Waste is piling up in different parts of Asia. The open dumpsites in India and the Philippines, and small mountains of trash along the streets of Cambodia are just some indications of the waste crisis in this region. To give you an idea of just how bad it is, East Asia Pacific alone is responsible for 23% of global waste. The waste crisis is further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s a big chunk of healthcare waste that Asian countries have to deal with aside from the increased plastic waste from food deliveries.
The rising population and urbanisation in Asian countries are seen as the main driving factors for the large waste production. Unfortunately, their waste management practices haven’t been able to catch up with the generated wastes. On top of this, high-income countries are sending their trash over to some Southeast Asian nations exacerbating the problem.
Dealing with the waste crisis: The Good and the Bad
Some Asian nations are struggling with their solid waste management systems and they have distinct similarities in the way they manage their trash.
Poor implementation of the law
These nations have laws that govern their waste management system. However, the laws aren’t properly implemented especially at the local levels. Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu admitted that they have a lot of catching up to do concerning the implementation of the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000. He ordered the closure of all open dumpsites in the country and said that the government would replace them with bigger and better landfills.
Aside from this, he also disclosed their plans to build more materials recovery facilities, improve garbage collection, and promote the practice of waste segregation at home. It is disheartening to note that this is a 20-year-old law and it is only now that real action is being implemented. Only 30% of barangays (a Filipino term for a village or district) in the whole country segregate their trash properly. This is also because there aren’t enough waste segregation facilities in the communities so the people cannot dispose or recycle their waste correctly. This shows low compliance at the local government level regarding proper waste management.
Indonesia implemented its Waste Law in 2008 but is still facing a huge waste crisis as of now. The country produces 200,000 tonnes of garbage daily and is running out of landfills where they can send trash. To make matters worse, garbage isn’t collected consistently so open dumps are visible near communities further jeopardizing human health and the natural environment. Open dumping is an outdated waste management solution that Indonesia will need to tackle if it wishes to develop sustainably.
Lack of infrastructure and limited waste management systems
There is a lack of infrastructure for waste management because many developing countries lack the funds to have them built. Let’s take incinerators for example. “It’s a large investment and construction of incinerators has to be robust in order to maintain the public service and infrastructure,” says Nagatani-Yoshida, the Asia-Pacific coordinator for Chemicals and Waste at UNEP.
In addition, governments of some Asian nations do not prioritise waste and recycling management, instead allocating funds towards transportation, education and healthcare. Open dumps and landfills are seen as easier and cheaper ways to address the waste crisis.
This is where some INGOs, NGOs, and the private sector step in. The Singapore-based investment management company, Circulate Capital, has invested $6 million in Indonesia and India for the recycling of local plastic waste. “By investing in small and medium-sized businesses that reduce plastic pollution and advance the circular economy, we can build sustainable businesses that can endure through a crisis,” says Circulate Capital CEO Rob Kaplan. The waste will be turned into useful commodities. In doing so, they will be able to prevent plastic leakage into our oceans and help local communities.
In Cambodia, a social enterprise Eco-Bricks uses plastic waste to make ecological construction materials. It collects plastic waste such as bottles, straws and plastic bags from schools and communities to upcycle, help to clean the environment, create jobs for the poor and help low-income families access decent housing. These initiatives by INGOs, NGOs, and the private sector are vital in providing sustainable waste management solutions in these countries.
Low recycling rate
An effective solid waste management system aims to reduce, reuse, recover, and recycle waste so that less garbage will end up in landfills. But the recycling rate among Southeast Asian nations is less than 50%. According to Earth.org, “Recycling is a key component to stem the tide and eventually achieve zero waste.” It is also an indicator of how countries treat their waste problem.
In the Philippines, only high-value plastics like high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are prioritised for recycling. Low-value plastics often end up in landfills because the country does not have the waste management facilities and infrastructure to process this kind of plastic. Low-value plastics like individual sachets litter the streets and natural environment as there is no way to recycle them. This is true for many Asian countries not just the Philippines, and the result is more than 75% of plastic waste is mismanaged.
Waste management isn’t terrible in all parts of Asia. There are countries with very good waste management practices which their neighboring countries can learn from.
South Korea was recognised as one of the best recycling countries in the world with a recycling rate of 53.7% in 2018. The nation boasts world-class solid waste management (SWM) legislation and initiatives which include a volume-based waste disposal fees (VBWF) system, and a deposit refund system. Companies are also obligated to abide by the country’s extended producer responsibility (EPR), an environmental protection strategy aimed at decreasing total environmental impact from a company’s product and its packaging.
The country’s waste reduction efforts are also successful because the South Korean government imposes bans on problematic plastic items and packaging. As their former Environment Secretary Kim Eun Kyung said, “To resolve the plastic waste crisis, society as a whole needs to change its ways of production, consumption, recycling and even the culture.” They didn’t resolve their waste crisis overnight. It took decades of prioritising strong policies and recycling implementation to execute its waste management program.
Japan is another Asian country that has taken strides in managing its waste problem with the implementation of its Basic Environmental Law in 1993. This provided the island nation with a new framework for a waste management system. The key is in leaving the execution of the law to the local government who understand the local issues better. Thus, cities and municipalities published local guidelines, mandated households and businesses to separate their garbage, and distributed information such as public signs to inform people about waste rules and garbage collection schedules. Japan recycles 20% of its collected waste and only 1.2% of their waste goes to landfills. The country also converts 70% of its waste into energy, which is considered best practice in the world.
No Time to Waste
The stories of South Korea and Japan show us that there are many lessons to be learned in how to manage waste in growing economies. When faced with a waste crisis their governments have acted, laying out the framework through legislations, and ensured proper implementation at the local level. Developing Asian economies can look to their neighbours for the blueprint on how to manage their own waste problems. With growing health risks and environmental issues, there really is no more time to waste.
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Cover image of landfill in South Tangerang, Indonesia by Tom Fisk.