The Opportunity of Plastic Waste: Could it be of Value to The Economy?

by Darya Ebrahimi

Undoubtedly, plastic has, over the decades, become an integral part of our daily lives; from food packing and online shopping to car parts and furniture, plastic has become unavoidable. This is mainly due to plastic's flexibility and the convenience it can deliver. But has this pursuit of comfort and convenience taken a turn at the cost of the environment?

The immoderation we practice regarding single-use plastic alongside the mismanagement of plastic waste that follows suit is a growing landfill of not just waste but concern. The overconsumption we observe today has led to various environmental, social, economic and health issues. Southeast Asia has become on top of plastic pollution due to expeditious urbanization and the rising middle class. This has generated further pollution as this population is ever-growing due to the convenience and versatility of plastic. This is posed as an issue as local infrastructure has failed to keep up the growing pace of waste expansion. Further, the pandemic and the increased use of masks, as well as sanitiser bottles, only exacerbated the current situation.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

This is a significant concern as 75% of the material value of plastic that is recyclable is lost in countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia. This translates to approximately $6 billion a year of discarded single-use plastic when in fact, it could be recycled. A mere 18 to 28% of plastic is recycled and recovered, while the rest is seen polluting the earth on beaches and roadsides; while their economic value is also lost.

Therefore, it is paramount that we rethink not just single-use plastic but the management of recyclable plastic waste. One way to do this is through a circular economy, where companies and manufacturers design products to make them reusable. The three main principles of a circular economy are to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and generate nature.

Photo by Josh Power on Unsplash

Currently, a handful of Southeast Asian governments, one of which is Malaysia, have prioritized policies regarding single-use plastics through circular economy roadmaps. Furthermore, top global brands have pledged and made commitments to the usage of reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Malaysia has brought the public and private sectors to join in on the realignment of priorities in reevaluating the approach towards the value of plastic as an economic opportunity through the Sustainable Plastic Alliance. As needed as these steps towards positive change are, more must be done in this line of work. According to the World Bank Group, these models of resumes and refills are only at their budding stage and need to be expedited to meet the enormity of plastic waste problems.

The global economy needs to urgently invest in infrastructures that value local collection and recycling of plastic waste to halt dumping these materials into landfills and marine environments. Specific policies that may prove to be beneficial are those that hold producers and importers accountable for the disposal of their plastic waste. This would mean that the private sector plays a crucial role in being a cooperating partner to inspire solutions to the plastic problem.