The rapid growth of the plastics industry in Asia's emerging markets, while helping to raise living standards, is worsening some environmental problems and leading to more government bans on bags and other packaging.
Plastic packaging restrictions are being enacted or proposed across the continent, including in India, Malaysia and the Philippines. More assertive citizens are protesting chemical plant pollution. And companies like Wal-Mart are pushing their Asian suppliers to pay more attention to their environmental footprint.
How to respond to those concerns dominated discussion among about 100 delegates at the recent Asia Plastics Forum, an annual gathering of industry trade groups, held Aug. 30 in Bangkok.
The forum focused mostly on information sharing, but the industry groups did announce one pan-Asian plan, to develop joint strategies to reduce the amount of plastics in marine litter in cooperation with trade associations in Europe and North America.
“Plastics has achieved a very negative perception,” said Callum Chen, APF secretary general and CEO of Malaysian injection molder Lee Huat Plastics Industries Sdn. Bhd.
“Governments and [non-government organizations] single out plastic as a punching bag. Many countries have started banning plastic bags.”
APF leaders like Chen argue that the public's littering habits are a major cause of the environmental problems that governments need to address.
However, he also said the popularity and effectiveness of plastics is becoming a “double-edged sword” that brings more attention to the material, including environmental criticism.
The 12 national plastics associations that make up APF, stretching from India to China and Japan, must continue to promote the benefits of plastics and coordinate efforts, Chen said.
“If we do not do something drastically and very quickly, it will lead on to other things,” Chen told the meeting. “If I think plastic bags are not my problem, I am wrong. It will go up the value chain.”
The Asian issues are the same as the industry faces worldwide, but some APF leaders said a big challenge in Asia is that governments often lack the money to build recycling systems that can keep up with the ballooning plastic use.
India, for example, expects to double its plastics consumption from 2010-15. Last year the country banned thin plastic bags to reduce litter and restricted the plastic film packaging used for tobacco.
Now, governments are talking about restricting the polypropylene cups used by street vendors and small restaurants, according to Indian officials at the forum.
India's megacities are growing rapidly, but governments don't have the money to build waste-management systems, so they focus on product bans as one strategy for trash control, said Bipin Shah, the vice president of India's largest plastics trade association, the PlastIndia Foundation in New Delhi.
“The difficulties in providing the desired level of public service in the urban centers are often attributed to the poor financial status of the managing municipal corporation,” said Shah. “Growth in the industry has increased but the effort to collect and segregate the waste has not materialized.”
“Municipalities still do not have the resources to work on it,” he said. “Solid-waste management is one of the major environmental problems of Indian megacities.”
In other parts of Asia, rising wealth is making citizens more assertive.
In Thailand, the neighboring communities that organized to challenge an expansion of the Map Ta Phut petrochemical complex have a per-capita income eight times the rest of the country, said Veerasak Kositpaisal, vice chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries and chairman of the Plastic Industry Club of Thailand, one of the organizers of the Bangkok forum.
In response to complaints and lawsuits, the government reduced the size of the industrial zone, set up green areas and buffer zones as part of a pollution control plan, and organized committees of private groups, governments and local communities to solve problems, he said.
In China, as well, a growing middle class in cities and a desire for a better environment has been a factor behind public protests against chemical factories and oil refineries in some wealthier coastal cities.
The government in the northeastern city of Dalian, for example, agreed last month to relocate a plant making a building block of polycarbonate after residents marched through the downtown protesting that it was too close to the urban center.
China was also among the first Asian countries to restrict plastic bags, in 2008.
In some places in Asia, industry officials say negative attitudes about plastics are growing.
Malaysia's plastics trade association is raising money for a media campaign to combat what it says is the “increasingly negative public perception of plastics.”
The state of Penang banned free plastic bags, imposing a fee of 6 U.S. cents, and the national government leads campaigns for voluntary “no plastic bag days” elsewhere, said Lim Kok Boon, president of the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association.
“Plastic bags are the biggest problem now,” Lim said.
The government also has moved to ban PC baby bottles with bisphenol-A starting in March, and there are local bans on polystyrene packaging.
“The negative perception towards plastics is not just about plastic bags, but is due to the misconceptions about plastics and the plastics' impact on the environment,” MPMA said. “To overcome these misconceptions, it has been decided that facts about the impact of plastics on the environment, as well as on safety and health … be presented to the public.”
The group last year distributed free plastic bags to shoppers printed with messages touting the recyclability of plastic bags and that their manufacture generates less greenhouse gases than paper bags.
MPMA said plastic shopping bag use from stores dropped 80 percent with the Penang ban, but that was offset by the doubling of the sale of garbage bags, as people stopped reusing free shopping bags for their trash. Overall, it said resin consumption in the bag sector dropped 15 percent.
Like in Malaysia, industry groups throughout Asia say they are working on the issues.
In India, the industry is supporting projects to use waste plastic in road construction, plastic lumber and as fuel for cement kilns, Shah said.
Indonesia's Olefin Aromatic and Plastic Industry Association has launched a “Don't Waste Plastic” public education campaign and started working on green labels for plastic bags, after eight cities last year declared plans to limit the bags.
And in the Philippines, industry groups have stepped up efforts in response to 17 bills in the national Legislature concerning plastics, including one approved by the House of Representatives that would phase out non-biodegradable plastic bags over three years, according to the Philippine Plastics Industry Association.
At least six cities there have banned plastic bags and restricted PS packaging, with some promoting a shift to paper packaging.
Plastic waste in canals and waterways is a major challenge in the Philippines, so industry is working with governments to develop waste-segregation plans, talking with supermarkets to try to recover plastic bags and promoting the benefits of plastics so positive traits don't get overlooked, said PPIA Vice President Peter Quintana.
The industry has seen good results with those cities they've had dialogues with, he said.
Quintana said governments have sometimes been slow to implement existing recycling and waste laws, and he noted that 150,000 people in the metro area of its capital, Manila, try to earn a living sorting through garbage at landfills.
The government created a national solid waste commission in 2000, but it was only fully funded and started operating last year, he said.
“This is a big issue that will confront all of us,” he said, explaining why the PPIA signed the global marine litter declaration.
Also, in Thailand, the government wants to boost recycling because only about 20 percent of waste is collected, said the Thai Plastic Industry Club's Kositpaisal.
As part of a draft strategy, the country's ministry of natural resources has proposed by 2016 that plastic waste be reduced by 20 percent and post-consumer plastic content in packaging increased by 35 percent, he said.
As well, draft laws with a “polluter pays” principle have also been introduced, he said.
“In the recent past, we could not deny that the plastics industry is facing a number of environmental pressures and legislation which is curbing plastics uses,” Kositpaisal said.
Touting the benefits
Leaders of the associations said they needed to continue emphasizing the role of plastics in helping reduce environmental problems.
A speaker from Dow Chemical Co., for example, said that plastic can help meet consumer demands in growing Asian markets, with less environmental impact.
Flexible plastic packaging, like pouches for wine or salsa, has a much lower carbon footprint than traditional glass or plastic bottles, meeting consumer needs with less environmental impact, said Peter Yap, Dow technical service and development director.
“We are talking about a huge reduction in greenhouse gases just by changing the packaging,” Yap said. “The technology options are there. … There are 2.5 billion people in Asia. We can't say to them, ‘You can't grow.' “
The benefits of plastics do seem to be recognized by some governments in Asia.
When the Indian government earlier this year enacted its ban on thin plastic bags, it said that it was rejecting broad bans on plastic and would improve municipal solid waste management systems.
Speakers at the conference said a long-term driver of their environmental challenges will be population growth and rapid urbanization, which will increase the need for better environmental management.
In 2000, about half of the world's 6.1 billion people lived in cities, according to figures at the conference. By 2050, about 70 percent of the world's estimated 9.2 billion people, or 6.4 billion, will live in cities, with much of that coming in Asia.
APF Secretary General Chen said more coordinated solutions are needed, and he urged more cooperation between industry groups in different countries, and also between industry and governments to build partnerships.
There are regional partnerships forming, with the PVC industries in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam establishing the ASEAN Vinyl Council in late 2010 to work on sustainability issues.
Chen pointed to the marine litter declaration as another example of potential cooperation.
“We all agree that all individual countries have their own set of challenges, but there is only so much each of us can do,” Chen said.” The time has come to move onto a bigger platform, from regional to global.”