Marine pollution: how emerging markets are working to halt the plastic pandemic

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– Covid-19 gave rise to a considerable increase in production of disposable plastics

– Discarded plastic accounts for an estimated 80% of global marine debris

– ASEAN has launched an action plan aimed at reducing plastic marine pollution

– Clearing waterways of plastics offers economic benefits to emerging markets

Covid-19 led to a sharp rise in the production of single-use plastics, a significant proportion of which end up in the world’s oceans. With the pandemic gradually being brought under control, emerging markets are now stepping up efforts to tackle marine pollution.

Due largely to demand for personal protective equipment and packaging for food delivery services, the pandemic provoked a dramatic increase in the use of single-use plastics.

Highlighting the sheer scale of production, a study led by researchers from the University of Aveiro in Portugal estimated that 129bn face masks and 65bn disposable gloves were used every month last year.

While much of this has ended up in landfill, the sudden rise in plastic production has placed a significant strain on marine ecosystems, given that plastic accounts for around 80% of all marine debris worldwide.

Indeed, a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ in July last year predicted that, unless there is a significant drop in production, the amount of plastic that finds its way into the sea each year could increase from current levels of 11m tonnes to 29m tonnes, resulting in a cumulative 600m in the world’s oceans by 2040.

The effects of such pollution on wildlife are grave. UNESCO estimates that plastic debris causes the death of more than 1m seabirds every year, along with more than 100,000 marine mammals.

Meanwhile, research from the University of Newcastle in Australia and the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that humans consume on average 21 grams of microplastic – equivalent to half a bowl of rice – every month, with much of this coming from food and water.

Fighting marine plastics in ASEAN

One of the worst-affected regions in terms of plastic waste is South-east Asia, where it was reported during the early months of the pandemic that face masks and latex gloves were regularly washing up on beaches.

Indeed, while Covid-19 has worsened the situation in terms of marine plastic waste, the issue is not a new one for the region.

According to a 2015 study by US recycling and waste expert Jenna Jambeck, six South-east Asian countries were among the top 20 in the world in terms of waste mismanagement.

Indonesia was ranked second, the Philippines third, Vietnam fourth, Thailand sixth, Malaysia eighth and Myanmar 17th in the study, which calculated that the countries’ combined marine plastic pollution came to 1.4m-3.5m tonnes per year, out of a global total of 8m-12m tonnes.

In a cross-governmental attempt to address the situation, in late May ASEAN member states launched a regional action plan to combat marine debris.

The plan aims to reduce plastic inputs into the system, enhance collection capabilities, minimise leakage and create value for waste reuse. It includes guidelines for countries to phase out single-use plastics, harmonise regional standards on recycling and plastics packaging, and strengthen regional measurement and monitoring of marine debris.

Given the international nature of marine waste – a significant amount of plastic is washed across national borders via rivers or ocean currents – this cross-governmental development marks a significant turning point for ASEAN countries in terms of fighting pollution.

It also builds on many strategies and initiatives from individual countries, such as Malaysia’s ban on non-biodegradable plastics, the Thai government’s proposed tax on electronic waste, and Indonesia’s efforts to enhance waste recycling technology and develop garbage-collecting vessels.

Boosting the blue economy

Aside from human and marine health factors, reducing plastic waste from waterways can also bring about tangible economic benefits to affected countries.

As OBG has detailed, the so-called blue economy, a broad term that encompasses areas ranging from fisheries, waste management and maritime transport, to tourism and renewable energy, has considerable social and economic value, with some estimates suggesting that the global ocean economy has an annual value of around $1.5trn.

Indeed, in December last year the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy – a group of 14 countries consisting of Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal – launched a new ocean action agenda.

As part of the agreement, all member states agreed to sustainably manage 100% of their national waters by 2025, part of a 74-point agenda designed to improve the health of the world’s oceans and waterways.

If the agenda is adhered to, the panel says that it will allow the world’s oceans to generate six times more food and 40 times more renewable energy than current levels, as well as lifting millions out of poverty and contributing one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to stay within 1.5°C goals.

There are also significant economic opportunities in processing used plastics.

A series of World Bank studies across Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand released in March found that more than 75% of the material value of plastics is lost – the equivalent of $6bn per year across the three countries – when single-use plastics are discarded rather than recovered and recycled.

In terms of examples of successful recycling and reuse, last year in Accra, Ghana, local authorities distributed face masks produced by Trashy Bags, a non-governmental organisation that recycles water bottles and ice cream sachets.

Elsewhere, Tanzanian company Zaidi Recyclers, which processed paper waste before the pandemic, began producing face shields made from recycled plastic bottles, while Thai design company Qualy turned unused fishing nets into Covid-19 face shields and disinfectant bottles.

Meanwhile, a groundbreaking study led by researchers from the University of Edinburgh was recently successful in using genetically engineered bacteria to convert plastic bottles into vanilla flavouring.

Building on previous research that used mutant enzymes to break down the materials used in plastic drink bottles to their basic form of terephthalic acid (TA), researchers then used engineered E-coli bacteria to transform TA into vanillin, a component used in food and cosmetic industries, pharmaceuticals and cleaning products.

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