Earlier this week, hundreds of local government officials and non-government organisations (NGOs), including fellow GAIA members, gathered in Penang for the International Zero Waste Cities conference. Jack McQuibban, our Cities Programme Coordinator, and Enzo Favoino, Chair of our Scientific Committee, were fortunate enough to be there to present the Zero Waste Masterplan and showcase the examples that we have from Zero Waste Europe’s Cities programme, with nearly 400 municipalities leading local initiatives and solutions to the waste and pollution crises.
The island of Penang sits in the North-West of Malaysia, facing out into the little known Malacca Strait which separates the country from its neighbours, Indonesia to the west and Thailand to the north.
With the ocean close by, you do not have to go far to see first-hand the impact that our unsustainable consumption and production patterns are having on the natural world. Tucked behind the tourist resort of Georgetown lies a picturesque stretch of golden beaches. Small fishing boats and a few jet-skis lie undisturbed floating on top of the water. Yet each wave that rolls in brings with it a new wave of plastic.
Unfortunately, this is not a problem unique to Penang or Malaysia. Plastic waste is a global and complex problem, often impacting the most marginalised in our societies or those who have contributed the least to the problem. For example, it is low-value, non-recyclable waste from the EU and US that is increasingly being sent to countries like Malaysia and all across Asia. Customs officers at the Penang Port Authority estimate that 60-70% of the waste they receive, legally and illegally, is from the EU and North America. So it is our consumption of plastic, often single-use, which is landing on the doorsteps of communities thousands of miles from the point of consumption, where the waste is sent for incineration, landfill or simply dumped, often illegally. As recently as last week, seven containers of waste from Belgium and the Netherlands were found illegally dumped in Malaysia.
Sources: Tarra Quismundo, Deputy Editor at ABS-CBN News.
“Waste-to-energy is a waste of energy”
Within the EU, waste incineration is not only on the rise but it is increasingly being labelled as a ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ practice, given the fact that some of it returns back into the economy as fuel for transport or heating. Despite Zero Waste Europe’s latest research building on the growing bank of evidence that shows this theory to be a myth, European countries are increasingly exporting waste incineration as a valid waste management approach to Asian countries. News that is no doubt sweet music to the ears and wallets of the petrochemicals industry. An industry whose pockets are already well-lined thanks to the fracking and shale gas boom we have in recent years, which has allowed cheap oil and fossil gas to flood the market; creating the perfect feedstock for producing billions of tonnes of cheap plastic.
Shipping containers in the Penang’s biggest port. Photo credits: Jack McQuibban.
This surge in plastic production, going against consumer demand, has completely undone recent global progress we have made towards reducing our dependence on fossil fuels in the transport and energy sectors, having a hugely detrimental impact on our fight against climate change. For example, the Alliance to end Plastic Waste recently committed to spend $1.5 billion on cleanups, whilst simultaneously pumping $204 billion into new facilities to refine plastic from oil and gas. Yet the narrative remains that we, the consumer, are responsible for changing our consumption habits and managing our waste better. In South-East Asian countries like Malaysia, this hypocrisy stings harder. Asian countries have been blamed for single-use packaging waste, despite the fact that sachets were forced upon them by western companies, and they are now having to deal with vast swathes of additional waste being dumped on them by Europe and America. As one attendee at the International Zero Waste Cities conference highlighted, plastic pollution is not only an urgent waste problem, but it is a matter of life and death; whether that’s because of the toxic effects of waste incineration or the destruction is caused to the eco-systems that communities depend on for their livelihoods.
This is the current story of plastic.
Yet the tides are turning; the story I heard and experienced whilst in Penang was thankfully, completely different. One full of innovative and exciting zero waste solutions. This is the Asia they know.
Photo credits: Froilan Grate, GAIA Asia Pacific
After speaking to colleagues from all across the region regarding our work on the Cities Programme in Europe, it is clear that Zero Waste Cities lie at the heart of the solutions which will be key to rewriting this story. As also showcased by the new GAIA website, cities like Parma and Penang may be thousands of miles apart, yet they are connected by their values and vision of achieving a sustainable transition towards a zero waste future. By re-designing business models to localise supply chains and extend the lifespan of products, cities and municipalities can immediately begin to turn off the tap of constant flowing single-use waste into society. Through enacting legislation to prohibit the worst materials that contribute to plastic waste, such as plastic bags and other single-use items, municipalities can begin to take the lead and showcase a future without plastic. Together, cities and communities hold the collective power to demand change, building a movement of zero waste leaders who are driving forward the global transition towards zero-carbon and zero waste economies.