ENVIRONMENTAL sustainability has been at the top of the mind in recent months, particularly as the United Nations Climate Change Summit held earlier in September sparked another round of debates among global leaders and advocates on the action — or lack thereof — that has been taken thus far.
The same is observed in Asia, where a growing number of young activists are beginning to take a stand in light of climate change.
Strikingly, plastics are never left out of discussions concerning the environment and, to some extent, solving the problems associated with plastic pollution is deemed as one of the greatest challenges facing the world today.
Globally, 360 million tonnes of new plastic are produced every year and more than 14 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the oceans.
Less than 10 per cent of plastic is currently recycled.
Asia, a consumption powerhouse, is not immune to this problem.
In fact, Asian countries are among the world’s biggest sources of ocean plastic pollution — more than half of the ocean’s plastic waste originates from the region.
DEEP-ROOTED RELATIONSHIP WITH PLASTIC
The prevalence of plastic as a cheap material in consumers’ daily lives, along with a preference for convenience, means the region’s plastic waste crisis is likely to worsen.
Several studies showed that consumers have become more conscious of their environmental impact and increasingly want brands to embrace sustainability.
However, the higher cost of alternative materials made from renewable resources has resulted in most businesses in the region choosing to focus on cost rather than being environmentally responsible.
This has minimised the potential environmental benefits that alternative materials can bring about and will continue to delay the transition away from the current unsustainable and linear economic model towards a regenerative circular economy where there is no waste, only valuable resources.
This phenomenon is pervasive in Asia, where convenience-minded consumers have become increasingly accustomed to the benefits of using cheap plastics derived from non-renewable fossil resources.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some governments have failed to acknowledge that the on-going and prolific use of fossil-based plastics are unsustainable, contribute to climate change and pollute the environment at every stage in their lifecycle.
The shift away from plastics has also been challenging due to a lack of understanding about sustainable alternatives along with a lack of enforced standards which has resulted in the emergence of confusing solutions that continue to rely on cheap fossil-based plastic.
Brand owners “greenwash” with terminology such as “biodegradable”, “oxo degradable” and “landfill degradable”.
These products are touted as a solution to plastic pollution yet there is no independently reviewed scientific evidence that proves their claims.
SOLUTIONS REQUIRE LEGISLATION AND EDUCATION
Nonetheless, it is without question that Asia is picking up pace to tackle the plastic crisis.
India and Japan are planning to implement initiatives to curb the amount of single-use disposable plastics.
However, efforts have largely been focused on businesses, such as implementing regulations requiring them to take part in the recycling of plastics or a ban on single-use items.
Another method commonly adopted by governments has been the implementation of plastic bag charges.
In countries where this has been implemented, it has shown to significantly reduce the amount of plastic bags.
BOTTOM-UP VS TOP-DOWN APPROACH
More often than not, the effectiveness of a bottom-up approach is overlooked as the role of consumers is undermined.
Consumers are crucial in turning the situation around as they possess the power demand to more sustainable alternatives to fossil-based plastics.
By supporting brands that proactively introduce sustainable solutions, this will place greater pressure on other businesses to adopt such alternatives in their day-to-day operations if they want to remain relevant in a competitive market place.
An example can be seen by BioPak’s partnership with Deliveroo to replace single-use plastic packaging with compostable alternatives for their operations in Singapore as more consumers opt for food delivery services — which traditionally relies on huge quantities of single-use disposable plastic packs and utensils.
This initiative has shown that it is possible to be both sustainable and profitable and positions the brands as industry leaders.
EDUCATION IS KEY
Asia, compared with other parts of the world like Australia, is still a long way from tackling its plastic crisis but there is still hope and the first step in the transition towards a more sustainable society is to raise awareness on the environmental impact of fossil-based plastics and the benefits of choosing products and packaging made from bioplastics derived from renewable resources.
This is particularly pertinent today as more companies jump on the highly lucrative sustainability bandwagon by making deceptive claims which leads to more confusion and delays the transition towards a truly circular economy. A future without “greenwashing” is only possible with informed brand owners and educated consumers.
The writer is director of a leading supplier of sustainable disposable packaging for the food service industry in Australia and New Zealand
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times