Community involvement: The solution for Southeast Asia’s plastic pollution

With ASEAN countries among the worst plastic polluters in the world, should we be looking to implement schemes among local communities that allow them to manage their own waste?

July 21, 2020
Community involvement: The solution for Southeast Asia’s plastic pollution
Workers collect trash including plastic waste from a neighbourhood dump site in Jakarta on July 3. Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP

In 2015, five ASEAN countries – Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia – were all ranked among the top 10 culprits for ocean plastic pollution from almost 200 countries globally.

Several factors saw these countries rocket into the top 10 – large coastal populations, high waste generation rate, high plastic waste ratio and most importantly the amount of mismanaged waste. Yet, even today, five years on, it remains unclear what, if any, strategy these countries have to overcome plastic pollution. 

Most of ASEAN member states rely on landfills and disposal methods to treat plastic waste, responsible for 14% of the total generated waste in the region. Unfortunately, the capacity of landfills is limited. Bantargebang, ASEAN’s biggest landfill site located in Jakarta, has just one more year left to operate as it nears maximum capacity.

Meanwhile, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand have explored the use of incinerators to solve the plastic waste issue, but this method is inefficient in that it wastes much of the energy and materials originally invested in making it. 

Perhaps, instead, we should be looking towards local communities for the solution.

Surprisingly, plastic consumption per capita in most ASEAN countries is still relatively low, and in terms of total plastic consumption, it’s still far below the USA, Japan, or Korea. Hence, the main challenge is not necessarily plastic itself, but on how to manage plastic waste responsibly. 

There are two main challenges on this front, namely financial and public participation. 

Generally, the allocated budget for waste management in ASEAN countries falls below what is required, resulting in mismanaged waste. The cost of waste management for a family of five (with the estimated waste generation rate of 0.7 kg/person/day) should be around $126/year. However, the average spent on waste management per household in Southeast Asia is just $46/year

It is difficult to solve waste and plastic pollution issues before financing is improved, potentially by implementing a new payment standard such as a fee per volume of waste. 

The next important aspect of successful waste management is public participation. In 2018, the Central Bureau of Statistics (Badan Pusat Statistik) of Indonesia published a report showing that the least important environmental topic for Indonesians was waste management, with 72% of respondents caring little about the issue. 

One possible solution for both challenges is by promoting community-based plastic waste management. There are four strategies for resource management: private sector management, public sector management, community-based management, and collaborative management. The main considerations of these strategies are state capacity and social capacity. 

In developing countries, state and social capacity is typically low, and with limited funds available to contract private companies, community-based plastic waste management – leveraged through campaigns and education – becomes the best solution. 

Waste banks in Indonesia are a good example of community-based plastic waste management that have been developed in the region. The waste bank works by incentivising people who participate in plastic and inorganic waste collection based on the value of collected waste. This system enables people to gain additional income and preserve the environment at the same time. 

As of 2019, there are more than 8,000 waste banks in Indonesia that help to reduce the amount of plastic leakage to the ocean. They offer a model for Indonesia – and the ASEAN region – to scale up as part of community-based solutions to tackle plastic waste pollution.

Muchtazar studied environmental engineering at Bandung Institute of Technology and is currently a Master’s student of environmental science at the University of Indonesia. All views expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of the author’s employer, organisation, committee or other group or individual.

Read more articles