Emerging markets scramble to find solutions to reduce plastic waste

More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, many emerging markets are still facing high levels of plastic waste. Amidst many environmental and health challenges, countries and companies are working on solutions to combat the problem.

Representing about 12% of global solid waste before the pandemic, according to the World Bank, plastic has taken on a more important role during the health crisis.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been seen as key to stopping the spread of the virus, while single-use plastics used by food delivery services in particular have also proliferated.

Although an OECD report released in February found that overall plastic use actually fell by 2.2% in 2020 due to the decline in economic activity associated with lockdowns, increased use of PPE and single-use plastics has exacerbated plastic waste, leading some to describe the situation. as a “plastic pandemic”.

In the early months of the pandemic, face masks and latex gloves were reported to wash up regularly on beaches in Southeast Asia, while at the UN COP26 Climate Change Conference in November last year, Walter Roban, Deputy Premier of Bermuda, said Bermuda’s coastline was awash in plastic.

Although governments have implemented other strategies to help combat the virus, the pandemic production of PPE and single-use plastics has continued in some parts of the world, the recent strategy of mass testing of the China resulting in large amounts of plastic and medical waste. Additionally, the rebound in the global economy has led to an increase in the wider production and use of plastic.

The low percentage of plastic recycling compounds the problem. The OECD estimates that 9% of plastic waste is recycled, of which 50% ends up in landfill, 22% escapes waste management systems – and ends up in landfills, open pits or uncontrolled waterways – and 19% are incinerated.

Challenge for emerging markets

The situation poses a number of challenges for emerging markets.

Unlike global carbon emissions, about 45% of which are generated by China and the United States, the creation of plastic waste is more evenly distributed.

According to a 2018 World Bank study, the United States, China and India were responsible for 13%, 11% and 9% of global plastic waste respectively. Europe – excluding Russia – accounted for 20%, Latin America 11%, Sub-Saharan Africa 9% and the Middle East and North Africa 7%.

Emerging economies, which often bear the brunt of the damage that plastic waste can cause, therefore have an important role to play in solving this problem.

In addition to the plastic that emerging markets produce themselves, exporting plastic waste from developed countries to emerging markets poses other challenges.

Although this practice provides economic opportunities for low-income countries, much of this plastic is often difficult to recycle and ends up in local ecosystems, creating significant health risks: toxic chemicals in burnt plastics or discarded have been associated with serious health problems. problems such as cancer for those who sort plastics. For example, Zambia has experienced several cholera outbreaks due to poor drainage exacerbated by systems clogged with plastic.

Prohibitions, improvements and innovations

At the public level, emerging markets have often been the first to ban the use of certain plastics. Bangladesh was among the first countries in the world to ban thin plastic and polythene bags in 2002, while more than 30 African countries have implemented full or partial bans – or introduced heavy taxes – on plastic products. plastic.

Meanwhile, in an intergovernmental attempt to remedy the situation, in May last year, ASEAN member states launched a regional action plan to combat marine debris.

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

Foreign countries have also offered to help, with the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) announcing in June that it had given India’s Banyan Sustainable Waste Management a $9 million loan to boost its recycling capacity. plastic from 15,000 to 51,000 tons per year.

DFC has also pledged to provide Sri Lanka’s BPPL Holdings, a manufacturer of polyester yarn that uses recycled plastic materials, with a $15 million loan to expand its production capacity and strengthen the recycling infrastructure of the Sri Lanka.

A number of other innovative measures have been devised to address the plastic problem.

For example, Hong Kong-based start-up EcoBricks uses plastic waste from old washing machines that would otherwise have gone to landfills to create building materials.

Earlier this month, the company’s inaugural project provided 15,000 bricks to pave a promenade in Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district, with the plastic used in the bricks sourced from 560 old appliances.

In a similar initiative, a team from the Indonesian University of North Sumatra has developed a biodegradable wood-plastic composite that could be used as a material in the construction of houses, fences or furniture.

As research continues, early tests suggest the material could be digested by termites native to Indonesia, which could position the composite to replace other more environmentally harmful building materials.

These developments are based on existing innovations. In October 2018, Siam Cement Group (SCG) and Dow Thailand Group unveiled a 220-meter road strip made from recycled plastic..

The process sees the plastic collected, cleaned and ground into small pieces before being mixed with asphalt. According to the Faculty of Engineering at Chulalongkorn University, recycled road is 15-30% more stable than asphalt concrete and, according to SCG data, more resistant to water erosion.

By Oxford Business Group

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Bryce K. Locke