The price of plastic waste and solutions to turn the tide

By Stefanos Fotiou, Director, Environment and Development Division, ESCAP and Anthony Cox, Deputy Director, OECD Environment Directorate

Image source: UNESCAP

The proliferation of plastic in our society is hitting extreme levels that should be of concern to all nations.  Annually, we produce around 359 million tonnes of plastic with the global market being valued at USD 568.9 billion in 2019, and projected to reach almost USD 1 trillion by 2035. Of this volume, 49.3 per cent is produced in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also where 38 per cent of all plastic is consumed.

Eight million tonnes of this plastic will end up in the world’s oceans every year, most of which is fed from rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash from the some of the world’s fastest growing cities into the marine environment.

Our relationship with plastic is short term focused. The plastic produced is designed to be single use. We use it once and then discard it. We like to think this is being recycled but only 9 per cent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12 per cent has been incinerated, while 79 per cent has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment as plastic waste, clogging our drains, endangering marine life and causing health concerns to local people.

There are also massive economic costs associated with marine plastic pollution. Conservative estimates published in March 2020 place the direct damage to the blue economy in the ASEAN region at USD 2.1 billion per year. Notably, this only covers the direct costs to three industries: shipping, fisheries and aquaculture, and marine tourism. Boats can get tangled up in abandoned or discarded fishing nets, or they might find their engines clogged up with bits of plastic junk. Whilst, “Ghost fishing” by derelict fishing gear results in reduced catch sizes. Tourists are also less likely to visit polluted beaches and seas – after all, who wants to dive near damaged coral reefs?

This USD 2.1 billion per year figure is expected to rise significantly under a “business-as-usual” scenario, as plastics production is projected to triple between 2020 and 2050. These economic costs also leave tremendous social costs in their wake. In addition to being intimately tied to the fishing and tourism industries for their livelihoods, residents of coastal communities suffer from the damaging health effects of plastic pollution and rubbish brought in by the tides. It is essential that we start developing solutions to prevent our oceans from becoming more polluted by plastics and other debris, and beyond that, to actually clean up our oceans.

Finding solutions

Solving the marine plastics pollution problem can – and must – be approached from multiple angles.

  • Product Design: The first step is identifying plastic products that can be substituted with non-plastic, recycled or biodegradable materials. By engaging with product designers, we can find alternatives to single-use plastics and design re-useable products. Countries need to adopt circular and sustainable economic principles throughout the plastics value chain to achieve this. 
  • Pricing: Plastics are cheap because they are produced with oil which is heavily subsidized and can be cheaper to produce, with less economic incentives to use recycled plastics. We need price structures that internalize the negative externalities of plastic use and encourage the use of alternative materials or reused and recycled plastics.
  • Technology and Innovation: Creating the tools and technology to help governments and organizations measure and monitor plastic waste within their cities. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Closing the Loop project is helping cities create smarter policy strategies to combat the problem.
  • Creating a Plastic-free Workplace: In 2018, ESCAP banned single use plastics in all catering operations. All single use items were replaced with reusable items, or more sustainable single-use options and charged at an extra fee to promote behavioural change among staff and visitors. This initiative is expected to prevent nearly nine tons of waste annually by rethinking our way of working.
  • Producer Responsibility: Extended responsibility can be applied in the retail (packaging) sector, where producers are responsible for the collection and recycling of products that they release into the market.
  • Municipal and Community Actions: Clean-up events on beaches and rivers, and awareness-raising initiatives to inform the public about how their actions contribute to marine plastics pollution (or to its solution), along with bans and levies on disposable plastic bags.
  • Multi Stakeholder Co-operation: Government ministries at the national and local levels, need to work in developing, implementing, and overseeing policies, which also involves industrial manufacturers, NGOs, and volunteer organisations. All these stakeholders need to act coherently and in synergy with one another instead of in silos. Not only do they need the will, but also the resources and funds to do so.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in partnership with ESCAP, the Indonesian Coordinating Ministry of Maritime and Investments Affairs, Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), and the ASEAN Secretariat, discussed these issues at the recent OECD Regional Policy Dialogue forum on the 15th and 16th of December. OECD and ESCAP are working together to provide expertise in policy coherence and sustainable financing to support countries in finding sustainable solutions to these challenges.

Events such as the OECD Regional Policy Dialogue forum, allow regional actors to exchange information and to develop co-operative efforts to address marine plastics pollution. Together, we can lay the groundwork for solutions that will restore cleaner, plastic-free seas in Southeast Asia.

Further reading

Discover OECD work in support of a sustainable ocean:

Find out more about ESCAP:

One Comment on “The price of plastic waste and solutions to turn the tide

  1. Plastic takes 100 years to decompose. There are alternative things we can use in our daily life. Nice informative article.
    For sharing this article


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