Beating Plastic Pollution to Protect ASEAN’s Web of Life
Young ASEAN Storyteller Aung Chan Thar took this morning photo of the Inlay lake, the second largest inland lake in Myanmar and is famous for its floating villages and self-sufficient communities.
ASEAN Press Statement for the World Environment Day 2023: Beating Plastic Pollution to Protect ASEAN’s Web of Life
Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim
Executive Director, ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity
Modern societies have adopted the use of plastic materials as part of daily life. However, the surge of plastic wastes has become one of the most pressing environmental concerns worldwide. There are over 400 million tons of plastic produced every year and more than half of the plastics ever produced entered the market in the past 15 years alone. These plastic wastes leak onto the rivers and seas and become marine debris. It is estimated that 80% of all marine debris in the oceans is attributed to plastic and an estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year.
A pandemic of plastic pollution
In the ASEAN region, plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. About 20 per cent of the global plastic production is attributed to the region, causing severe impacts on its marine ecosystems. In a study by two Japanese universities, about 40% of seabirds surveyed around the world have ingested toxic substances derived from plastic waste. According to estimates, it is projected that there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050. Recent studies also suggest that the economic costs of marine debris is estimated at around $10.8 billion dollars for countries in the APEC region, including to tourism, to fishing, and shipping.
Despite being endowed with rich natural resources, Southeast Asian countries with fast-rising urbanisation and population growth, are considered significant contributors to the leakage of land-based plastic waste going into the seas. More than 31 million tons of plastics, enough to fit in about 1,500,000 shipping containers, are generated annually in just six of the 10 ASEAN Member States and most of these plastics are of single-use. The COVID-19 pandemic has added pressure to the growing problem due to the surge in the production of face masks, face shields, personal protective equipment, and online delivery packaging due to lockdowns. Hence, interconnected bodies of water such as river systems and coastlines have been hugely affected by this plastic inundation, smothering coral reefs and posing a threat to the marine ecosystem and consequently affecting the livelihood of coastal communities throughout the region.
In this year’s World Environment Day, the ASEAN asserts its commitment to reduce plastic pollution and marine debris. The ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity joins the global community in this campaign by intensifying regional and national cooperation; encouraging heightened collective action for the protection, restoration, and sustainable use of the coastal and marine environment; promotion of approaches and good management practices to address threats to biodiversity rich and ecologically-sensitive water bodies; and encourages knowledge sharing to manage transboundary pollution and waste issues.
Regional actions and solutions
So far, the ASEAN Member States have been implementing national policies and strategies to mitigate the impacts of marine debris. Although gaps have been identified, remediation measures have been incorporated in the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) of the AMS. New policies against pollution were refined and formulated, pollution status using standard quality indices was monitored, and measures to mitigate pollution and its impacts on biodiversity were implemented.
The ASEAN has specifically dealt with marine debris through the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Region and the ASEAN Framework of Action on Marine Debris (FAMAD) since 2019. It reiterated the regional commitment in dealing with the risks of pollution including threats to the marine and coastal environment and it is expected to significantly reduce impacts of marine debris and contribute to a more sustainable blue economy across the ASEAN.
The ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity contributes to the region-wide efforts to better safeguard ecosystems, biological species, and genetic diversity from direct pressures such as plastic pollution through its flagship programme, the ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHPs). With this programme, implementation of global conventions and policies related to biodiversity are more effective. The programme focuses on building capacity of park managers and staff through training courses, coordination among park managers to strengthen the regional network of protected areas, and expand coverage of marine protected areas. Effective protected area management includes addressing anthropogenic threats that undermine the integrity of these unique natural treasures of the ASEAN. Ridge to reef efforts to keep these protected areas free from litter is among the initiatives that align with safeguarding our AHPs.
In addition, the ACB supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts recently engaged in a study entitled, Understanding the Circumstances towards Achieving the Marine Protected Areas Target in the ASEAN Region. This technical document provides a visual demonstration of how our marine areas in the ASEAN are interconnected, not just within the region but outside the region as well. This means that threats to marine biodiversity such as plastic pollution, impacts marine resources across national boundaries. Effective transboundary management and coordinated action will certainly benefit from taking into consideration biophysical data which include ecological dependencies, biological life cycles, and migration patterns that are significantly affected by the common threat of plastic pollution.
The Centre likewise launched an awareness-raising campaign called, Oceans are fitter without our litter, as a call to combat plastic pollution in coastal and marine environments in the ASEAN region by avoiding single-use plastics while promoting reusable everyday materials such as ecobags and water tumblers. In compliance with ASEAN’s Guidelines on Green Meetings, the Centre also discourages the use of disposable materials and excessive packaging materials in regional events, activities, and dialogues on biodiversity.
Finding sustainable solution in nature
Application of nature-based solutions (NbS) as an integrated approach is also indicated in The ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework 2020 and is a viable solution to address the plastic problem. Nature-based solutions are adaptation actions that fully utilise ecosystem services and biodiversity benefits, and address both social, economic, and environmental challenges effectively. With NbS, sustainable use and management of natural resources is ensured while providing for the needs of people. Seaweed-based products, for instance, can be alternative materials to plastic. Palm-based products can be used as a more sustainable packaging instead of styrofoams. Research and technologies may also be explored for riverine plastic captures while instruments such as blue financing may be pursued with the help of non-government and private sectors in the region. NbS examples can be fully integrated in important sectors such as health, agriculture, infrastructure, biodiversity, tourism, and others. Finally, marine species, including microorganisms, are important indicators of a deteriorating ocean system, it is therefore vital for us to protect and monitor these as part of our early warning mechanisms to deliver timely action before the damages from pollution become irreversible and catastrophic.
With ASEAN regional policies and instruments in place, it is hoped that marine debris will be properly addressed and plastic pollution reduction goals under the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework or the KM GBF will be achieved to fully bring biodiversity back.