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Waste not, Want not: Adopting circular economy principles to tackle plastic waste in the Indo-Pacific

The world is drowning in an ocean of plastic, and the Indo-Pacific is largely to blame.

More than 350 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally every year, less than 10% of which is recycled, as shown in the Plastic Pollution Report. More than half of the world’s plastic is produced in Asia. Over 8 million tonnes of this ends up in our oceans, with Southeast Asia and the Pacific being responsible for more than 70% of it.

While plastic pollution ending up in our oceans is a serious issue, the problem does not end with dolphins eating plastic bags and turtles choking on drinking straws. The plastic waste that does not reach the oceans ends up either incinerated or in landfills. While plastic in our oceans and rivers is bad, landfilled or incinerated plastic is not much better. What is saved in averted pollution is lost in valuable resources quite literally going up in smoke.

Ultimately, plastic waste is exactly that: a waste. Plastic is made from non-renewable hydrocarbons extracted from the earth as oil. Hydrocarbons are incredibly valuable and can be used to make a range of important and useful products. Plastic, as one of these valuable products, is not inherently bad. The real issue is that it is used thoughtlessly and in a way that is very unsustainable. Plastic has been a revolutionary material for a range of industries, including science and medicine, and so is squandered when used to create single-use items that quickly end up in the trash.

Adopting circular economy policies across the Indo-Pacific region would contribute significantly towards solving our plastic problem. The circular economy is based off the principle of designing products and materials with the intention of keeping them in use, thereby preventing pollution and waste. The key to a circular economy is management of a product through its entire life cycle. Many common types of plastic can only be recycled 2 or 3 times before becoming unusable. A circular approach will not just ensure that plastic is kept out of our oceans and recycled, it will ensure that products are designed and managed in a way that will maximise the lifespan of the material.

Many nations such as Australia and the United States currently export their plastic waste to countries in Asia to be dealt with. Not only does this simply shift the responsibility without properly addressing the issue, it can also quickly come unstuck if a nation decides to ban plastic imports, as China did in 2018.

Most plastic production and plastic pollution generation occurs in the Indo-Pacific, and this pollution ends up in the oceans we share, so ultimately addressing the problem is our collective responsibility. This means that tackling this problem requires collaboration across organisations, industries and nations.

Implementing policies that encourage circular principles across the region will help ensure that the responsibility for preventing plastic waste is shared across consumers and producers and will help to prevent affluent nations turning their developing neighbours in to dumping sites. Clearly assigning these responsibilities allows for stewardship plans to be created and for accountability to be maintained so that responsibilities are not neglected. Additionally, the billions of dollars that are spent every year by developed nations to export waste can instead be invested in preventing their domestic waste production through adoption of a circular economy, as well as assisting developing nations in the region to do the same.

There is little value in developing strategies for removing plastic from our oceans without also addressing the reasons it has ended up there in the first place. If a circular economy is successfully developed, and supported by the right policies, we may see a future where nations are fighting over the right to reclaim valuable plastic pollution from the seas.  

While we may think it moves us forwards, a linear economy ultimately only goes in one direction: backwards. Adopting a circular economy may be the only way to ensure that we have clean oceans and a clean future.

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