Asia must lead in tackling the plastic waste crisis

By Vivek Pathak and Navneet Chadha

Our world has a plastic waste crisis and Asia is at the epicentre.

More than half the plastic debris in our oceans comes from just five countries — all of them in Asia. The main reason is poor waste collection and recycling systems.

As Asia’s emerging economies grow, so too does their plastic consumption. The World Bank has linked higher income levels and urbanisation rates to greater amounts of solid waste. In 1978, the average plastic usage per person was around 2 kg; in 2017 it was 43 kg.

Plastic waste is ubiquitous. Alarmingly, less than 10 per cent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled globally. Some of it has been incinerated, but most of it is in landfills or has been improperly discarded. And the problem is growing — annual waste generation is likely to rise from around two billion tons today to 3.4 billion tons in 2050 and most of this is expected to be in Asia.

While a large portion of plastic waste leakage can be traced to Asia, its environmental impact is felt globally, damaging marine wildlife and climate-crucial ecosystems. So much plastic waste has been discarded since the 50s that researchers have found it in marine life, snow, ice, sand, soil and water. Tiny microplastic particles have even entered our food chain, especially through seafood, and have been found in bottled and tap water, salt and honey.

The implications of ingesting plastics are unclear. However, the World Health Organization believes it is an emerging area of concern and scientists are hastening efforts to understand the impact it could have on our health.

The worldwide movement to solve our plastic crisis is gaining momentum, entering social discourse and global summits such as the G20 and the UN’s COPs.

In response, global food and beverage and apparel manufacturers have set ambitious recycled content targets, creating a growing market for recycled plastic. Their increasing demand is yet to translate into significant recycling investments.

Producing usable recycled plastic is not easy. With hundreds of different plastic types, sorting and recycling technology is becoming increasingly complex. Global brands can help by streamlining packaging designs. While packaging may be designed in developed markets, it must be recoverable and recyclable in Asia.

Asia is a diverse region with stark contrasts: from densely populated middle-income urban centres to informal coastal communities. We have PET bottles for the well-heeled and single-serve sachets for low-income earners. The bustling street-food economy depends extensively on plastic take-out containers and bags. Meanwhile, e-commerce orders delivered via motorcycle require packaging that is both flexible and sturdy.

What is the role of the private sector in providing solutions? Much of Asia’s waste collection depends on informal workers. We must enhance informal-formal sector linkages, manage environmental, health and safety risks, and address inefficiencies in waste collection. We also need solutions right-sized for the millions of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that sell products across the region. While product refill and deposit return schemes could work well for supermarket chains and department stores, these models will require different approaches to accommodate small independent shops and street vendors in low-income countries.


Waste management needs to match the diverse urban, rural and coastal communities that exist in Asia. Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, have large coastal populations and thousands of islands that are best served via decentralised waste solutions that complement integrated solid waste-management facilities in their cities.

Even the best market and regulatory interventions will not work without tackling the plastic waste problem at the source and getting the consumer engaged. The best approach to solving our plastic pollution crisis is avoidance where feasible. This requires a huge change in mindset which could take years to achieve — but which needs to begin immediately.

Consumers can help by segregating wastes at the source. Separating dry plastic from wet food wastes could make a significant impact in Asia, since food waste makes up a startling proportion of our solid waste.

Financial institutions, multilateral organisations and impact investors are ready to step up and unlock the capital required to make recycling and other plastic value-chain solutions a reality in Asia. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has identified plastic waste as a key priority and is working with the World Bank, which is leading data analytics and policy work in the region. IFC is engaging with public and private sector stakeholders to address the challenges in developing bankable and scalable projects through its upcoming Climate Business Forum. Risk-sharing facilities, donor-blended finance and other innovative private sector finance mechanisms could jump-start the nascent market for plastic solutions.

There is no clear-cut or single solution to the plastic crisis, and it will take a coordinated, multi-stakeholder effort to dramatically reduce our dependency on plastic and deal with the waste already created. With the right government policies and standards and private-sector intervention we will solve the pervasive problem of plastic pollution.

Vivek Pathak is the Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific at the International Finance Corporation. Navneet Chadha is a Principal Operations Officer for Manufacturing Advisory Services at IFC.

This article was first published on The Business Times (Singapore) on 12 February 2020.

IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.