Plastic bans in Asia: weak tea for complex problems

A worker sorts used plastic bottles to be recycled at a plastic recycling centre in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, 21 June, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Christo).

Author: Kris Hartley, Education University of Hong Kong

The turn of the decade is seeing substantial efforts to reduce plastic pollution across Southeast Asia. Around the world, trillions of plastic bags are used each year with troublesome impacts on living conditions and waste infrastructure. In Thailand, a ban on plastic bags for major retailers took effect this year. The Thai government also recently banned imports of electronic and plastic waste. These initiatives reflect an admirably coordinated policy mix, but the effort deserves thoughtful broadening.

Plastic waste is wreaking havoc on natural and human settings, clogging urban drainage systems, befouling rivers and oceans, and exacerbating floods. Plastic bag bans are an appropriate initial step. Still, broader initiatives can be taken such as London retailers’ commitment to ‘plastic-free zones’ and New Zealand’s plastic-free ‘unwrapped‘ program in supermarkets. These efforts are creative extensions of what is said be the world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle in the Netherlands.

As blunt policy instruments, bans on or extra charges for plastic bags have mixed results. After the 2015 introduction of a surcharge in the United Kingdom, the number of plastic bags sold by retailers fell precipitously. On the other hand, a 2002 ban on plastic bags in Dhaka, Bangladesh appears to have accomplished little. In Kenya, a similar ban has been irregularly enforced and resulted in illegal smuggling by ‘bag cartels’.

Such bans also threaten some industries; a plastic bag factory on the outskirts of Bangkok saw a 90 per cent <a target=_blank href="" …continue reading