Some things you need to know about plastics

Plastic waste is expected to double in 2030 and is among the greatest contributors to pollution and biodiversity loss. We must act now.

Incorrect sorting of plastic waste

Plastic waste is among the g­­­reatest contributors to pollution and biodiversity loss.[1]

Here, we emphasise the need to end plastic pollution as a prerequisite in realising sustainable urban water and waste management systems. And to go forward meaningfully, we suggest the deepening of research into plastics and producer/consumer behaviour, passing and enforcing robust policies and regulations, amplifying advocacy and behavioural change efforts, and harnessing public-private partnerships as key development areas.

Plastic waste near water body

Plastic waste near water body

Plastic waste obstructing drainage in market's pavement system

Plastic waste obstructing drainage in market's pavement system

Pictured above is an all-too-common sight in heavily populated cites with poorly planned urban services in parts of Southeast and South Asia. Mismanaged solid waste disturbs the natural flow of waterbodies, drainage, and sewage systems leading to many life- and livelihood threatening disasters. Moreover, the complexities surrounding the collection, segregation, and recycle of the world’s plastics lead to unsafe practices of burning/incineration or plastic leakage into the environment, mostly ending up in our oceans. Toxins are then released into our air and seep into our water and food. The unpredictability of climate change effects compounds these challenges, hitting people living in poverty and/or in informal settings the hardest.

So, what do we know about plastics and its management?

Coloured waste bins for proper healthcare waste disposal

Correct healthcare waste disposal in coloured bins

Incorrect sorting of plastic waste

Incorrect sorting of plastic waste in a city

It’s plastics with an ‘s’. It’s not just one plastic: there are hundreds of them, with very specific chemical characteristics, levels of toxicity, and requirements for segregation and recycling processes. Therefore, whilst disposing of our waste in appropriately labelled bins helps, we need to go further than that. We need to deepen our understanding about the composition of plastics and from that knowledge, develop, for example, more efficient ways to reduce the energy spent in sorting through and disaggregating our plastic wastes.

People sorting through waste to sell

People sorting through waste to sell

People sorting through waste to sell

The path between plastic waste collection to recycling is fraught with unsafe practices. In many low-income and low-middle income countries, plastic collectors (e.g., street pickers), aggregators (e.g., junk shops), and recyclers are part of a huge informal economy. Many operate under unsafe conditions and without safety nets or (job) security. [2] Their limited knowledge and skills to manage plastic waste leads to low-value plastics returning into our living environment. Unregulated work methods – such as washing plastics in waterbodies to increase their value and the creation of informal dumpsites – do more harm than good. Where formal arrangements do exist, proper handling, disposal, and recycling are not always practised.

plastic waste in Indonesia

Waste management with landfill on far right

The onus to reduce plastic pollution is on plastic producers, consumers, and waste managers, but strong government leadership is needed. Plastic is a cheap and widely used material in many products used today. The way products are packaged makes a huge difference in reducing plastic pollution. With appropriate and consistent pressure – from governments and consumers alike – more and more companies have started to redefine their relationship with plastics. Below are some notable developments:

  • At the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi last March 2022, 175 heads of states and ministers declared their commitment to beat plastic pollution. Together, they vowed to introduce a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

  • In June 2022, the European Union passed a landmark mandate enforcing the use of a standard charger for portable electronics by 2024.

  • At national government level, many more countries are putting in place Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations. Leading the EPR pack in Southeast Asia is Vietnam; a first in the region. Taking bold steps to meet the challenges of plastic pollution, Vietnam’s EPR places greater responsibility and accountability for plastic waste on every level (government, producers, and consumers).

Wall paintings to raise environmental awareness for local people. Sentence on the wall "Do not litter indiscriminately"

Wall paintings to raise environmental awareness about waste management

Don’t underestimate the power of evidence-based advocacy and behavioural change communications. Advocacy and international pressures have proven to be successful in influencing businesses like grocery and clothing stores to completely depart from plastic use or disincentivise its use by charging a fee. Although one study posits that the decline in plastic bag use is hardly explained by consumers’ interest to save the environment, it points to the importance of conducting formative research [3] to inform appropriate messaging to meet our end goal.

There is no place for a business-as-usual approach. We can no longer be reactive. Despite some policy and practice wins, the doubling of plastic pollution in 2030 appears imminent. We need to step up our research, our strategies, and proactively seek a coming together of minds and actions through cross-disciplinary/sectoral learning and exchange.

For SNV, ending plastic pollution is an integral part of improving water and waste management systems. Plastic waste is a threat to our personal and environmental health, water security, and food security. It is choking our living environment, killing marine life, and disrupting ecosystems. The consequences of following a business-as-usual approach are too high. For these reasons, with partners in the public and private sectors, we’ve started embarking on a journey to more intentionally tackle the problems of plastic pollution in Vietnam. Watch this space for further updates.

Written by: Anjani Abella, SNV WASH Marketing & Communications Advisor, with Marc Perez Casas, SNV WASH Sector Leader in Vietnam, and Peter Loach, SNV Country Director in Vietnam.
More information:
[1] Climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss make up today’s triple planetary crisis.
[2] Over the years, SNV and partners have been making great headway in advocating for the rights and occupational health and safety (OHS) of sanitation workers, e.g., pit and septic tank emptiers and operators, and developing guidelines for faecal sludge management.
[3] SNV has a long history of engaging in formative research to ensure that behavioural change communications (BCC) and messaging are understood and resonate with target audiences. An example from Bangladesh is available here
[4] Interested to learn more about our growing plastic waste management efforts in Vietnam, contact Marc Perez Casas or Peter Loach.