Marine plastic pollution is the new environmental threat facing mankind. This is also afflicting East Asia where six countries are major pollutants. While some in the region have started tackling this new menace, more can be done by all.
By Lina Gong*
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) convened the 4th Session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi Kenya from 11 to 15 March 2019 to discuss strategies to meet the environmental and climate-related challenges as outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Among the areas discussed include the protection of oceans, with a specific focus on curbing marine plastic pollution.
This reflects the growing threats posed by marine plastic wastes as a
report released at the World Economic Forum in 2016 predicted that
there would be more plastic waste than fish by 2050 without effective
intervention. The conference adopted resolutions on promoting
sustainable development, including one that calls for cooperation in
reducing marine plastic debris. The increasing emphasis on the
protection of marine environments has also been seen in East Asia.
Marine Plastic Debris in Regional Seas
Countries in East Asia have been confronted by the threats posed by
the growing amount of marine plastic debris in regional seas. According
to a report by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Centre for
Business and Environment in 2015, China, Indonesia, the Philippines,
Vietnam and Thailand accounted for 60 percent of the plastic waste
disposed in the oceans across the globe. Japan ranks second globally at
the per capita level.
Marine plastic pollution therefore can threaten the security and
development of regional countries in many ways. It destroys the marine
ecosystem by killing sea creatures and polluting the marine environment.
Microplastics enter our food train as people consume seafood and fish
that are contaminated. This can be a potential threat to food safety and
public health across Asia as many people in the region rely on seafood
for protein intake.
Unsustainable practices in the marine-related economic sectors in the
region have contributed to the surging amount of plastic debris in
regional seas, which in turn harms the performance of themselves
eventually. For islands like Bali and Boracay that depend heavily on
revenues from tourism, severe plastic pollution in the coastal areas
damages their reputation as popular tourist destinations. Disruption in
the marine ecosystem can also intensify competition between states for
East Asian Countries in Action
In recognition of the severity of the challenge, countries in the
region have taken actions. At the national level, countries are
strengthening efforts tackling the challenge. Indonesia has set the
target to reduce marine plastic debris by 70 percent by 2025. To this
end, the central government for instance imposed a trial of taxing
single-use plastic bags in some cities in 2016 and pledged in 2017 one
billion US dollars to reduce marine plastic debris and other wastes.
In Singapore, the government has also increased attention to its
marine landscape. The National Parks Board in collaboration with the
International Coastal Cleanup, an environmental NGO, started a joint
two-year study in 2017 to monitor debris and microplastics at nine
coastal sites. Conservatists and scientists presented a report, titled The Blue Plan, to the government in October 2018, which included recommendations on how to monitor and reduce marine plastic waste.
Vietnam and the Philippines are developing national action plan or
strategy to deal with the mounting challenge. The Japanese government
started in August 2018 the discussion a draft national strategy with
specific goals and targets. There are also discussions on strengthening
regulations and laws related to the issue. For instance, Japan passed a
bill in June 2018 aimed at reducing microplastics.
The common awareness of the increasing threat of marine plastic
debris constitutes a foundation for joint regional efforts. From 28 to
29 October 2018, Indonesia held the Our Ocean Conference in Bali, during
which Indonesia together with New Zealand and Japan initiated the call
for regional cooperation in tackling marine plastic waste and invited
regional countries to join the initiative. Subsequently the East Asia
Summit (EAS) adopted the Leaders’ Statement on Combating Marine Plastic
Debris in November 2018.
Further Indonesia is now pushing for developing a Regional Plan of
Action to be adopted in the EAS in 2019. Thailand as the Chair of ASEAN
also sees addressing the issue of marine plastic debris as part of its
overall effort in promoting sustainability through cooperation and
partnership. ASEAN held the Special Ministerial Meeting on Marine Debris
in Bangkok on 5 March 2019, to discuss how the region as a whole can
address the challenge through strengthened cooperation. A regional
declaration on combating marine plastic wastes is likely to be presented
to the ASEAN leaders later this year.
The increasing attention to marine plastic waste reduction has
entailed strengthened government commitments to and public awareness
about the issue. To reduce marine plastic debris and microplastics more
effectively, a holistic approach is necessary. It should include not
only restriction or prohibition of the use of single-use plastic
products but also improvement in waste management, legislation, law
enforcement, transformation of consumption and production, financing and
application of technology.
Despite the increasing awareness and commitments, challenges and
barriers remain. Restriction over the use of single-use plastic products
is likely to increase business costs and thus meet resistance from the
business community, which may influence government policies. For
instance, while the Indonesian government started in 2018 drafting a
regulation to tax plastic bags, the draft is still being debated by
different ministries and the release is likely to be later than
Moreover, reducing single-use plastic products and increasing
recycling means gradual changes in people’s habit of consumption. To
seek public understanding and cooperation, awareness-raising and
incentives are necessary at the initial phase. Grass-root groups, both
governmental and non-governmental, are on the forefront to facilitate
The Philippines and Thailand respectively closed down tourist islands
in 2018 to tackle coastal and marine pollution including plastic waste,
but this raised the concern over the livelihood of the local
communities dependent on the tourist industry. Therefore, incentives and
alternatives are needed to ensure the understanding and cooperation
from these actors.
Technological advancement that makes the degrading of plastic less
harmful for the environment also contributes to the solution. Japan
initiated cooperation with ASEAN in this area by providing technological
and financial support for the Knowledge Centre on ASEAN Marine Debris.
The epistemic community and private sector have important roles in terms
of providing technological expertise and financing schemes. A holistic
approach that addresses different dimensions of marine plastic pollution
and involves multiple actors is essential for effective solutions to
*Lina Gong is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
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