Cleaning our oceans: How is Asia reducing plastic waste?

Asia plastic waste

Wherever you are in the world, you’re likely to have become increasingly aware of the global push to clear our oceans of plastic.

At InsightAsia, we work with many FMCG companies, often supporting them with packaging development research to ensure products are packaged appropriately, in an appealing way and according to the brand’s overall purpose.

In our experience, though, there hasn’t been enough focus on developing biodegradable or recyclable packaging solutions in the FMCG space, and this concerns us! The Asia-wide shift from fresh market to supermarket shopping means we must manage plastic waste more effectively, and this can start in the early packaging concept stages.

Devastating pictures and footage of the impact the world’s plastic waste is having on marine life have been circulating, both on television and online. Just last week, the sad news of a pilot whale dying off the south coast of Thailand after eating 80 plastic carrier bags made global headlines.

It’s predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Now is the time to make a difference, and we’ve noticed a promising rise in plastic awareness across the region. Encouragingly, increased awareness has prompted plenty of new initiatives to try to save our oceans and protect the world we live in.

So, what exactly are Asian countries doing to raise plastic waste awareness, and support the global effort to reduce the amount of plastic going into our seas?

Reducing use of disposable cutlery

Countries across the continent are finding various ways to cut out the amount of single-use plastic cutlery being used.

A great example of this is an initiative launched back in January by Foodpanda, a food delivery service which operates across several countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, including India, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.

Piloted in Singapore, the company has added an ‘opt in’ function on its app and website, so that customers can choose whether or not they receive cutlery with their food orders. Foodpanda reports that since implementing the cutlery option, 10% of orders from its top 20 restaurants have opted out of receiving cutlery. This success has encouraged the company to roll out the same initiative across APAC.

This is just one example of how an increased awareness of plastic waste is prompting companies to take responsibility and seize the initiative when it comes to protecting our oceans, and many other firms are starting to follow suit, too.

Charging for plastic bags

Carrier bags have almost always been free in the past, but countries across APAC are starting to charge people for them in an attempt to reduce plastic shopping bag waste.

For example, back in 2015, Hong Kong imposed a levy that required all retailers to charge customers no less than 50 HK cents (around US$0.064) for a plastic carrier bag, unless the bag falls under one of the Environmental Protection Department’s exemptions:

  • The bag is needed for hygiene reasons, such as cling film food wrapping
  • The bag is part of an item’s packaging, such as sealed items
  • The bag is being provided as part of the services, such as a bag for a dry-cleaned clothing item.

This rule applies to all Hong Kong stores, and was implemented in an attempt to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags when visiting the shops.

Similar moves have also been made by several countries across Asia, including China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. Most recently, in April 2018, the Ministry of Environment in Cambodia rolled out a new plastic bag fee of 400 riel (around US$0.10) per bag in supermarkets and shopping centres.

“[The initiative] is not to gain income for the state, but to change the attitude of people and turn their awareness to think about the impacts on the environment and society by reducing plastic bag consumption in Cambodia.”
— Heng Nareth, Director of Environmental Protection at the Ministry of Environment

Banning plastic straws

Plastic straws are also something many countries across the globe are attempting to reduce their use of, or even get rid of them altogether in favour of paper alternatives.

For example, back in February, Taiwan Minister Lee Ying-yuan announced that as of next year, food and beverage outlets, such as fast food restaurants, will no longer be allowed to provide plastic straws in-store. From 2020, free plastic straws will be banned altogether.

This is part of the Minister’s blanket ban on disposable plastic bags, utensils and cups, which will come into force in 2030.

Taking action against microplastics

Microplastics, such as the microbeads found in skincare products, have also been highlighted by the United Nation’s Environmental Programme (UNEP) as one of the alarming plastic threats to marine life.

Countries across the globe are making big changes to try and tackle this – the UK enforced a complete ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads in January this year.

In Asia, countries are looking to follow in the UK’s footsteps, vowing to ban products like toothpaste, face wash and cosmetics which contain microbeads. Singapore’s National Parks Board has been assessing the problem since 2016, with The National Environment Agency also monitoring legislative developments in other countries, so it’s looking promising that a microplastic ban could be on the horizon in Singapore in the near future:

“[We’re] currently looking into assessing the status and impact of marine debris and microplastics on Singapore’s marine environment.”
— The National Parks Board

Closing Maya Bay

You may have heard the recent news that world-famous tourist destination, Maya Bay in Thailand, has been closed off to give it time to recover from the environmental damage caused by so many visitors.

This is not only to give the bay a rest from all the waste being left on the beach – and, inevitably, ending up in the sea – but also to give the Bay’s coral reefs and sea life some time to recover from damaging tourism boat fumes.

How is InsightAsia helping to protect our oceans?

At InsightAsia, the way in which plastic waste is causing damage and harm to both marine life and our environment is an issue we hold close to our hearts. We want to make a difference – here’s what we’re doing to help now, and in the near future:

  • Working with clients to develop more environmentally friendly packaging solutions. When helping with packaging research, we’ll assess plastic-free, biodegradable and recyclable options to help clients make environmentally responsible decisions when it comes to early-stage packaging development.
  • Reducing our internal plastic waste. From our everyday lunches to event food, we’ll be seeking plastic-free and recyclable options. Increasing awareness among our global teams about the importance of plastic waste is also on the agenda!
  • Running a regional survey to benchmark plastic waste awareness. If we can learn more about the general population’s awareness, concerns and behaviours when it comes to plastic waste, we can support companies across Asia to ensure they’re meeting the needs and wishes of real Asian consumers. We can also use our research results to discover ways to improve plastic awareness.
  • Supporting NGOs, events and initiatives which aim to raise plastic awareness, reduce plastic waste and clean our oceans. We’re currently on the lookout for innovative NGOs and events to support – suggestions welcome!
“As a market research agency, we believe InsightAsia should be at the forefront of helping our clients develop packaging with less plastic and move towards packaging that can be recycled.”
— Sajan Koch, CEO at InsightAsia

What can you do?

Sir David Attenborough summarises the current state of global plastic waste perfectly in this video:

“We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet. And never before have we had the power to do something about that.”
— Sir David Attenborough

It’s time to take responsibility for the way our actions impact the environment around us, as well as all the other species we share our world with. A few simple steps you can take:

  • Reduce use of single-use plastic items, such as disposable cutlery.
  • Avoid buying plastic-packaged products unnecessarily. Fruits, for example, usually come in their own natural protective skin.
  • Opt for biodegradable, plastic-free alternatives to packaging.
  • Recycle and reuse! Carrier bags can be used over and over again.

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