Single-use Plastic, A Worrying Issue to Be Tackled in the Mekong Region

ASEAN, Mekong, environment, single-use plastic

Turtle struggling in plastic (Photo: https://i1.wp.com/www.onegreenplanet.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/leatherback1)

Last month hosted Mekong Tourism Forum in Nakhon Phanom looked at the issue of single-use plastics in the GMS. And came with a pledge to reduce seriously waste across the region.

Sublime landscapes, historical cities, pictorial villages. This is what the Mekong Sub-region promises to its visitors. However, many of these small tourism paradises are increasingly degraded by pollution and uncontrolled waste management. And particularly single-use plastic waste which destroys the environment and now kills animals. Tourism unfortunately contributes to that issue and urgent measures -including training and education- are necessary towards both travellers and locals to limit damages.

According to statistics communicated by PlasticsEurope, the world produced 335 million tons in m3 of plastic. In 1976, that number was only 50 million while in 2001, it already reached 200 million. The same source indicated that Asia is the biggest producer of plastic in the world with a market share of 50% (China alone stands for 29% of the world production, followed by Japan with 4% and the rest of Asia with 17%- Source: PlasticsEurope). According to data communicated by NGOs, just the production of plastic bags reaches five trillion units each year!

China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam are the countries dumping the most plastic waste into the sea. Asia is producing waste faster than any other region in the world.

The World Bank indicates in a research article that 80 percent of waste leakage comes from land and are drained into oceans by rivers and waterways. The lower reaches of the Mekong River flow through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and carries increasingly plastic trash due to inadequate waste management systems.

It was then a natural step for Mekong Tourism Stakeholders to look at the issue last month in Nakhon Phanom reaffirmed during the MTF  their commitment to fight and reduce single-use plastic in the region with a pledge to show results at the next MTF in Yunnan.

“Plastic waste is a huge issue. We know that tourists increase plastic waste by 40% in the Mediterranean Sea and that plastic pollution costs US$1.3 billion per year to Asia-Pacific tourism, fishing and shipping industries according to APEC estimations. Some of Southeast Asian countries are among the top generators of plastic pollution for rivers and seas. But they fortunately are more and more initiative to reduce single-use plastic among local tourism players,” highlighted Jeremy Smith, writer and author of the book “Transforming Travel – realising the potential of sustainable tourism (CABI, 2018)”.

Unfortunately, 95% of produced plastic is single-use one. Reducing or eventually eradicating single-use plastic could turn the Greater Mekong Sub-region into a pioneer in the world and a model for a sustainable economic growth by avoiding depleting natural resources and killing marine life.

A challenge and opportunity for tourism

“Tourism can play a leading role in helping to reduce plastic waste. This is an enormous challenge as the tourism industry contributes to the increase in plastic consumption. This is a duty for all of us to change our consumption practices and also tell around us how to wisely reduce single-use plastic,” indicated Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office.

According to Jeremy Smith, things are however moving on. Initiatives to reduce or transform plastic into a sustainable way of life are popping up all across the world including Asia.

They are many ways to reduce plastic use. Some hotel chains are now banning plastic bottles or straws in their property. “Akyra Hotel Sukhumvit in Bangkok is the first property in Asia to have pledged to become a plastic-free hotel. They estimate to turn 98% single-plastic free,” said Jeremy Smith.

They are also infinite possibilities of recycling plastic. Starwood turn disused plastic bottles into bedding. Single-use plastic can be also converted into furniture or clothing. Cambodia’s entrepreneurs are offering consumers cassava-based plastic bags.

Countries in the region are responding to the growing problem. In January 2018, China banned imports of plastic recyclables from other countries. By shutting its doors to half of the world’s plastic waste, China is forcing countries and industries to revisit their plastics usage and recycling programs. Many Pacific islands are introducing bans and levies on plastics bags and bottles.

Responses come from local people who are getting increasingly involved into citizen initiatives. During MTF 2018, BambooLao Founder Arounothay Khoungkhakoune, talked about initiatives of banning plastic, particularly be replacing plastic straw by bamboo straw.

“I learned from local villages that bamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world. Thanks to ancient Lao wisdom of villagers, I understood that bamboo can be used in numerous applications in medicine, construction and food. With a low cost of maintenance and no need for artificial fertilizers for optimal growth, bamboo became then a sustainable option for reusable drinking straws,” she explained.

BambooLao was born with the goal to replace plastic straws in Laos with reusable bamboo straws, which will provide also economic opportunities for villages and contribute to greatly reduce plastic waste.

Another initiative has been developed by NGO ‘Refill Not Landfill’ in Cambodia. Behind this initiave stands a group of people who aims to cut down on the millions of plastic water bottles discarded in Cambodia each year by offering an alternative: reusable aluminium bottles.

‘Refill Not Landfill’ estimates that a tourist in Cambodia uses two plastic bottles of water per day to be multiply by over five million tourists in 2017 who stay on average 6.5 days… ‘Refill Not Landfill’ works not only in Cambodia but also in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam. They help manufacturing reused bottles of aluminium or stainless steel that can be bought and distributed by local partners.

Pledging for a reduction of Single-use Plastic

“Action needs also to be addressed in educational fields, particularly in schools to teach children about ways to reduce plastic use. But also tour operators, hotel owners are at the forefront to communicate with guests over the plastic issue,” added Jeremy Smith.

The MTF has been already looking at ways to reduce plastic waste as much as possible. Refill water stations were made available all across the venues at Nakhon Phanom University as well as in some of the hotels and at all places hosting MTF social events. Badges were made of recycled cardboard hanging on a cotton rope.

“We think that MTF should play a leading role by showing that environmental and sustainable criteria are compatible with a conference event,” said Jens Thraenhart.

The dedicated Session on Single-use Plastic Pollution concluded with pledges from institutional organisations and individuals to reduce single-plastic use within the year to come. “We recorded the pledge. Let’s meet at the next MTF and see how it has been implemented over one year time frame,” told Thraenhart.