessment of plastic waste management on islands with a review of existing technologies and their viability in island contexts to develop the TOPIC Toolbox —a mechanism for island policy- and decision-makers to identify appropriate technologies and solutions to address plastic waste. TOPIC Toolbox recommendations are tailored to the unique context of each island by evaluating characteristics such as population, solid waste volume, waste collection rates, portion of plastic in waste, seasonal changes (e.g., tourism), the offtake prices of recyclables and waste transport costs. These inputs are then translated into three different recommendation clusters for plastic waste management:

  1. Outlining suggestions to advance general waste management practices
  2. Providing information on the potential market access available on the mainland
  3. Listing potentially viable technologies and solutions, as well as further detail on each of these in a synthesis sheet and individual factsheets.


Technologies and Solutions to Manage Plastic Waste in Small and Remote Islands in Malaysia

The TOPIC Toolbox is accompanied by a report which outlines the study approach and results, as well as a broader framework covering qualitative aspects of islands that are not covered in the Toolbox. The TOPIC Toolbox and the framework were piloted on five islands in Malaysia: Tioman, Perhentian, Mabul, Pom Pom and Mataking/Timba Timba.

Five Key Takeaways from the Study

While the design of the TOPIC Toolbox was informed by the situation on small and remote islands—and specifically applied in Malaysia—its applicability extends beyond. The following key takeaways and recommendations for plastic waste management are relevant to all microsystems, including small and remote islands as well as remote mainland areas.

  1. A comprehensive waste collection and separation system is required to cover a majority of the available plastic waste volumes.
    • Valuables should be extracted from the waste streams, and this can be improved through separation at source, as well as easing logistics and reducing transport costs (such as with a baling machine and related material handling equipment).
  2. The absolute scale of the plastic waste and the overall waste volume have a significant impact on the solutions that can be implemented.
    • Most recycling technologies (i.e., non-artisanal material recycling and chemical recycling) require an industrial scale and a level of waste volume that cannot be generated on small islands.
    • Micro-recycling processes (i.e. artisanal material recycling) may be viable, but are insufficient to cover for all plastic waste volumes and composition regularly occurring in municipal waste.
  3. Market access is one of the most important factors determining how plastic and other recyclable waste is treated on or off an island.
    • Market price at the mainland collection point is often not high enough to cover the entire cost of collection, segregation and transport from the island. High value recycling materials may be able to offset the cost to some degree and baling and material handling equipment can reduce costs for transport.
  4. There is no single technological solution to manage plastic waste on small and remote islands.
    • Recycling technologies only provide partial solutions for processing plastic waste and need to be combined with other solutions such as controlled landfills and controlled incineration technologies.
  5. Sustainably managing plastic on islands requires upstream solutions to reduce the amount of plastic consumed and plastic wasted.

This study was conducted by a team from cyclos and Lasaju. Funding for the study and development of the Toolbox was provided by PROBLUE, an umbrella multi-donor trust fund, administered by the World Bank, that supports the sustainable and integrated development of marine and coastal resources in healthy oceans.