From its creation through its rise in the 1990s, the world has embraced plastic as an affordable and versatile material.
By the time its impact on the environment and marine ecosystems became clear, plastic had conquered the world marketplace.
“A toxic love story” is how Tommy Tjiptadjaja, co-founder and CEO of Indonesia-based social enterprise company Greenhope, describes people’s relationship with the material. Today we face a dilemma – we can’t live with plastic’s impact, but we can’t live without its convenience.
Tjiptadjaja’s company specialises in the development of sustainable production and consumption practices for plastic.
He sat down with other panellists during the World Economic Forum on Asean 2018 (WEF Asean) to discuss how Asean countries can turn the tide in the battle against plastic waste.
The outcome could be decided here in Southeast Asia – Asean countries are among the world’s largest producers of plastic waste.
A report by the Ocean Conservatory and the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment showed half of the world’s plastic waste comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
Much of that waste ends up in the ocean. According to a WEF report, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, unless the volume of waste people produce is reduced.
Pointing fingers, however, will likely lead us nowhere. Instead, solutions must take into account the unique characteristics of communities. Plastic waste is a problem too big for any one person or government to tackle alone – the key to success may lie in the ability to involve local people, said the panellists.
Plastic is cheap to produce and its applications are numerous beyond measure. For these reasons, it is a constant presence in everyday life. As with many of life’s other conveniences, the key word is moderation. Panellists argued that while effective regulation and technology will be important, the largest factor is likely to be whether customers are willing to shift their habits.
These shifts have already begun, with rising public awareness and more educational programmes emerging in recent years.
From a young girl who asks her father, a manufacturer, if he makes a good kind of plastic, to classrooms where students volunteer to take part in a recycling group, the will to change is gaining momentum.
Some supermarket chains are beginning to charge extra for plastic bags. They hope they can prompt a change in the way people shop.
Enabled by the rise of social media, these sorts of grassroots movements have the potential to force plastic makers to change their business model.
Everyone has a part to play in the effort. The best solutions are likely to come from a multitude of different sources, from people of different backgrounds coming together.
In some places, authorities have taken regulatory actions to reduce waste. One example is Delhi, where the Indian government introduced a plastic bag ban.
Tjiptadjaja, however, said policies must be crafted from an informed position lest they have unintended consequences.
“What are people using as a substitute? Do they use carton bags or do they use paper bags? Those things are more energy-intensive to produce,” he said. “They use it often enough and they create this other thing – which is climate change.”
Panellists argued for solutions that include local communities, businesses and governments. The best solutions would be economically and technologically sustainable while improving the lives of local people.
Greenhope has introduced a biodegradable cassava-based plastic called Ecoplas. Tjiptadjaja hopes that material, along with an oxo-biodegradable additive they call Oxium, will help reduce plastic waste worldwide.
Did you know bright green is one of the least eco-friendly colours to print on a label? Cees ‘T Hart, CEO of Carlsberg Group, told audiences that fact during the panel. The group is planning to reduce the flashiness of its green label to lessen its environmental impact.
We all share the Earth, so plastic waste is not a problem that belongs to any one group. There is no reason we cannot come together to deal with it, agreed panellists. Tjiptadjaja best summed up their sentiment: “Less ego, more eco.”