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How plastic is fuelling a climate crisis in Southeast Asia

How plastic is fuelling a climate crisis in Southeast Asia

Plastic waste in Jimabaran Bay, Bali, Indonesia

Southeast Asia is a region at risk from sea level rise and ecological collapse, as well as the survival of its major coastal cities. most at riskThe impacts of climate changes. But while countries around the world step up efforts towards decarbonisation and reaching their shared climate goals, carbon remains unchallenged – in the form of plastic – and firmly entrenched in the region’s economy.

From its production to consumption and disposal, plastic is one of the planet’s most carbon-intensive industries. Scientists You have foundIn less than 30 years, its carbon footprint has nearly doubled and now accounts for 5% of annual greenhouse gas emission. Plastics would be the country if they were. Fifth largest emitterThe world. But petrochemicals, which are refined oil products and gas products that plastic manufacturing relies on, remain a problem. Label an “energy blind spot” – a sector that policymakers consistently neglect in the drive towards decarbonisation.

Plastic is becoming a more difficult issue for the countries of Southeast Asia. They are facing a growing tide in waste from both home and abroad that threatens their environment and, as a result, the global climate.

The journey of plastics through Southeast Asia

While public debate tends to focus on plastic waste and the emissions it generates when incinerated, the material’s climate impacts start at the very beginning of the supply chain. Plastics are made from fossil-fuels, which are also used in the production of plastics.

“The climate impacts of plastics occur at multiple stages in its lifecycle,” says Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the non-profit Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “Plastics can be made from nafta, a byproduct of oil production. It can be made from ethane, a byproduct of natural gas, or even directly from coal through a process called coal-to-olefins,” Muffett explains.

Plastic’s climate impacts are almost invisible, as they occur upstream.

Carroll Muffett, Center for International Environmental Law

The journey of plastics begins at wellheads and drill pads and continues through pipelines that transport fuels. All of these pollutants release methane along the way. “Many of those impacts are largely invisible because they occur upstream,” Muffett says, “and are driven in different ways in different regions of the world”.

Take Indonesia, for instance. It is heavily dependent on coal. 60%Its electricity production. The rise in plastic production has increased carbon emissions and particulate pollution from coal burning. The country’s coal-mining activities for plastics production specifically have boomed since 1995, with researchers noting a 300-fold increase2015 As a result, they calculate that more than one-tenth of Indonesia’s total emissions can be attributed to the plastics industry.


Indonesia is also facing problems at the other end, as a result of its plastic life cycle. leading sourcePlastic pollution in the oceans. As plastic debris is blown by wind or washed away by rain into sewers and waterways across the world’s coasts, it may end up in the sea, globally adding an estimated 14 million tonnesEach year, more than a million tons of waste end up in the ocean. This problem affects more than 4,000 fish species in Indonesia and 12 million people who work in the fishing industry.

The ocean is choked by plastics

Although grim images of trapped turtles or fish carcasses stuffed with plastic are the most obvious representation of the problem, growing research suggests that the worst affected marine creatures may actually be those at the bottom of our food chain.

A research team from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany. modelledA hypothetical ocean system that sees zooplankton continue to feed on microplastics less than 5mm. This is a scenario in which predators and grazers (marine grazers) are constantly replacing the carbon-containing organisms. Their modelling found that as these materials enter zooplankton diets and increasingly replace the carbon-containing organisms on which they normally feed, this process could potentially accelerate the loss of oxygen in the oceans, and contribute to climate change.

Plastic waste in Jimabaran Bay, Bali, Indonesia

Plastic waste in Jimabaran Bay (Bali, Indonesia). Many pieces of plastic end-up in the ocean, causing harm to marine life. (Image: Domonabikebali/ Alamy).

“The effect on oxygen and the carbon cycle I reported in my paper has not been observed in the real ocean yet,” cautions lead author Karin Kvale. “It’s reasonable to expect that the severity of ecosystem damage will depend on how much the plastic overlaps with the biology, so biologically productive coastal areas with large human populations could be expected to suffer larger negative ecological effects.”

These potential impacts of these feeding modifications could be especially devastating for the densely populated, biodiverse coastlines of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. However, Moffatt says these risks are important to the entire planet. Oceanic microflora and fauna are “at the heart of the biological carbon pump responsible for moving CO2 from the ocean surface to the ocean depths, where it doesn’t interact with the climate over centuries or millennia,” he says. “This enormous quantity of plastics in the ocean could actually be interfering with the world’s single largest natural carbon sink.”

Measuring emissions

It is just as difficult to curb the harmful effects of plastic pollution in South and Southeast Asia’s developing countries.


Most countries in the region include ThailandAnd VietnamThe bulk of plastic waste is processed by informal workers, who take out what can be recycled. The rest goes to dumping areas to eventually end up at landfills or incinerators. It is difficult to estimate the amount of methane and other harmful emissions released by these processes.

There is data available on the different stages in the plastic life cycle, but it is scattered and inconsistent. Pacific Environment, a California-based non profit, tried to create a simple model to calculate carbon emissions for the entire plastic sector, starting with China.

The researchers used data from a private provider specialising in industrial sector intelligence “to figure out how much plastic was being produced in the country, and particularly how much single-use plastic, for which we used a proxy of ‘plastic in the packaging sector’,” says Nicole Portley, who leads marine campaigns for Pacific Environment. “And then we used data from the consultancy Material Economics on the life-cycle release of CO2-equivalent emissions for each kilogram of plastic – about 5 kg of CO2 equivalent – to estimate the emissions resulting from China’s plastic production and consumption.”

life cycle carbon emissions of plastics

Graphic by China Dialogue Ocean

The full analysis is yet to be published. It shows that estimating plastic flows within a country can be fairly easy using available data. However, international trade generates a lot of plastic packaging, much of which is not recyclable.

The threat beyond borders

In Southeast Asia, the single-use packaging that many companies use to deliver their products to the consumer is “a significant problem”, says Von Hernandez, global coordinator for Break Free from Plastic, a movement to end plastic pollution. “We find that a lot of the plastic waste that’s ending up in the oceans or in the open environment is not recyclable.”

This type of delivery model was pioneered in South and Southeast Asia, and has become so “entrenched” that big industries now use it as a “justification”. Hernandez, who is a renowned Filipino environmentalist and Goldman Prize winner, adds that these actors defend single-use plastics by claiming they are “supporting the poor, because people need access to certain luxury goods.”

A lot of the plastic waste that’s ending up in the oceans or in the open environment is not recyclable

Von Hernandez, global coordinator for Break Free from Plastic

Hoang Hai is a researcher at University of Da Nang, Vietnam. He surveyed 307 households within the city of Da Nang for part of a Research projectIn collaboration with the Norwegian Institute for Water Research. Their study shows that disposable plastics are widespread and rapidly increasing in the country as a result of the rise of mobile-based food and drink delivery. Home delivery was preferred by the majority of households surveyed because it is convenient and eliminates the need to cook and wash up. These options can only worsen the problem with plastic waste. “This lifestyle will generate [per person] hundreds of plastic bags, cups, boxes, and straws to be disposed of,” Hoang tells China Dialogue.

Hernandez points out that companies are beginning to pay attention to the issue. Nestlé, which generates Nearly 2 million tonnesannual amount of plastic waste and has been identified One of the Principal playersA large amount of plastic waste imported from Southeast Asia is responsible for the company’s net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050. China Dialogue was told by a spokesperson for the company that this will include both indirect and direct emissions. The majority of these come from agriculture, packaging, and product distribution.


The company has also committed that by 2025, all its packaging will be recyclableAnd reusable, but pointed out that some countries may not have the necessary infrastructure for collection and recycling, Nestlé is exploring removing plastic packaging altogether and is rolling out initiatives in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand

Waste management

Southeast Asian countries are the ones most at risk from plastic pollution and the resulting climate impacts. They are not the largest producers of plastic items or of plastic waste. With 0.34 kg and 0.21 kilograms respectively per day, the United States and United Kingdom are the largest per capita waste producers. With 0.07kg per person, the Philippines is the only Southeast Asian nation that makes it to the top ten.

The problem of properly managing plastic waste is different for Southeast Asian nations that receive it from other countries. After China, which has been a major importer of recyclable scrap materials, implemented a ban in 2018 on foreign waste, the problem has only gotten worse.

Following China’s new restrictions, smaller countries in the region have been absorbing the waste influx. An AnalysisGreenpeace Southeast Asia discovered that plastic waste imports from the 10 ASEAN countries (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), grew 171% between 2016 and 2018, when the ban was implemented.

Because they lack the infrastructure to process or incinerate it safely, developing countries are unable to manage waste from domestic or imported sources. “Mismanaged” plastic waste is that which ends up in the environment, instead of being incinerated, properly buried or otherwise safely dealt with. Researchers have estimated that 2019 will be the year of plastic waste management. The amount of plastic trash that is not properly managedThe US and UK had 0.81 and 0.44 kg respectively. The count for the Philippines was 37.23 kg per individual, despite the fact that the country produces far less waste.

Many of these plastics are not properly managed and end up in water sources, eventually in the ocean. The top ten rivers that release debris into the ocean are: Seven are located in the Philippines6.4% of the total can be attributed to the Pasig River which runs through the capital Manila.

Although it is difficult to measure the emissions from plastics that are discarded into the environment, mounting evidence suggests they are much higher than previously thought. “Research shows that plastics at the surface of the ocean continuously release gases such as methane and ethylene, and other greenhouse gases,” CIEL’s Carroll Moffatt says, pointing to a StudyIn the journal PLoS.

“I think the really troubling part of this is that plastics in the ocean are outweighed by plastics in the terrestrial environment,” he adds. “Those plastics, because they’re exposed to [more] sunlight, are going to be emitting methane and other greenhouse gases at an even faster rate than the plastics in the ocean.”

Future action against plastic pollution

Experts agree that it is necessary to reduce plastic sector emissions. Action on the groundBoth at the government and global levels.


For now, the Paris Agreement does not include plastic management in the climate pledges of the Southeast Asian countries. However, ASEAN countries have taken steps to a Plan for five yearsIn place to combat marine plastic pollution. This aims to reduce waste, improve collection, and create value for waste reuse.

Nicole Portley says that while there is some action on the policy front, “in our opinion it is not fast or comprehensive enough.” She mentions Vietnam’s Recently enacted framework which makes producers pay for their waste and could incentivise packaging redesign, and points to the Philippines as a “standout” in the region for having outlawed incineration.

“We’d love to also see policy action on curbing plastic supply. Portley adds that there is a global treaty in the works through the UN. We’ll see if it would place any limits on supply.”re is a global treaty in the works through the UN, and we’ll see if it would place any limits on supply,” Portley adds. The Resolution for a UN Treaty to End Global Plastic PollutionMany saw this as a huge step towards eliminating plastic waste.

This article is a collaboration of China Dialogue and The China Environment Forum’s Turning the Tide on Plastic Waste in Asia initiative. Learn more about plastic pollution and watch webinars from Wilson Center Here.

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