According to research done by the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme (UNEP), as a result of rapid economic growth coupled with the lack of waste management infrastructure, East and Southeast Asian regions are recognised today as the biggest contributors of marine plastic pollution.
The issue was raised in the 26th Session of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, reflecting its urgency and relevance with the leading climate issue.
The situation is getting worse since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, said researchers from Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), based in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In a statement, research associate at ERIA Hendro Putra Johannes and Programme Manager at ERIA Ayako Mizuno jointly agreed that the pandemic has changed people’s consumption behaviour, such as the exponential increase in personal protective equipment (PPE) like the surgical face mask, and the shift from dining-in to opting for takeaway or food delivery.
From a business viewpoint, it can be a huge advantage to explore new ideas; but from an environmental standpoint, the shift will result in an increasing amount of plastic waste, they said.
To tackle the adverse effect, governments are advocating initiatives such as using alternative materials and applying voluntary extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.
But in reality, businesses tend to “avoid” such voluntary initiatives, they added.
The researchers noted that during a public forum co-hosted by the ASEAN Secretariat and ERIA in June 2021, Iris Chang, Regional Head of Sustainability at one of Southeast Asia’s largest online service providers, Grab, said the company has a pilot programme to replace plastic food containers with more sustainable materials, such as paper, which degrade more rapidly, though the transition has proven challenging.
Chang explained that there are four key aspects that make it difficult for food and beverage merchants to adopt more eco-friendly packaging.
Firstly, price, as merchant are sensitive to costs and sustainable containers can cost four to five times more than plastic packaging. Secondly, design, as many Asian cuisines are covered with sauce and need watertight food delivery boxes. Thirdly, lack of standards for genuinely eco-friendly containers which allows for ‘greenwashing’ causing restaurant owners to be unsure which materials are better than plastic. And finally, the absence of regulatory requirements. Restaurant owners can be less motivated to switch their packaging type if it is not mandatory.
A report published by the Changing Markets Foundation discovered that many big businesses have lobbied for voluntary initiatives as a tactic to delay and derail progressive legislation, while distracting consumers and governments with empty promises and false solutions.
“Giving the option to voluntarily adopt eco-friendly business practices is no longer enough.
There should be structural incentives for both the retailers and consumers to ‘pay more, do more’ for the genuinely eco-friendly packaging. At the same time, disincentives should be applied for the non-compliant parties,” said the researchers from ERIA.
They noted that co-founder and CEO of Indonesian green tech social enterprise Greenhope Tommy Tjiptadjaja, affirmed that while entrepreneurs and innovators are developing new methods and technologies, governments must work in parallel to provide a holistic and contextual policy framework as well as a roadmap that considers stakeholders’ inputs, incentives, and disincentives.
According to Tjiptadjaja, environmentally conscious entrepreneurs should not be left to their own devices and instead should be assured that the government is working alongside them.
Government can offer incentives for the businesses who participate in positive business practices.
Meanwhile, President of Pana-Chemical, an EPS (known as Styrofoam) recycling system provider in Japan, Kentaro Inukai, explained that since EPS disposal is costly in Japan and illegal dumping results in costly penalties, businesses are motivated to invest in adequate machinery for their recycling systems, which can minimise the cost for plastic waste disposal.
To further promote this trend and encourage companies to purchase recycling machinery, Inukai said governments can offer incentives, such as subsidies for the acquisition of such equipment.
The researchers also shared that, from the consumer side, co-founder of Refill Station Supatchaya Techachoochert, the first bulk store in Thai, has witnessed improvements in public awareness of plastic pollution among Thailand’s society compared to half a decade ago, where such understanding was dominated by the expat community.
She said to create momentum for a more sustainable business environment, all stakeholders must be on the same page, and this includes the consumers’ mindset.
In conjunction with the incentives and disincentives towards the business sectors, raising awareness and knowledge are crucial to changing the way consumers choose their suppliers.
Offering rewards in the form of discounts, cash back, or special gifts could further translate the mindset into practice.
“Such mechanisms can progressively lay the foundation for mandatory initiatives down the line. Well-designed mandatory EPR schemes under progressive legislation could be developed with transparent modulated fees, polluter-pays principle and reduction targets, and funding for better alternative materials,” the ERIA researchers said.
The private sector across the region has initiated positive business practices. However, the ERIA researchers said that none of them offers a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Understanding their strengths and weaknesses as well as informing the policymakers of the initiatives that can be effectively implemented in the local context is key. The pandemic has accelerated the rate by which we generate plastic wastes, and we are under increasing pressure to find holistic solution. Failure to act fast will risk hindering the region’s efforts in combatting marine plastic pollution,” they added.