by Ayako Mizuno • 19 March 2021

16 March 2021: Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), along with the IGES Centre Collaborating with UNEP on Environmental Technologies (CCET) co-organized a special plastic session entitled “Estimating Plastic Waste and Pollution for Data-driven Policy Making in Emerging Economies” during this year’s 7th 3R International Scientific Conference on Material Cycles and Waste Management (or 3RINCs) held on 11th, and 15-19th March 2021.

3RINCs is an academic platform which promotes proper waste management and the principles of the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) in our societies. It has its mission to serve as a platform for academic and scientific exchange, which in turn will provide substantive technical inputs to policy discussions at the intergovernmental Regional 3R Forum. Ever since its first conference in 2014 held in Japan, it has been convened successively in the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, India, and Thailand. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 6th 3RINCs was cancelled in 2020, and this year the conference was convened online.

To learn more about 3RINCS

The special plastic session co-hosted by ERIA, IGES and CCET discussed opportunities and challenges surrounding data-driven policy making for proper plastic management and mitigation of marine plastics debris, especially in emerging and developing economies such as Southeast Asia. Recent attempts to estimate plastic waste and pollution either through rather traditional way of information gathering or through more advanced methods such as Geographic Information System (GIS), IT technologies, sensing technologies or modeling analysis were examined.

Mr Michikazu Kojima of ERIA opened the session by presenting the status of national data availability on marine plastics and plastic pollution in ASEAN countries. In his presentation, Mr Kojima set the scene by explaining that Southeast Asian countries are often cited as being the biggest contributors of marine plastic debris by researchers although assumptions may vary depending on the estimation methodologies used. Some ASEAN nations (such as Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines) have made substantial progress in estimating municipal solid waste and assessing potential plastic leakage into the environment thanks to systematic data collection from local authorities, but other countries are still lagging behind. He also pointed out that in ASEAN countries, primary microplastics and leakage from landfill sites are very often not accounted for, and lack of information in this area remains future data-collection and monitoring challenges.

Dr Premakumara Jagath Dickella Gamaralalage of IGES-CCET has presented his observations and lessons learned from the UNESCAP “Closing the Loop” project for which IGES-CCET is one of the implementing partners. The project is currently assisting 4 ASEAN cities (Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Surabaya in Indonesia, Da Nang in Vietnam and Nakhon Si Thammarat in Thailand) in developing city action plans to improve plastic waste management. The project has two components: data collection and city action plan development. The data collected through the project has been used to engage a discussion on how to better manage plastic waste, for example by recycling them instead of sending them to the dumping sites. Dr Gamaralalage concluded his intervention by stating that understanding the capacity of these cities are important if we are to leave a sustainable impact, where simple data set might be more useful and practical in the management of plastic waste than using the overabundance of data and complex methodologies.

Dr Costas Velis of the University of Leeds introduced the ISWA Plastic Pollution Calculator and other toolkits used for data-collection in above-mentioned UNESCAP “Closing the Loop” project. Understanding the plastic waste sources and how they are released is important to establish a model, explained Dr Velis. In order to intervene and take effective actions, multiple environmental factors such as natural conditions, geography & weather, the degree of city urban expansion, the degree of dependency on tourism, recycling rate etc. can weigh-in on how plastic waste are generated and might leak into the environment. With the Plastic Pollution Calculator, the baseline will be established, and benchmarking will be conducted overtime to quantify plastic waste sources and find out the hotspots which can help data-driven policy making. How to account for open burning and activities of informal sector remain some of the challenges, explained Dr Velis.

Dr Kavinda Gunasekara of the Geoinformatic Center (GIC) of the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), exposed the lessons learned from CounterMEASURE phase 1 project of UNEP/ROAP, on how to utilize GIS and citizen science to identify hotspots along Mekong River. By teaching computers to detect plastic trash by active learning framework (trash collection and annotations by types), the team succeeded in scanning through city streets to detect the locations, types and quantity of trash thrown in the environment using cameras attached to vehicles. Challenges include piles of trash which contain multitude of plastics in terms of quantity and quality, explained Dr Gunasekara. The experiment is now expanding to include motorcycles, by potentially utilizing food delivery companies to collect data through their daily delivery work, and other citizen data-collection approaches.

Dr Muhammad Reza Cordova of Indonesian Institute for Sciences, who made the final presentation talked about monitoring marine plastic debris in the ocean and the river basin. Despite marine litter emerging as a critical issue in the Asian region, scientific research publication number remains very low compared to other regions of the world and an improvement in this regard is needed, explained Dr Cordova. Plastic waste monitoring methods can be divided in two main categories: (1) passive monitoring whereby remote sensing feed into modeling, and (2) active monitoring whereby in situ and visual data is collected from the field. Passive monitoring needs further fine tuning by considering factors such as the plastic consumptions patterns of individual countries. Active monitoring on the other hand is useful in reflecting the reality on the ground and feed additional information into the passive monitoring method. Using passive method, active method and citizen science wisely will optimize our monitoring results, concluded Dr Cordova.

It is to be noted that as part of its Regional Knowledge Centre for Marine Plastic Debris (RKC-MPD) activity, ERIA is planning to establish a technical working group on data-driven policy making for marine plastic pollution management in collaboration with IGES.