• Juline Lew

The key to ensuring effective plastic waste reduction? More city-level data.

Updated: May 5

Plastic pollution in South and Southeast Asia

According to an estimate, 353 million metric tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2019. Of this amount, 6.1 million tonnes flowed into aquatic environments, with 1.7 million metric tonnes ending up in the oceans. Some of the major contributors to the ocean plastic pollution problem are in South and Southeast Asia. In India, approximately 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2019, while in Southeast Asia, top plastic waste generators Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia generate 9.1, 4.8 and 2.1 million tonnes, respectively. Only a small percentage of this plastic waste is recycled, with the majority incinerated, landfilled, or mismanaged and leaked into the environment. In India, for example, only 13% of plastic waste was recycled in 2019, with 46% mismanaged and uncollected. Some of this mismanaged plastic inevitably ends up in the ocean.

Rivers in the region are a key contributor to ocean plastics, with the 10 largest plastic emitting rivers in the world situated near South and Southeast Asian cities (Figure 1). These rivers are traversing cities on their journey to the ocean, collecting plastic leakage from the cities’ mismanaged waste along the way. Implementation of more localized solutions based on an understanding of the gaps in a city’s waste management practices could help bolster efforts to tackle ocean plastic pollution.

Figure 1: Contribution to ocean plastics from the top 10 emitting rivers in the world (Meijer et al., 2021)

National governments’ efforts to address plastic pollution

With the growing scrutiny on the plastic pollution problem across South and Southeast Asia, governments have developed national-level roadmaps and policies to chart their country’s trajectory to a plastic-waste-free future. In India, a ban on most single-use plastics is expected to take effect from July 1, 2022. In Malaysia, the Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics provides a phased approach towards the elimination of single-use plastics, with implementation of the plan taking place from 2018 to 2030. In Indonesia, under the National Plan of Action on Marine Plastic Debris 2017-2025, the country aims to reduce marine plastic waste by 70%, while in Vietnam, the National Action Plan for Management of Marine Plastic Litter by 2030 targets a 50% reduction in marine plastic litter by 2025, and 75% by 2030.

These national plastic reduction plans, while representing the governments’ commitments to tackling the plastic pollution problem, do not typically account for the socio-economic, municipal solid waste, plastic waste and plastic leakage situations that are unique to each city and municipality. National targets will only be achievable if municipal corporations take responsibility and implement solutions at the city level.

Filling local data gaps is key to progress in plastic reduction efforts

After conducting an extensive review of publicly available data on plastic pollution in cities in India and Southeast Asia, The Circulate Initiative has identified major gaps in data availability. Baseline plastic waste information, such as generation and collection rates, plastic leakage rates, and end-of-life fates - critical data points for decision making - is often unavailable. Pasig River, for example, which is the most polluting river in the world, has no plastic pollution data available for the five cities it runs through; Taguig, Pasig, Makati, Mandaluyong, and Manila, or the municipality of Taytay. Without the data necessary to understand the plastic pollution rates of each city, it is difficult to identify a suitable approach to remedy the plastic pollution problem. Similarly, in cities where there is data available on plastic pollution, the data source and varying methods of collection can call into question the validity of the data available and its use in decision making.

At the same time, there have been programs and initiatives implemented on a city-level that span across impact themes ranging from advocating for behavior change, to inducing capital flows. Yet, due to the lack of availability of uniform, good quality baseline data, it is unclear if these initiatives do fulfill a need, and whether they achieve their intended impact. In general, efforts tend to be scattered and rarely lead to significant, long-term improvements.

Reliable data is essential in laying a strong foundation to develop a coordinated and tailored approach to combating plastic pollution. Without the establishment of good quality baseline data, it will be challenging to put in place reasonable targets and deadlines, and implement effective strategies that can address the roots of the issue. Proper and agreed-upon baselines facilitate coordination between governments at all levels, enabling them to work together to design policies that tackle plastic pollution from the grassroots up.

City-level data is required to support emerging discussions on the global plastic treaty

Efforts like the Circularity Assessment Protocol (CAP) developed in the Circularity Informatics Lab (CIL) at the University of Georgia, and Closing the Data Gap Challenge by The Circulate Initiative and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, have employed city-level approaches in their research and data collection. While these represent a promising start, they are but a drop in the ocean, and similar efforts must be replicated on a larger scale with more cities so that we can understand local realities, set robust baselines, and provide more and better quality data for all stakeholders to make better decisions.

Plastic pollution has become one of the most urgent environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production and usage of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them. By supplementing discussions with evidence-based data insights, we can identify the issues that are most pressing to address, and that can potentially trigger even more widespread benefits to solve the problem of plastic pollution. As negotiations begin for the development of a global plastic treaty following the United Nations Environment Assembly 5.2 (UNEA), it is critical for countries in South and Southeast Asia, as some of the top polluters in the world, to first and foremost address these city-level data gaps.


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