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Environmentalism is having a moment in 2020. There are now eco-influencers on social media, advocates of zero-waste living, and a growing global push for a ban on plastic straws. In the Asia-Pacific region, many companies have started offering “environmentally-friendly alternatives” to packaging, food, and beauty products, to cater to this new movement. But, as with all trends, there are some who get it right, and others who are just hopping on the bandwagon. It’s called greenwashing, or how businesses market themselves as environmentally-friendly, while taking little to no action to actually help save the environment.
For example, many establishments have switched to corn-based plastic cups and biodegradable plastic bags but many countries in Asia don’t actually have the infrastructure to process these materials yet.
In Singapore, most trash is incinerated, therefore making these “biodegradable” plastics ineffective. Associate Professor Tong Yen Wah of Chemical and Bioengineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS) said that biodegradable plastic waste only makes a difference when they are buried in landfills. Moreover, “some biodegradable plastics may require more resources to produce and that would inevitably incur a higher carbon footprint,” said Mr Liow Chean Siang, head of environmental certifications at the Singapore Environment Council.
In other countries like the Philippines and India, most of the plastic discarded end up in the seas. But these biodegradable plastics don’t just automatically rot away. BBC’s Science Focus magazine reported that while it depends on various factors like temperature, biodegradable plastics take three to six months to decompose fully. Even then, a study done by researchers at the University of Plymouth have found some “biodegradable” plastic bags to be intact even after spending three years in soil and water.
In reality, Asia-Pacific still has a big problem when it comes to managing waste. Open dumps are prohibited in the Philippines and yet, according to the National Solid Waste Management Commission, there were 27 open dumps within the Manila Bay area alone in 2019. Similarly, open burning is banned in Malaysia but is still largely practised nationwide. While cities in the region are rapidly urbanising, the infrastructure for waste management and sustainable development lags.
Irresponsibly handled waste only fuels the war the world is in with climate change. When trash is disposed of, where does it all go?
VICE looked into several cities around Asia-Pacific to find out who’s leading the pack when it comes to recycling and composting, and who’s still turning to problematic methods like open dumping and burning.
For the purpose of this comparison, VICE looked at six waste management practises and their use in the most populous city in 11 countries in the region. These six practices — open dumping, landfill of untreated waste, incineration, mechanical biological treatment, centralised composting, and centralised recycling — were arranged from most environmentally degrading to the least.
Based on this simple comparison, Seoul and Shanghai appear to have the best approach, thanks to proactive governments implementing the necessary policies and facilities to properly manage waste. Bangkok, on the other hand, scored the worst with its failure to push for more green approaches on a systemic level.
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Open dumping takes place in all cities except Shanghai, Tokyo, and Singapore
Open dumping harms the environment as the chemicals and non-biodegradable materials contaminate the soil and groundwater. Moreover, the harmful substances from dumped waste may be ingested by animals and wildlife.
Illegal dumping in Sydney has surged by 40 percent due to COVID-19, as residents who were stuck at home during the lockdown cleaned out their properties of unwanted goods, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Meanwhile, in a separate report, 78 percent of those living in Delhi dump garbage on the roadside or in open plots in their neighbourhoods. About 17 percent also claim to have no access to a community dump or dhalao in northern Delhi, according to the Hindustan Times. In Thailand, the country’s pollution control department reported that only a fifth of its about 2,500 open dumps are properly managed.
Landfills of untreated waste are common in the region
Landfills are bad for the environment because the trash contains harmful substances that over time, leak into the soil and groundwater. Moreover, landfills produce great amounts of methane. According to research led by the Queen Mary University of London and the University of Warwick, methane was found to be some 28 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
Cities across the Asia-Pacific are reliant on landfills, with Shanghai reportedly burying half its domestic waste. Singapore uses the entire island called Pulau Semakau solely to dump about 2,100 tons of waste daily. Metro Manila generates about 9,200 tons of waste per day and relies on three landfills.
Many of these sites are expected to be completely filled up soon, with landfill sites in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area expected to be filled up by 2024, Singapore’s Pulau Semakau by 2035, and Metro Manila’s three landfills by 2037 at the latest.
Incineration occurs in all cities except Manila and Kuala Lumpur
Shanghai has one of the largest incineration power plants in Asia, capable of processing about 2.7 million metric tons of waste per year. Delhi has three plants and is reportedly planning for four more. In Singapore, almost all non-recyclable waste is burned before going to a landfill. Elsewhere, this is a more recent development. Bangkok’s first incineration plant was completed in 2014, while Jakarta launched its first incinerator facility in 2018.
Environmental advocacy organisation Conservation Law Foundation reported that incinerators release more toxic pollution than coal-fired power plants per unit of energy.
Several countries have been embracing waste-to-energy treatment. There are ongoing plans for a waste-to-energy facility in Hong Kong with a treatment capacity of 3,000 tonnes each day. Many believe that with modern technology and strict regulations, such waste-to-energy plants are safe for human health and the environment. But at the same time, others claim that they’re harmful.
Incineration is banned in the Philippines under the Clean Air Act. While Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia does not currently have an incinerator, there are plans to build at least one facility in every state, and there are plenty of illegal factories that burn plastic, releasing toxic fumes into the air.
Landfills of Mechanical Biological Treated (MBT) waste are the least common among the cities
According to waste management company Veolia, MBT plants stabilise and separate waste which is not suitable for recycling, extract recyclable materials, and produce a solid recovered fuel (SRF) for industrial thermal applications.
In China, there is an MBT facility in the city of Lianyungang, Shandong Province north of Shanghai. Jakarta also employs the use of Intermediate Treatment Facilities, where mechanical bio treatments can reduce 90 percent of the initial waste.
Singapore is developing its first integrated water and solid waste treatment that is expected to be completed by 2028, while Thailand’s first MBT factory is slated for 2021.
Centralised composting facilities exist in most cities
Centralised composting facilities transform organic waste into humus, a critical component of soil that can be returned safely back to the earth.
Delhi reportedly has three centralised composting plants at Narela, Okhla, and Bhalswa which collectively process about 500 metric tons per day of compostable waste. Hong Kong’s Ngau Tam Mei Animal Waste Composting Plant is designed to treat about 20 metric tons of horse stable waste every day and turn it into organic compost which can be used for landscaping, horticultural, and agricultural purposes.
In 2017, Manila Water launched its pilot waste-to-energy project where septage sludge is collected and converted to biogas through the anaerobic digestion process. The biogas produced is then converted to electricity.
Centralised recycling facilities are still lacking in a few cities
In 2019, Shanghai made it mandatory for individuals and companies to sort and recycle their rubbish. In the Philippines, there are reportedly 943 materials-recovery facilities in Metro Manila, serving 964 villages.
In clean and green Singapore, recycling only occurs in privately-owned facilities that mainly accept industrial inputs. Since recycling is not mandatory for households and education on how to recycle properly is lacking, the materials collected in public blue bins designated for recycling often end up being mixed back in with regular waste slated for incineration.
While it is a good idea to push for better policies and infrastructure to develop better facilities and manage waste more responsibly, individuals should also play their part in reducing overall consumption. Japan has mandatory recycling laws but is also the world’s second-largest per capita consumer of disposable plastics. Despite greener or more efficient waste management practices at a systemic level, responsible and less wasteful individual practices still matter.