Bangkok, 7-9 March 2023: Partnership across stakeholders was the central theme of the three-day workshop organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that gathered experts and stakeholders working in plastic pollution prevention of the Mekong River Basin.
Plastic pollution threatens the Mekong River Basin, which is rich in biodiversity and important to the millions of people depending on it, said Ms Dechen Tsering, Regional Director and Representative for Asia and the Pacific of UNEP.
‘A key aspect of addressing this issue is multi-stakeholder participation, and I encourage everyone to engage, learn, and work together to combat plastic pollution,’ she said in her welcoming remarks at the workshop entitled ‘Plastic-Free Rivers: Stakeholders’ Capacity Building to Promote Community Resilience against Plastic Pollution and Climate Change‘.
Successful implementation of actions against plastic pollution depends on the effective partnerships among cross-sectoral stakeholders, not only in the Mekong River Basin, but also throughout the world, according to Mr Michikazu Kojima, Senior Advisor, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA). He said that integrated partnerships among government, private sectors, non-profit organizations, academics, and civil society were the key to tackle plastic pollution.
‘This plastic pollution challenge won’t end with a solo effort, but rather requires a multi-stakeholder collaboration,’ added Mr. Kojima.
Marine plastic pollution can only be tackled by an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates waste management, material flow analysis, life cycle assessment, and alternative materials for plastics, he said. Hence, the Regional Knowledge Centre for Marine Plastic Debris (RKC-MPD) under ERIA, together with IGES and IGES-CCET established an Experts Working Group that brought together experts and researchers to assist the establishment of baselines and offer a multidisciplinary assessment of marine plastics for the benefits of the ASEAN region.
Investment in plastic pollution prevention
The panel discussion pointed out that effective countermeasures for plastic pollution can be fostered through monetary and non-monetary investments from international cooperations. Ensuring current and future investments is crucial for lasting positive outcomes for river systems considered as major channels of pollution into the ocean.
Dr Llorenç Milà i Canals, Head of the Secretariat – Life Cycle Initiative of UNEP, stated that between 2021-2040, there were about US$2.2 trillion of investment that should be redirected from new plastic production facilities into other parts of plastic life cycle.
‘Shifting the linear plastics economy towards the circular one has huge economic benefits. It’s important to understand that if we keep making the problem bigger, without investing in the solution, we’re not going to get out of this plastic pollution problem,’ Dr Llorenç said.
Mr. Ankit Bhatt, Regional Lead of Global Green Growth Institute, added that these surge of investments towards plastic waste issue should be allocated to key investment needs such as regulatory frameworks and basic public infrastructures. These two aspects would then both support the transition from linear plastic economy to circular economy, he said.
Meanwhile, Dr Anjali Acharya, Global Plastics, Pillar Manager at the World Bank, said it was crucial to emphasize the ‘source-to-sea’ aspect of plastic pollution when it comes to investment.
‘Plastic waste predominantly came from land and flowed through the riverine system into the ocean. So, we need to invest on “closing the tap” of plastic pollution at the upstream,’ Dr Acharya concluded.
Science-based actions to tackle plastic waste
Closing the tap of plastic leakage into polluting the environment requires actions in which science serves as the basis. Dr Chettiyappan Visvanathan, Emeritus Professor at Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok, said there is a rise in technological innovation for reducing plastic pollution in each stage of the value chain; upstream, midstream, and downstream. These solutions could be categorised based on multiple criteria such as types of plastics (macroplastic, microplastic, both); point of intervention (land-based, river-based, sea-based); etc.
‘However, although 89 percent of these solutions are commercially available, not all of them are necessarily viable’, Dr Visvanathan said.
This meant that despite the emergence of science-based solutions, there was still a challenge to tailor specific actions suitable for each country’s political, economic, and social context.
As investments are made, public awareness is raised, and actions are implemented, it is paramount to monitor the amount of plastic waste, both upstream and downstream, to assess the efficacy of plastic pollution reduction measures. At the workshop, recent methods and technologies for monitoring plastic pathways were shared.
Dr Noriko Tamiya-Hase, Deputy Director, Office of Policies against Marine Plastics Pollution, Water Environment Division, Ministry of the Environment, Japan (MOEJ), shared how the Japanese government harmonized domestic monitoring methodologies on plastic litter in rivers, coastal area, and oceans.
‘Having common methodologies is important for ensuring the comparability and accountability of our actions’, she said.
The government made different monitoring guidelines for each stage of plastic pollution, and last year the MOEJ developed the Guidelines for River Microplastic Monitoring that is now available on their website.
Meanwhile, Mr Sriram Reddy Mandhati, Senior Research Associate at the Asian Institute of Technology, presented the Artificial Intelligence (AI)-Enabled CCTVs for monitoring floating plastic litter in Thailand and Viet Nam. This technology was developed under the Litter initiative of the Geoinformatics Centre – Asian Institute of Technology (GIC-AIT) that utilised remote sensing and AI to monitor and map plastic leakage.
The workshop concluded that rivers are at the heart of the work on plastic pollution. Achieving plastic-free rivers would ensure the security and prosperity of the communities and ecosystems that depended on it, the panel discussion said. Therefore, integrated and coordinated approach to effectively leverage investments for the development of data, policy, and technology on solutions with stronger multi-stakeholder collaboration at the core of it would be the key to tackle plastic pollution.