Asia is drowning in plastic, with national production and imports from the global north resulting in devastating environmental and human health impacts. Most South and East Asian Countries, including Sri Lanka, do not have proper waste management strategies, regulations nor facilities. They therefore resort to open dumping and burning which is harmful to human health, oceans and the environment.

Plastic is a low-cost and flexible byproduct of the fossil fuel industry that takes thousands of years to break down and whose disposal is often toxic. Single-use plastics such as sachet packets, plastic bags, lunch sheets, wrappers, straws, polystyrene boxes and cups have all become almost 30% of urban waste. Additionally, only 15-20% of plastics are recycled globally, with much being burnt or ending up in landfill, wetlands and oceans.

The plastic problem is global in production, trade and impact. In 2016, about half of all plastic waste intended for recycling was exported (14.1 million MT), of which over 70% was being exported to China and Hong Kong (1992- 2016). In 2017, China, fed up with being the Global North’s dumping ground, notified the World Trade Organization that it intended to ban imports of plastic waste. The ban came into force in March 2018, setting off a chain reaction in the global plastic waste system. Numerous countries in the Global North have been unable to cope since, resulting in dramatic price increases for exporting, and more plastic being incinerated, sent to landfill or stockpiled. Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Taiwan and Thailand are facing rapid increases in plastic waste imports, resulting in polluted waterways, fires and illegal dumping, to name just a few issues.

Yet there is a global movement fighting to break free from the plastic crisis and there is an opportunity for change. Countries as diverse as Kenya, Australia, Malaysia and the European Union (EU) have brought in new laws to ban plastic bags, control the import of waste and aim to build a circular economy. AAt the international level, as a result of a proposal made by Norway, a small but vital modification has been made to the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The change to “explicitly include plastic waste in the scope of the treaty” will help to prevent mismanagement of plastic waste. One crucial outcome would be that exporters of plastic waste would need prior informed consent from recipient countries. Japan, Sri Lanka and other EU countries have together sought to strengthen international cooperation and coordination on marine plastic litter and micro plastics, including through the consideration of a possible new legally binding agreement at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4).

Many Friends of the Earth groups, environmental movements and the general public are campaigning to end single-use plastics through awareness, the development of alternatives, and the introduction of legislation to regulate plastic production, trade and usage. Through this project Breaking the plastic cycle in Asia, the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), aims to support the global movement by working with other countries to share experiences and create a model law to fight plastic plastic pollution in their countries.

This is not an easy fight, and it is against multinational companies and cooperates, billionaires and governments. This legislation, combined with strong environmental laws, will strengthen the ability of citizens and groups to build court cases against the government and larger corporations for breaking environmental protection measures.

This research and publication was done under a grant provided through the Economic Justice and Resisting Neoliberalism programme of the Friends of the Earth International.

Read and download the full report ‘Breaking the plastic cycle in Asia‘.