The vast majority of plastic waste enters transboundary rivers from land, making plastic pollution both a local and regional problem requiring multi-level cooperation. According to research, 90% of river-transported plastic in our oceans can be traced back to just 10 rivers – eight of which are in Asia.
Plastic pollution in rivers is not solely an environmental issue, but an issue that bleeds into health and social realms. In the past year, Covid-19 has exacerbated the problem of plastic pollution globally, leading to increased demand for single-use plastic and heightened pressure on waste management systems.
To coincide with World Water Day 2021 on March 22, The Third Pole gathered a panel of regional experts to discuss the problem of plastic pollution in Asia’s rivers. In this webinar, we drew upon common themes underpinning plastic pollution across Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Central Asia. Our panellists outline the current mitigation measures in place and consider future trajectories in the face of plastic proliferation. We highlight the importance of data in informing management interventions as well as a growing need for the integration of corporations, consumer behaviour and human rights considerations in environmental governance and decision-making.
Lou Del Bello, Chair, Special Projects Editor, The Third Pole
Shilshila Acharya, CEO, Himalayan Climate Initiative
Ravi Agarwal, Director, Toxics Link
Bushra Nishat, Environmental Specialist, South Asia, World Bank
Adeba Rahmatulah, Coordinator, Central Asian Regional Water Network
Farah Rashid, Manager, Climate & Energy Programme, WWF-Pakistan
Mukhanov Zhanibek, Project Specialist, Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Plastic pollution in Asia’s rivers
12:45 – Studies have shown that when you recycle electronic plastics with chemicals in them, such as flame retardants, then those chemicals get transported to new products including everyday home products such as mugs. You are transporting the toxins from electronics to everyday use, and so the dispersion of plastics takes place. The concern is that many of the markets for these recycled products are price-sensitive markets so the poor buy it more […] so vulnerable people are more exposed to the release. The same happens in recycling units; workers are more exposed, so there are very strong [social] biases determining who is exposed most.
53:15 – What is still lacking right now is looking at how you reduce packaging. […] How do you reduce the total amount of waste that is generated and reduce it at source? This is where the biggest challenge will be. The second big challenge is to reduce the toxins in plastics – some of them are very hard to remove. […] The third thing the private industry still needs to do […] is invest in recycling at a much larger scale, because currently recycling is at a scale where it’s not possible to use complex materials. The next question is how do you invest in entrepreneurial spirit and make [recycling] into a workable project. Waste management companies are coming forward and helping, but in upstream efforts, much more input is required.
17:27 – Nepal’s problem is quite unique in the sense that we have enough waste generation to create a lot of pollution and turn the Himalayan belt into a dumping site. But that volume is not enough to establish a recycling plant. […] We have been working a lot on PET [polyethylene terephthalate] waste. We generate around 1,500 tonnes of PET overall in Nepal. It’s not possible to collect the waste from hills and there are a lot of taxes that make it expensive to bring in. When we talk about having a big recycling facility that would make a PET fibre, then companies say it’s not feasible to have even one plant for all of Nepal. […] For countries like Nepal where we don’t have our own facilities, we’re not able to send it out […] We are a small country generating so much plastic, but we’re not able to recycle it.
01:08:16 – In Nepal, when we introduced the policy to ban plastic bags, we realised that there is a policy, but to implement that properly we need coordination between at least five ministries. First there’s the institutional ministry itself and then there is coordination with others. […] The environmental ministry has implemented a ban but industry ministries are still issuing licences for single-use plastic factories, so there is no coordination. They have announced a fine but the home ministry is not imposing those fines. At the time, the implementation was by the central government, but now the country has gone into a federal structure […] so waste management falls under the jurisdiction of the local government […] There are huge differences between the capacity and level of knowledge between the local governments.
22:12 – There are illegal immigrants who are coming from neighbouring countries and are involved in the waste picking […] PET has a very good value and it is being recycled but on an informal, small scale. It is crushed and converted into resin. Textile industries are taking that resin and producing fabric with it. On the downside, the same plastic which is being recovered is being made into unhygienic medical equipment. This is something that will be very difficult to monitor and formalise. If we see a solution, the solution will be to build the capacity of the people who are already involved in this business because they have been doing this for decades. It’s a very streamlined process that is being followed, but the only thing is the workers are not paying taxes. They are not registered with the government departments. This is a big issue South Asian countries are facing at the moment.
24:13 – 80% of the plastic is generated on land […] so it all comes down to the management system we have established in our cities, in our urban areas and our rural areas, which currently does not follow any pattern. That’s why we have waste thrown at dumpsites – we do not have any proper formal engineered landfills. There is no proper recycling plant, there is no segregation at source. There are huge waste management resources both at the public and private level but the waste is just being collected and dumped. There is a huge potential of increasing the recycling rate and sensitising consumers. We need to make consumers understand – you need to sort your waste at source.
32:20 – There is an absolute absence of civic sense when it comes to waste. I was working with National Geographic on a Ganga expedition interviewing rural communities on what they do with their plastic waste. In the past 10 years it has increased exponentially […] A huge issue is sachets: sachets have provided an opportunity for the rural poor to have luxury products at their fingertips. What these people do is they go out to the rivers and throw their sachet into the river – they don’t even think twice about it. The 75% waste that is collected is not [managed] as we don’t have properly engineered landfills.
56:35 – [In relation to transboundary river cooperation on pollution] It’s a very sensitive issue. It’s a political issue, it’s an emotive issue between the countries. Right now we only have regional-level agreements on water quantity, not on water quality. There are two areas where water quality is an issue between Bangladesh and India and the two joint commissions do not have the mechanisms to talk about water quality because it’s not there in the agreement […] We are working with SACEP [South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme] […] to create a baseline survey looking at plastic pollution within regions and how it’s impacting specific countries. Having said that, there are also international conventions we can fall back on […] There are regional trade cycles we can tap into at the government level to try and facilitate within the international conventions we have all signed. It’s a complex issue. If we can manage our plastics at the national level it doesn’t become transboundary […] That’s something we have to understand and work together on, so it’s not about finger-pointing at each other.
44:10 – Recently, news came out within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union that Kazakhstan will abandon plastic bags [by] 2025. By then, the use of plastic bags will be prohibited at the legislative level. From January 1, 2019 there was also a ban on the disposal of plastic in landfills […] We have today in Kazakhstan 92 active plastic management companies operating in various regions of Kazakhstan, including 72 waste collection companies and 19 plastic waste recycling companies. Nowadays, numbers of those are increasing.
40:01 – According to the data, in 2018 183,000 tonnes of plastic was formed in Kazakhstan and in the same year, 90,000 tonnes of plastic and polythene packaging waste was sorted, which is only 1/18th of the volume of formation. At the same time the volume of plastic waste sent for recycling amounted to 17,000 tonnes, which is only 3% of the volume of formation.