The World Is Making the Mekong Its Dump


Through: Danny Marks, Dublin City University in Dublin

Rising marine pollution is choking the world’s oceans and rivers, especially in Southeast Asia – and it’s only going to get worse if nothing changes.

The countries along the Mekong River have become the world’s waste dumps. Garbage finds its way into the water – killing marine life and clogging animals with plastic that is later eaten by humans. And it only got worse during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has led to a surge in plastic waste in Southeast Asia, particularly with the widespread dumping of disposable face masks, take-out food containers and packaging from online purchases.

In April 2020, Bangkok’s daily average of 2,115 tons of single-use plastic waste grew to more than 3,400 tons per day. Lockdowns stopped more than 80 percent of the recycling value chain in Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.

Even before the pandemic-related waste, only nine percent of all plastic packaging was recycled and about 12 percent was incinerated. The remaining 79 percent accumulates in landfills, landfills and in nature.

Much of this waste, particularly plastic, ends up in our oceans. According to a 2018 study by UN Environment, up to 13 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year.

Plastic pollution in the oceans is a major transboundary problem costing an estimated $2.5 trillion a year. Some 267 species of marine animals – such as turtles, whales, fish and seabirds – have been affected by plastic debris through entrapment or ingestion, although that number will inevitably rise as smaller species are studied.

Humans also swallow plastic when eating these animals, contributing to health risks like cancer and infertility. This debris leaves huge sea stains in its wake, and plastics are also washed up on shores. About 80 percent of the waste is land-bound and will have reached the sea via rivers and other waterways.

By 2050, plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish if current trends are projected to continue. Three of the six countries with the greatest plastic pollution – China, Thailand and Vietnam – have a presence in the Mekong, and many Southeast Asian countries have become dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste.

As highlighted by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in 2019, litter is causing contaminated water, crop failures and respiratory illnesses across Southeast Asia. Fish ingest plastic. Dead whales with many kilograms of plastic in their stomachs turn up in Thailand and Indonesia.

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The region’s cross-border regulation of plastic pollution of the seas is not working. There is no plastic agreement with binding targets and deadlines at international level. The fossil fuel and plastics industry has successfully resisted plastic containment measures such as plastic bags and import bans. Instead, these well-funded industries have invested in marketing strategies aimed at persuading consumers to take responsibility for their own waste.

Collective action by governing bodies in Southeast Asia remains limited. In January 2019, ASEAN countries agreed to tackle marine litter and plastic pollution in the region with the Bangkok Declaration. However, ASEAN itself recognizes that the challenges in tackling marine plastic pollution are enormous and difficult to meet, especially as its own geopolitical culture emphasizes non-interference in the internal affairs of individual countries and a non-confrontational approach to solving cross-border environmental problems.

Asia absorbs 75 percent of the world’s exported waste, often from wealthy countries without the domestic processing capacity to match. The UK, for example, exports about 70 percent of its plastic. Since China began banning imports of plastic waste in July 2017, Southeast Asia has become a dumping ground for the garbage of wealthier countries.

After China’s ban, the amount of plastic waste imported to countries like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia has more than doubled.

As foreign garbage built up and local resentment grew, Southeast Asia’s governments began refusing to serve as the world’s dumping ground. Malaysia and the Philippines have already sent mislabeled waste back to Spain and South Korea, respectively, and Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have also restricted imports of plastic waste, with plans for a total ban in the coming years.

However, changes needed to drastically improve plastic management in these countries are yet to come. The consumption of single-use plastics is still high in these countries. There are hardly any comprehensive bans or taxes, for example on disposable bags. Voluntary measures have often been encouraged but still show limited effectiveness.

Waste management in these countries also does not meet global standards. Recycling rates remain low around the world, but especially in Southeast Asia. In many places there is no separation of household waste. Littering remains omnipresent. At the household and community levels, inadequate infrastructure contributes significantly to the plastic pollution problem. Garbage cans are often undersized, uncovered and rarely collected.

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Many landfills in Southeast Asia are not prepared to deal with the growing amounts of plastic waste. Of the 27.8 million tons of plastic waste in Thailand in 2018, at least 27 percent was disposed of improperly, including through open landfills. Much of this plastic ends up in waterways and then flows into the oceans.

More than half of Indonesia’s landfills are open dumps, waste is improperly stacked – increasing the risk of floods, fires and garbage dumps. This has led to deaths in the Philippines, Indonesia and India. Some waste is also illegally incinerated, which releases toxic gases that are harmful to human health.

Thailand is a prominent example of a country where increasing waste imports have had a significant impact on population groups, particularly low-income groups.

Overall, Thailand produced two million tons of plastic waste in 2018, but only a quarter was recycled, mostly from plastic bottles. The country, like others along the Mekong, has also struggled to expand its domestic capacity to keep up with rising waste imports that China had previously absorbed.

Many of these recycling companies that processed the waste discharged untreated wastewater to save money. This processing of plastic waste has contributed to the deterioration of wastewater in recent years and affected the livelihoods of aquaculture farmers in Bangkok’s southern outskirts, such as Bang Khun Thian and parts of Samut Prakarn. Outbreaks of disease caused by sewage infiltration have added another element of precariousness to their livelihoods. And it’s not only in Bangkok and Samut Prakarn that small farmers are suffering from sewage infiltration, but also in other parts of the country.

When Southeast Asian countries stop accepting waste from high-income countries, where will the waste go? Only nine percent of plastic waste worldwide is recycled. Western countries have few simple solutions for dealing with plastic waste, as it is often too costly for them to recycle themselves. Unlike China, they cannot easily turn waste into new products. Given this lower demand and the harmful effects of waste recycling, it would make sense for Southeast Asian countries to follow China’s example and also enact an import ban on all waste.

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Manufacturers could help by making products that are more recyclable. However, some materials, such as plastic sheeting and composite materials, cannot be easily recycled. Reducing the consumption of single-use plastics in western countries would also support the process.

Grassroots environmental collectives can also help stem the spread of plastic waste across borders. The Zero Waste Program, launched by Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University in 2016, taught students how to reduce plastic use during their orientation week. Less than a year after the program started, the use of plastic bags on campus had dropped by 90 percent.

Such success stories generate political will that can be replicated across borders. Political will also helps mobilize community-based activities.

At the regional level, bodies like ASEAN play a crucial role in supporting civil society, plastics manufacturers, retailers and governments across the region. With its non-interventionist political culture, ASEAN’s emphasis on protecting regional commons through sustainable development strategies is not only palatable but also attractive to member countries, as it emphasizes collective economic, health and social benefits while avoiding blaming individual governments.

In March 2019, ASEAN environment ministers took a positive first step to lay the foundations for such cross-border cooperation by adopting in principle the Bangkok Declaration. Considerable work remains to translate the framework into policy, but a regional consensus on the common threat of marine plastic pollution is a good place to start.

Danny Marks is Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy and Policy at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. He has researched and worked in Southeast Asia for several years, particularly in the field of environmental governance. His research interests are political ecology, environmental justice, climate policy and disaster risk reduction.

Danny has not declared any conflicts of interest related to this article.

This article was republished for World Rivers Day. It was first released on February 21, 2022.

Originally released under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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