ASEAN leaders adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Plastic Debris in ASEAN Region in June 2019. Countries in the region have since taken various measures at national level to curb plastic pollution. One year on, it is timely to review the progress and reflect on the ways for- ward. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant implications for almost every sector of our societies, including the campaigns to reduce plastic use. The challenges facing the efforts to tackle plastic pollution highlight the need to balance between the immediate priori- ty and longer-term target.
Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are among the world’s top contributors of marine plastic debris. The Bangkok Declaration reflected the seriousness of the challenge and the commitment of ASEAN countries to address it. Thailand banned single-use plastic bags from January 1, 2020. Indonesia was to impose a similar ban in Jakarta by June 2020. The Philippine government is considering this option too.
At the regional level, Norway provided US$ 3 million in November 2019 to support the implementation of the Bangkok Declaration through the ASEAN-Norway Cooperation Project on Local Capacity Building for Reducing Plastic Pollution over three years. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), in partnership with Japan, launched a project in May 2020 to support local implementation of the ASEAN Framework of Action on Marine Debris. These developments show that the work to reduce marine plastic debris is gaining momentum in Southeast Asia.
However, the positive trend has been affected by the outbreak of the COVID-19 since the disease began to spread globally in February. The pandemic affects efforts to reduce marine plastic debris in several ways. First, the response to the COVID-19 leads to substantial increases in the use of plastic products. For instance, some disposable protective equipment like face shields are plastic. Food delivery has become popular and necessary during the outbreak as most people are confined at home but this new normal has increased the use of plastic packaging. It is pointed out in a news report that the plastic waste generated in Bangkok has been up from 5,500 tonnes to 6300 tonnes daily. Moreover, due to the consideration for hygiene, businesses have to suspend the effort to encourage customers to bring their own reusable containers.
Second, the enforcement of lockdown affects waste management in Southeast Asian cities, particularly those relying on individual waste collectors. Effective waste management is key to the efforts to tackle marine plastic debris, as land- based waste is a primary source of marine plastic debris. The significant increases in the consumption of single-use plastics for various purposes, from daily life to medical protection, put further pressure on waste management. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has reduced the mobility of waste collectors in the informal sector and threatened the livelihood of this community.
Third, the pandemic has inflicted significant impacts on global economy. As countries are moving to the phase of reopening, national governments and the private sector face the dilemma between the more urgent need to revitalise eco-nomic activities and the longer-term target of reducing marine plastic debris significantly, such as whether to loosen the restrictions on single-use plastic products to boost consumption.
Given the imminent threat posed by COVID-19, it is understandable that prevention and containment measures have been prioritised, even at the expense of other socio-economic activities. However, as the situation has been gradually under control in many parts of the world and countries are to
re-boost economic development, the political and financial support for reducing marine plastic debris should be maintained. Moreover, as the out- break has catalysed transformation in many aspects of people’s lifestyle, it is important that reducing reliance on single-use plastic products and increasing reuse and recycling are included in this transformation process, so as to achieve the sustainable development goal of preserving the marine environment.