The year 2018 marked a tough time for the environment in East Asia.
Air and water pollution, deforestation, illegal fishing, and wildlife trafficking threatened livelihoods and animal species in a number of countries.
This came on top of long-standing water-management problems
Two examples: the negative impact of China’s upper Mekong River dams on downstream nations and Vietnam’s overemphasis on rice planting that has contributed to lower productivity in the Mekong Delta.
Climate change and rising waters from the South China Sea have exacerbated the Mekong Delta situation, although steps have been taken more recently to ameliorate it.
But nothing weighed more heavily on many areas than what might be called Asia’s great trash crisis.
And within that crisis, eradicating or controlling plastic waste may offer the biggest challenge.
At the end of October, The Economist magazine devoted a 12-page section to the trash piling up around the world.
The magazine notes that the waste created in 20th century Europe and America following the Industrial Revolution was nothing compared with rubbish now produced by emerging economies such as China.
According to a World Bank report, in 2016 the world generated two billion tons of municipal and household waste—up from 1.8 billion tons just three years earlier.
It projects that by 2050 the volume of such waste will grow by 50 percent in East Asia.
The biggest challenge may prove to be the recycling of plastic waste.
Some estimate that plastic floating in the oceans will weigh more than the fish swimming in them by 2050.
According to experts, just five Asian countries—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam—dumped more plastic into the oceans than all other nations combined.
Over the past 25 years, the world has deposited 106 million tons of plastic in Chinese ports for reprocessing.
That system collapsed in January of this year when China, out of concern for its own environment, banned imports of virtually all plastic waste and unsorted paper.
Trash crises in Southeast Asia
As a result of China’s actions, businesses in Vietnam had been making a profit from the recycling of waste imported from China.
But top government officials warned that this practice exacted a high environmental cost and had to end.
Vietnam’s latest trash crisis involves the widespread disposal on beaches and unsanitary landfills of empty TetraPak milk cartoons, which are made from paper, metal, and plastic.
The Philippines, meanwhile, is becoming “a rich country dumping ground,” according to the Hong Kong-based online website Asia Times.
The Asia Times reported on Dec. 27 that the discovery of more than 5,000 tons of South Korean hazardous waste on the Philippines island of Mindanao “marks a rising trend of illegal foreign dumping” in the Southeast Asian nation.
Ironically, the waste was shipped to a firm that was nominally engaged in plastic recycling.
And the Philippines already suffers from what is described as a “gargantuan garbage problem.”
The bad news
Now here’s the latest bad news: A new study published in the journal Science has found that billions of bits of plastic waste are lodged in coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific with devastating result.
Some 11.1 billion pieces of plastic are clogging up reefs across Asia and the Pacific, with the risk of coral disease lifting from four percent to 89 percent in plastic-hit areas
The Great Barrier Reef stretches for more than 1,400 miles along the Queensland, Australia coast.
Griffith University researcher Ali Karami told Australia’s Hack radio station that when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef, “microplastic definitely has impacted this tragedy.”
“Microplastic…can cause toxicity because this may release some of the contaminants that they have been absorbing for the past many years,” said Karami, who is an expert on aquatic toxicology at Griffith University.
“They can release contaminants, pathogen microorganisms inhabitated in them, and physically, they can harm the body of the organism, the coral. This is what’s happening.”
The good news
According to The Economist, the good news is that governments and peoples around the world appear to be “increasingly alert to the economic, ecological, and human costs of waste as well as to the missed opportunities that it presents.”
Thailand, which has been slow to deal with its plastic waste, is now taking some action.
According to the Bangkok Post, Thailand plans to ban the use of very thin single-use plastic bags in 2022.
The newspaper reported on Dec. 28 that this will be followed by a ban on single-use plastic glasses and straws three years later under plans drafted by the country’s Pollution Control Department.
Thailand experienced a public awakening to the dangers to wildlife caused by plastic waste on June 1 this year when a pilot whale that washed ashore in southern Thailand died after swallowing 17 pounds of plastic waste.
The Indonesian government has endorsed ambitious goals to eliminate plastic waste and to make the water in its most polluted river drinkable within seven years.
The Economist uses Taiwan as an example to show that the waste problems aren’t insurmountable.
As The Economist explains, in 1990s Taiwan hardly looked like a model for handling waste and recycling.
The self-ruling island had experienced rapid economic growth, rising living standards, and soaring consumption.
But Taiwan’s inability to clean up its growing piles of waste earned it the negative moniker “Garbage Island.”
Mounting popular protests forced the government of the island to build 24 incinerator plants to burn the waste.
Analysts say that Taiwan’s emergence as a democracy after martial law was lifted in 1987 and its growing civil society made such protests possible.
In 1998, an American anthropologist and a Taiwanese sociologist teamed up to write a paper on how Taiwan’s environmentalists began to make their voices heard.
Robert P. Weller of Boston University and Hsin Huang Michael Hsiao of New Taiwan University based their study on research into the history of environmentalism in 10 counties and cities over a 60-year period.
Professors Weller and Hsiao noted that in the early 1980s Taiwan had gone through a period of “ill-planned industrialization and over-urbanization in many localities.”
They found that at that time “Taiwanese rarely voiced concerns about environmental problems and seemed heedless of issues that were already rocking the West and Japan.”
At the time so-called “sanitary landfills” actually amounted to “heaps of garbage.”
By the late 1990s, however, what the authors call the “garbage wars” had begun.
Environmentalists emerged to protest against the placement of the landfills that threatened the island with mounds of uncollected refuse.
Large protests also delayed nuclear power and oil refinery construction.
Nongovernmental environmental organizations ranging from Taiwan Greenpeace to a group called the “Environmental Mamas” began speaking out.
The Taiwan government, “long considered oblivious to environmental issues,” began producing educational materials on environmental protection practices in 1991.
With time, the government also succeeded in convincing citizens to produce less rubbish in the first place.
Citizens are required to buy garbage bags that conform to certain standards when they are left on the streets for pick-up by garbage trucks.
This serves as an incentive to citizens to cut their costs by reducing their total garbage output by, for example, buying fewer things that use plastic packaging.
Plastic straws have been widely used over the years in Taiwan, but they’re slow to biodegrade.
So Taiwan is now set to find substitutes for the plastic, such as sugarcane, and to ban the use of plastic straws in 2019.
A group of Taiwanese entrepreneurs have patented the design for biodegradable straws made from sugarcane and have already begun shipping some of them overseas.
According to the publication Taiwan News, the sugarcane straws can be digested by microorganisms in the ocean.
Taiwan, meanwhile, recovers for recycling an estimated 52 percent of rubbish collected from households and commerce, as well as 77 percent of industrial waste.
According to The Economist, this rivals the rates achieved by South Korea, Germany, and other top recycling nations.
The United States recycles 26 percent of the rubbish collected for recycling and 44 percent of industrial waste, The Economist says.
Taiwan’s environment minister boasted that more than half of the teams competing at this year’s soccer World Cup in Russia wore shirts made in Taiwan from fibers derived from recycled plastic.
But leaving aside its stellar performance in recycling, Taiwan still faces challenges in reducing air pollution, particularly in the industrialized southern part of the island.
In a commentary published in November of last year in the Taipei News from the southern city of Kaohsiung, contributing writer David Spencer wrote that the city’s pollution problem was actually getting worse.
As Spencer describes it, Kaohsiung is ringed by polluting industries. Oil refineries and steel manufacturers are located on the edge of the city.
The air pollution has reached the point where it became an issue in some of the recent local elections held in Taiwan.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.