Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Plastic is Now Part of Us: Time to act against plastic pollution

Plastic is Now Part of Us: Time to act against plastic pollution

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Piles of plastic waste had been turned into energy in Battambang province in January last year. UNDP CAMBODIA

Plastic is Now Part of Us: Time to act against plastic pollution

Microplastics,which are tiny particles less than 5mm, are everywhere including in our bodies. In 2018, they were first detected in human feces.

In March 2022, they were also found in human lungs and blood. They enter our bodies through the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe. As they accumulate over time, there is plenty of reason to worry about possible effects on our health.

Why are microplastics everywhere?

Between 1950 and 2020, the annual plastic production grew exponentially from1.5 million metric tonnes to 367 million metric tonnes. Cumulatively, global production exceeds 8 billion metric tonnes. This includes plastic for packaging (36%), construction (16%) and textile manufacturing (14%).

Plastic is convenient, versatile, and cheap, but the enormous volume produced vastly exceeds our capacity to treat plastic waste safely, particularly in developing countries, due to illegal dumping and the lack of adequate waste management systems. At present, only 9% of used plastic is recycled as not all kinds of plastic can be recycled. About 20% is burnt, causing a host of health issues depending on the performance and safety of burning methods used, ranging from open fires to incinerators. The remaining70% ends up in landfills or dumpsites, or as litter on sidewalks, in rivers, forests, and oceans.

Eighty one percent of the world’s plastic enters our oceans from Asia. Southeast Asia for example is a major contributor to land-based plastic waste leaking into the world’s oceans, with six of ten ASEAN member states generating a combined 31 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Once it enters the environment, plastic is difficult to cleanup. It is durable and gets easily enmeshed in surroundings. It remains in the environment for more than 500 years, breaking down slowly into microplastics that almost move freely through water and air. Plastic is then ingested by humans, fish, turtles, or birds, and at times they get entangled in it and die!

So, what to do?

The plastic crisis calls for sustained and collective effortsto do things differently for eventually creating a zero-waste circular economy. Given that plastic production significantly exceeds treatment capacities, it is crucial to drastically reduce both its production and use. Measures should be targeted primarily at single-use plastics such as bags, straws, and packaging, which are thrown away immediately after use. The absurdity of reliance on single use plastics is that its usage is measured in minutes, but its negative effects last for decades or centuries.

Regulatory measures as well as financial incentives and disincentives have been applied to reduce the production of single-use plastics and accelerate innovative solutions such as switching from single-use to multiple-use plastics and sustainable alternatives and designing products that are easily recyclable. To date, more than 127 countries introduced regulatory measures including bans, taxes, and levies against single-use plastic. Governments in Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand adopted circular economy strategies to prioritize plastics-related policies and investments.

Unquestionably, good governance is part of the solution, but cooperation and support from businesses and consumers must follow suit. Across the globe, awareness and information campaigns are geared to create behavioural change for the adoption of sustainable consumption, and the promotion of recycling and plastic alternatives.

The Plastic Waste Perceptions Survey of 2,000 consumers and 400 food and beverage businesses in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam conducted by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Food Industry Asia (FIA) in 2020 found that 91% of consumers are “extremely concerned” about plastic waste. But more than half of the consumers surveyed continue to use non-recycled containers, due to cultural norms and lack of awareness about reusables and/ or alternatives.

Yet, such campaigns cannot solve the entire problem. This leaves a heavy burden of responsibility on oil and plastic producers. According to Minderoo foundation (2021), 20 companies, including ExxonMobil, Dow, and Sinopec, are producing virgin polymers used for 55% of global single-use plastic. Besides, a citizen led plastic brand audit conducted in 45 countries in 2021, flagged global brands including Coca- Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestle in terms of the quantity of plastic waste found at clean-ups.

One strategy for involving producers in seeking solutions is the introduction of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy tool, which makes producers responsible for collection, recycling, and treatment of post-consumer products. More than 60 countries have already adopted such policies. Policy discussions on the potential value and feasibility of EPR-based regulations are ongoing in several East and Southeast Asian countries. In addition to China, Thailand, and India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia are also considering the introduction of EPR. This shift to circular economy and promoting innovation can be accelerated by impact investment and innovative finance. Corporate and financial institutions are thus important agents for change.

Now is the time to take local and global actions for transformational changes to reduce plastic dependency and ensure a safe and sustainable planet, for our health, survival, and prosperity.

Alissar Chaker, Resident Representative, United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia and Moeko Saito-Jensen, Environmental Policy Specialist, United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia


  • Typhoon Noru brings flash floods – 16 dead

    An official warned that that the 16th typhoon of the season, Noru, had brought heavy rains to areas the Mekong River and flooded thousands of homes in the provinces bordering Thailand. As of September 27, the death toll from the flooding had risen to 16. National Committee

  • Siem Reap drain canal now ‘mangrove’ promenade

    A more than half a kilometre long stretch of canal in Siem Reap has been covered and turned into a promenade to attract visitors, said Ly Rasmey, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, on September 16. The new pedestrianised

  • Angkor wildlife, aquarium park still to open October

    The Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium complex about 30km southeast of Siem Reap town with initial total investment of more than $70 million is reportedly still on track for an end-October opening. The park is located on a 100ha plot along National Road 6 in Kbon village, Khchas

  • Defence minister reaffirms Kingdom’s staunch support for One-China policy

    Minister of National Defence General Tea Banh has reaffirmed Cambodia’s unwavering support for the One-China policy. Tea Banh was speaking at the September 20 ceremonial handover of 117 vehicles and other military equipment donated by China’s defence ministry, held at Phnom Chumreay International Military Training

  • Deaths due to ‘lifestyle’ diseases rise in Kingdom

    The Ministry of Health has called on people to pay closer attention to their health to protect themselves from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which it said have caused high rates of deaths in the country. Ministry secretary of state York Sambath made the call at a

  • Textile industry minimum wage now $200

    The official minimum wage for workers in textile-related sectors including garment, footwear, and travel goods for 2023 was pegged at $198, with Prime Minister Hun Sen stepping in to add $2 to the total, making it $200 per month. The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training made the announcement