Plastic waste: what are emerging economies doing to stem the tide? | Thailand 2021

– Plastic production is a major source of emissions and is expected to grow further

– Emerging economies have a key role to play in tackling the problem of plastic waste

– The issue of plastic waste disproportionately affects the least developed countries

– Various countries and multilateral organizations are developing innovative approaches

Plastic waste occupies a prominent place among the many interrelated environmental challenges the world is currently facing. Emerging markets have an important role to play in addressing this issue, both as major consumers of plastics and as they are often disproportionately affected.

When it comes to climate change, the problem of the increasing use of plastics is sometimes overshadowed by considerations of fuel emissions. However, the production of plastics is increasing and will represent an increasing proportion of emissions in the future.

According to the International Energy Agency, petrochemicals – which are used to make plastic – will account for more than a third of the growth in global oil demand by 2030, and almost half of the growth in by 2050.

In this sense, a recent report by the US environmental group Beyond Plastics argues that “plastic is the new coal”.

A concomitant problem is the proliferation of plastic waste and the inability of countries to dispose of it properly.

Emerging economies and plastic waste

While developed countries generate the lion’s share of carbon emissions, responsibility for plastic waste is shared more equitably by developed and emerging economies.

A 2018 World Bank study found that the United States was responsible for 13% of plastic waste, China for 11% and India for 9%. Europe (including Russia) accounted for 20%, while Latin America as a whole generated 11%. The MENA region, meanwhile, accounted for around 6%.

Likewise, in a recent World Bank ranking covering plastic waste generated per capita, Iceland came in first, with 187 kg per person per year, and the United States came in second, with 98 kg.

However, with these exceptions, most of the ranking was populated by emerging countries.

For example, the United Arab Emirates were 5th, at 70kg, while Saudi Arabia was 7th, at 61kg. Mexico, meanwhile, was 11th, at 50kg, followed by Argentina and Chile.

China and India were relatively far down the list, at 19 kg and 17 kg respectively.

Emerging economies therefore have an important role to play in tackling the problem of plastic waste. In addition, these countries often bear the brunt of the damage this can cause.

For example, at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), Walter Roban, Deputy Prime Minister of Bermuda, observed that Bermuda’s coastline was inundated with plastic. However, analysis shows that the vast majority come from elsewhere, and in particular from the United States.

Roban therefore urged the United States and other major countries to “aggressively address the issue of disposing of single-use plastics to solve what is a global ocean problem.”

Bermuda itself is expected to ban single-use plastics from next year. In this, it will join a long and growing list of countries seeking to phase out these plastics. China, for example, banned thin plastic bags in 2008, and has since been joined by a number of emerging economies, especially in Africa.

Fight against plastic waste

In addition to banning single-use plastics, different countries are developing initiatives to address the problem.

To take an example, one of the most affected regions in terms of plastic waste is Southeast Asia.

In May of this year, ASEAN member states therefore launched a regional action plan to combat marine debris.

The plan aims to reduce the entry of plastic into the system, improve collection capacities, minimize leaks and create value for waste reuse. 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.

Another approach is to stimulate innovation in recycling.

An emblematic example, also from Southeast Asia, Siam Cement Group (SCG) and Dow Thailand Group inaugurated in 2018 a 220-meter road made of recycled plastic, located inside the Rayong industrial zone.

To build it, the plastic was collected and cleaned, then crushed into smaller pieces before being mixed with asphalt. According to the Faculty of Engineering at Chulalongkorn University, the recycled road is 15-30% more stable than asphalt concrete and, according to SCG, more resistant to water erosion.

Likewise, innovative approaches are being deployed more and more around the world. However, more than increasing recycling, some argue that the key to tackling plastic waste is to reduce use and production.

The principles of the “circular economy” are the key.

Counterpoint to the linear “take, make and throw away” model, the circular economy refers to an economic system in which products and materials are kept in circulation for as long as possible. By designing things as sustainable, reusable and recyclable as possible, the model places great importance on efficiency and ecological sustainability, and builds on a shift towards renewable energy sources.

This philosophy has gained ground in several emerging regions. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, February saw the launch of the Regional Coalition on the Circular Economy, an initiative led by the United Nations Environment Program, which aims to increase access to finance for sustainable projects.

Bryce K. Locke