Single-use Plastics in the ASEAN Region: Changing perceptions of ‘normal’ plastic use

AAYLF delegate from Australia Fraser Lawrance discusses the issue of plastic pollution in the ASEAN region and challenges us all to take action to reduce single-use plastics.

 

As a region with incredibly rich ecological biodiversity and reliance on marine environments, ASEAN is significantly touched by the issue of plastic pollution. Attitudes towards single-use plastics across the region, however, are far from uniform and range from the innovative and progressive, to those which would raise the eyebrows of even the most apathetic of consumers.

At 7-11 convenience stores in Thailand for example, it is standard practice that a customer purchasing a bottled drink will be provided with both a plastic bag, as well as a plastic straw with its own plastic wrapper. A thirsty customer wanting a six pack of the popular Betagen probiotic drink will end up with six small plastic bottles, the plastic wrapper around those bottles, six small plastic straws in six individual plastic wrappers, and a single-use plastic bag to put it all in. All for 6 x 85ml drinks costing about 40 Baht (2 AUD).

This particular example is a standard practice decision by a private company, yet it is a reflection of cultural norms and the practices that individuals will tolerate as ‘normal’.

Recent examples from Australia show however that such norms are actually more fluid than they may at first appear, and general practices in this area can change rapidly. In June 2018 the dominant supermarket chains in Australia, Coles and Woolworths, stopped offering single-use plastic bags to shoppers. Although such a change was certainly not without controversy, by the end of the year the Australian National Retail Association determined that this one change had led to an 80-per-cent drop in the consumption of plastic bags across the country [1]. More than a year later, the position has been maintained and for the most part accepted as the new norm. Considering that the average Australian is estimated to consume 130 kilograms of plastic each year [2], such a decrease is not insignificant, and raises the question of what similar decreases in other types of plastic consumption could achieve, both in Australia, as well as across ASEAN.

Recent spotlight on this issue does prove promising. On 22 June 2019, ASEAN adopted the ‘Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Region’ where members reiterated ‘concern on the high and rapidly increasing levels of… marine plastic litter and the expected increase in negative effects on marine biodiversity, ecosystems, animal well-being, fisheries, maritime transport, recreation and tourism, local societies and economies’[3].

The Declaration emphasises collaboration and cooperation between nations, and the public and private sectors. Attention also is given to ‘increase public awareness and participation, and enhance education, with the aim to change behavior’.

This hits at the heart of what is required in addressing this issue. A changing public perception of ‘normal’ is key to limiting single-use plastics. Uniformity of such attitudes across the region is also of primary importance. The objective environmental benefit of an individual in a café carefully choosing a paper straw over a plastic one is somewhat mitigated if another individual elsewhere is regularly given a six pack of straws they don’t really want.

There is certainly a spectrum of steps to take, with a sliding scale of both difficulty to implement, and impact. Though large scale changes may appear daunting, just because such change is not achievable overnight, this does not mean it is not achievable at all. Certain steps at a smaller scale can set the ball in motion, and help drive a change in social perceptions of normality regarding plastic use. To return to the example of plastic straws at convenience stores, a simple first step to take could be a company decision that instead of straws being provided by default, customers could be asked if they actually want a straw before being given one in their bag.

Hopefully the Declaration on Marine Pollution will provide a positive push in this direction of unified change in what is considered ‘normal’ consumption of single-use plastics across the region.

References

  1. ‘Supermarket ban sees 80pc drop in plastic bag consumption nationwide, retail association says’, ABC News (online, 3 December 2018) <www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-03/supermarket-ban-sees-80pc-drop-in-plastic-bags-nationwide/10576554>.
  2. ‘The lifecycle of Plastics’, World Wildlife Foundation (Web Page, 19 June 2018) <www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/the-lifecycle-of-plastics#gs.f2oznr>.
  3. Association of Southeast Asian Nations ‘Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Region’, 22 June 2019.