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FEATURE STORY June 8, 2018

Planet over Plastic: Addressing East Asia’s Growing Environmental Crisis


Plastic waste on beaches is becoming a common sight in many of East Asia's coastal areas.

East Asia is producing waste faster than any other region in the world. Plastic trash stemming from this waste pollutes rivers, coasts, and oceans. Countries in the region are taking action to tackle this growing problem.

Singapore, June 8, 2018: Today is World Oceans Day, and the health of the oceans under threat. Eight million tons of plastics are dumped in the ocean each year – that is about one truck of garbage per minute. The same research lists China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam – all in East Asia – as countries dumping the most plastic waste. Indeed, East Asia is producing waste faster than any other region in the world.

With 80 percent of waste leakage coming from land, shared river systems and waterways are the conduits for this plastic pollution. The lower reaches of the Mekong river flow through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and more and more plastic trash is spilling out from inadequate waste management systems. The Yangtze River contributes 55 percent of the estimated 2.75 million metric tonnes of plastic waste going into oceans each year. Rivers in Indonesia carry large volumes of plastic.

The financial toll is huge. Marine ecosystems globally suffer an estimated US$13 billion a year in damages caused by plastic waste. APEC estimates the costs to tourism, fishing, and shipping industries to be US$1.3 billion for the region. The adverse impacts on health, food chains and jobs are under study.

Tackling insufficient solid waste management is key, as is addressing patterns of consumption, production, urbanization, and economic growth. But there are also plenty of opportunities for synergy and solutions. Regional institutions can collaborate and stimulate interest and potential financing from the private sector, which would facilitate economies of scale in costs, technologies, and knowledge.

Countries in the region are responding to the growing problem. Through its Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs, Indonesia launched a National Marine Debris Action Plan which targets a 70 percent reduction in marine plastic waste by the year 2025. In January 2018, China banned imports of plastic recyclables from other countries. By shutting its doors to half of the world’s plastic waste, China is forcing countries and industries to revisit their plastics usage and recycling programs. Many Pacific islands are introducing bans and levies on plastics bags and bottles. 

With its long coastline increasingly polluted with marine debris, Vietnam is prioritizing actions to reduce marine plastics. Cambodia’s entrepreneurs are offering consumers cassava-based plastic bags.

Half of the plastic ever manufactured was made only in the last 15 years. New technologies and innovation, including upstream product redesign and reduced packaging, will be critical – and this space for research and solutions is growing. The potential ‘greening’ of ports and logistics chains are opportunities for capturing waste. Research into microplastics found in fish can provide information on potential impacts on human health. Fiscal instruments can help change producer and consumer behavior.



A recent joint report on marine debris by the Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice and the Government of Indonesia. 

Copyright World Bank.

The World Bank plays a crucial convening role in multi-sectoral efforts to beat plastic pollution. These efforts include:

Supporting analytical studies which identify important gaps in infrastructure as well as behavior change. A rapid assessment of marine debris in 15 key cities across Indonesia maps areas most prone to plastics leakages. The results are helping to inform city-specific solutions and a roadmap for infrastructure investments, as well as behavior change in communities living on the waterways and along the coast.

Supporting policy reforms and financing investments in solid waste management. These range from policy opportunities to reduce plastics in waste streams, to investments in cities that will improve trash collection and recycling. In China, the city of Ningbo is investing in a state-of-the-art waste recycling system, and Kunming is investing in improved incinerator management.

Strengthening regulatory reforms and fiscal mechanisms. These mechanisms can include taxes and bans on single-use plastics that help correct market inefficiencies, financing mechanisms at the national and local level that are more sustainable, and policies and incentives that encourage manufacturers to design recycled plastics products as well as promote innovation.

Leveraging private sector investment and blended financing models. Governments will not be able to tackle this massive problem alone. Private sector financing is critical to spur development of alternatives to plastics and packaging, as well as for improving solid waste management practices. A shift in approach to maximize finance for development will help countries assess when and how to involve the private sector in solid waste management.

Facilitating coordination and collaboration.  While several countries are collaborating at the national level towards integrated waste management, NGOs are working with communities on localized solutions to reduce plastics leakage, raise awareness and affect behavior change. Multi-donor Trust Funds – like one set up for Indonesia on oceans and marine debris – enable development partners to advise on policy adjustments and incentive mechanisms, explore technology options, capture best practices and knowledge sharing, and finance pilots that can be scaled up.

Fostering global best practices and knowledge sharing. High income countries like Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United States are keen to share their experiences in tacking plastic pollution, from Korea’s cleaning up of fishing gear from the oceans, Japan’s innovations for waste reduction and disposal, to Australia’s research on monitoring plastic debris.

Efforts to clean up closer to home are also underway. Several World Bank field offices in East Asia are revisiting their plastics footprint. The Singapore Hub for Infrastructure and Urban Development is launching a Plastics Detox program, aimed to cut down single-use plastics (from bottles to bags to straws), raise awareness about consumer choices and ocean-smart practices, and be part of the global movement to choose Planet over Plastic.

Senior Environmental Specialist Anjali Acharya contributed to this article.

Cover of the June 2018 issue of National Geographic. Copyright by National Geographic.