Beyond borders: Collaborative solutions to plastic pollution in Southeast Asia

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A plastic bag on the shore of a beach in Bali, Indonesia.
A plastic bag on the shore of a beach in Bali, Indonesia. ©Josh Estey/World Bank

The alarming escalation of plastic pollution jeopardizes public health, livelihoods, and our environment. Around 11 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans annually, accounting for a staggering 85 percent of all marine pollution. Trillions of pieces of plastic are estimated to be in the ocean, accumulating as gigantic garbage patches, carcinogenic microplastics in our food chain, and polluting global ecosystems. If this trajectory continues, the total weight of plastic in our oceans is projected to surpass that of all fish by 2050.

Southeast Asia is a hotspot for plastic pollution, largely due to rapid urbanization, a growing middle class, and underdeveloped waste management infrastructure. Countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand are some of the major contributors of mismanaged plastic waste, while nations like Cambodia and Lao PDR grapple with escalating plastic waste issues that strain existing waste management systems. Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Member States (AMS), more than half of waste generated is uncollected and less than a quarter is recycled.

A Regional Approach to a Global Challenge

The cross-border nature of marine plastic debris demands a regional approach to this global problem. Recognizing this, in 2021, ASEAN launched the Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Member States (2021-2025) (RAP). This comprehensive strategy outlines fourteen priority actions for regional and national implementation to strengthen policies, build capacity and awareness, and engage the private sector.

The design of the RAP was supported by the World Bank with funding from PROBLUE, a multi-donor trust fund that supports sustainable development of marine and coastal resources. Implementation is being supported through the World Bank’s “Waves of Change: Tackling Regional Marine Plastics Pollution in East Asia and the Pacific” advisory program. Thanks to contributions from several donor partners*, the program generates regional knowledge on topics including plastic packaging standards, regional waste trade and plastic pollution assessment methodologies.

Country-specific studies on plastics were also carried out – in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam - assessing the market potential for recycled plastics, identifying the most leaked plastic products, and facilitating the creation of national action plans to reduce plastic pollution and phase out single-use plastics.

Building on these efforts, the Southeast Asia Regional Program on Combating Marine Plastics (SEA-MaP) was developed. Financed through a $20 million grant from the International Development Association (IDA), SEA-MaP supports ten of the fourteen priority actions identified in the RAP, including policy support, innovation, capacity building, outreach, and private sector engagement. This innovative regional initiative aims to reduce plastic consumption, enhance recycling, and minimize leakage to prevent land and marine-based plastic pollution in Southeast Asia.

SEA-MaP also facilitates country-level investments for improved waste management. One example is the Cambodia Solid Waste and Plastic Management Improvement Project, a $60 million project financed by IDA, with an additional $3 million from PROBLUE, approved in May 2023. This project aims to strengthen waste and plastic management in Cambodia, enhance private sector performance in waste services, and improve waste fee systems. The project is expected to expand waste collection to many more households, increase landfill disposal capacity, and support new policies and standards to reduce waste and marine plastics.

Innovating for Impact and Replicability

SEA-MaP leverages the World Bank’s convening power and global presence to deliver activities that build capacity and opportunity to significantly scale impact. Activities also support AMS efforts to contribute effectively to the global plastics treaty negotiations underway until 2024. This is critical to ensure the treaty aligns with the unique realities and needs of the region and that future international actions complement local efforts to address plastic pollution and move towards a circular economy for plastics.

The private sector also plays an instrumental role in magnifying the projects impact. The program thus aims to create an enabling policy environment for investment in plastic pollution solutions and mobilize private finance for innovations, such as business models for packaging reuse and refill, and waste segregation technologies Additionally, a regional platform for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) knowledge and implementation support will be established. The EPR platform will build upon early experiences of EPR implementation in the Philippines and knowledge exchange on EPR with Korea, which will provide insights into support needed in the region.  

Ultimately, the SEA-MaP approach provides a cohesive regional strategic framework that bolsters national policies and promotes private sector innovation and action. With its focus on practical solutions, this regional program is not just a response but a proactive strategy for action. This pioneering initiative is helping Southeast Asia turn the tide on the plastic pollution crisis and provides a promising model for future engagements in other regions.

The Waves of Change program receives financial support from PROBLUE, the Embassy of Denmark to Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and ASEAN, the Korean Green Growth Trust Fund, the Climate Investment Funds, and the South-South Facility.

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