INSIGHT: Recycling as a solution to marine plastics pollution

Joshua Tan


SINGAPORE (ICIS)–Plastics pollution of the marine environment is a global challenge that the world is trying to tackle today.

  • Marine debris is a global challenge; the top contributors of marine debris are from the southeast Asia region
  • Recycling capacity distribution does not match up with population distribution in the region
  • Current plans to combat marine pollution does not propose recycling as a direct solution to the problem

According to a recent study, the top contributors of marine debris are from the southeast Asia region. Six out of ten ASEAN member states alone generate more than 31m tonnes of plastic waste in a year. While many of them are engaged in efforts to combat plastic waste, these efforts tend to be policy-centric with ambiguous goals that are open to interpretation and often difficult to meet without proper directions.

To compound the problem, the sudden increase in volume of single use plastics and personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic is putting additional stress on these countries as they tackle marine pollution.

According to the study by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the main sources of plastic debris in the ocean are land-based, coming from urban and stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, littering, inadequate waste disposal and management. The study also goes on to mention that many countries lack the infrastructure to prevent plastic pollution, including recycling capacities.

The image below shows two heat maps that represent the population density of southeast Asia countries and their recycling capacities. It shows clearly that recycling capacities do not match up with population densities and instead are concentrated in specific regions of each country, such as the industrial hub in Rayong, Thailand for example.

There are national and regional plans that combat marine litter directly or indirectly, but none of them are actively proposing recycling as a solution to the problem.

Plan Relevant targets and/or focus areas Details
Indonesia Sustainable Oceans Program Reducing Marine Pollution Emphasis on studies, data collection and increasing knowledge needed to make informed decisions on the investment of infrastructure
India Plastics Pact 50% of packaging effectively recycled Indirectly reducing marine debris by creating regulations, Extended Producer Responsibility instruments and end market use for post-consumer packaging
ASEAN Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris Enhance coordination at the regional or international levels for achieving sustainable management of coastal and marine environments through responding to marine plastic pollution A framework of action components with an emphasis on a regional handbook focused on guiding principles, best practices and studies

Southeast Asia will remain as the top contributor of marine plastic debris without the development of recycling capacities beyond the status quo.

Implementing regulatory frameworks and policies, improving existing waste management infrastructure and educating the general public about the value of post-consumer waste with recycling as the end goal will amplify the effects of these efforts.

The persistence of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies in trying to meet their global recycling targets further validates the need for strategic development of the recycling industry.

The many national and international developments focused on regulatory frameworks to shift markets up the waste hierarchy towards recycle/reuse and beyond are essential but just one part of the solution.

The role of the recycling industry is paramount to this move. But incentivising further investment in capacities and supporting infrastructural enhancements in collection to deliver the waste as feedstocks to those plants are essential and fall to the responsibility of the entire supply chain as well as governments.

Insight by Joshua Tan


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