SCAVENGERS ARE the real heroes as Asia struggles to tackle intensifying urban waste problems and marine plastic pollution, the United Nations Economic and Social Committee for Asia and Pacific (Escap) has discovered.
As the source of most marine plastic pollution, Asia must also be the main focus for solutions, Escap told a Bangkok audience yesterday. Progress can be made by promoting bottom-up waste-management initiatives and informal waste segregation and recycling by scavengers, Escap noted on the Inaugural Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean in the capital.
The coupling of fast-growing markets with underdeveloped waste-management systems in South and Southeast Asia is responsible for as much as 60 per cent of the world’s plastic waste leakage into the oceans, Natalie Harms, Escap’s associate sustainable development officer, said.
Aggravating the problem is the inability of related official agencies in these countries to manage the growing volume of waste, and to transform production and consumption patterns through progressing to circular economies.
However, there are ways to get out of this major problem, said Harms. Escap’s “Closing the Loop” initiative found that informal recycling activities by scavengers played a significant role in these countries, and can greatly contribute to the effort to tackle marine plastic waste pollution.
Under the “Closing the Loop” project, Escap is gathering evidence in the pilot cities of Bangkok and India’s Pune to identify opportunities to return plastic resources back into the production cycle. That would reduce plastic waste leakage into the environment and the oceans by linking informal and formal waste processes.
According to Escap, over 80 per cent of marine plastic wastes come from land-based sources, making plastic the most common type of marine litter. India and Thailand are among the top 15 of the world’s biggest plastic waste polluters.
The project has learned that formal waste-management systems of most Asian countries remain focused on collection and disposal, resulting in low recycling rates. However, informal contributions from waste pickers are helping reduce this gap.
“The example from Pune shows us that the city authorities rely almost entirely on informal recycling activities, which recover around 22 per cent of the total waste generated or up to 118,000 tonnes,” she said.
“It is estimated that the city of Pune can save around US$10 million [Bt330 million] annually from the contribution of informal recycling activities.
“As well, the recycled waste of around 2,000 tonnes per day by the city’s scavengers reduces the city’s greenhouse gas emission by up to 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year, which is equal to the amount of CO2 emitted by 10,423 cars.”
The contribution of these scavengers is largely overlooked by authorities, leaving these poor helping hands unsupported and suffering health risks from their work environment, Harms said.
Governments and other stakeholders should provide them with knowledge, funding and policy support, so they can further their contributions to better waste management and solve marine plastic pollution at its root, she said.
Nina van Toulon from Indonesian Waste Platform also emphasised that the most effective approach to tackle plastic waste pollution in the sea was not top-down policies, but rather bottom-up initiatives started by the local people.
“The experience of waste management in Indonesia has taught us that top-down waste-management policies from the central government, and the lack of environmental education, are a bad combination that makes waste management efforts totally ineffective, especially in the remote rural areas of this vast country of islands,” Toulon said.
“We also learnt from our campaigns that by including environmental education in the local school curricula, and supporting local environmentalist groups with capacity building and funds, local communities have great potential to efficiently manage locally generated waste.”