GANDHINAGAR, INDIA — Plastics manufacturers in Asia risk seeing their growth slow unless more is done to control the increasing amount of plastics waste, particularly in packaging.
At least that's how some government officials and industry executives speaking at conferences connected to the Plastindia trade show see it.
Tackling growing waste was the main topic of a meeting of plastics trade associations at the Asia Plastics Forum, held Feb. 7 in conjunction with the Plastindia trade fair in Gandhinagar.
“This is the problem faced by all developing nations, especially in Southeast Asia,” according to L.K. Singh, a delegate from India, in a speech at APF. “We are just continuing to use more and more plastic.”
“Plastics is helping us improve the quality of life, it is a necessity, but everything has a price,” Singh said. “There is a lot of waste. That is the bad part.”
An executive at Dow Chemical Co. took it a step further, telling the audience at the Plastindia International Conference Feb. 6 that negative public opinion about plastic, litter and marine debris could be a “real threat” economically.
“Across the world, legislative bans on plastic bags are proliferating and India is not an exception,” said Diego Donoso, business president, packaging and specialty plastics at Dow.
“These bans could easily spread to other formats of plastics and be a real threat to our future business unless industry starts taking action to address this issue,” he said. “The growing demand for plastic packaging that is driving growth in our industry is creating waste management issues for the world.”
At the APF meeting, Bangladesh offered a concrete example of how plastics have rapidly expanded in the waste streams of developing economies.
In the early 1990s, plastic was only 1.74 percent of the waste in the country's landfills, well below paper and other materials.
But by 2014, it had grown more than four times to 8.45 percent of landfill waste, and become the largest category, after food waste, said Syed Tahsin Huq, a delegate from Bangladesh, in a speech.
Increasing urbanization will likely adds to waste problems, he said, with the number of people living in cities in Bangladesh projected to grow from 42 million last year to 78 million by 2025.
That will push up waste generated from 27,000 tons a day now to 50,000 tons, he said: “The problem will get worse.”
Elsewhere in Asia, local governments in Malaysia are talking about expanding their existing plastic bag bans or putting new restrictions on polystyrene containers, said Lim Kok Boon, president of the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association.
But MPMA argued that it has had success with a public outreach campaign that shifted the debate from being about plastics to being about littering.
“We have been progressively changing the mindset from being anti-plastic to being anti-litter,” he said, adding that in its communications, MPMA does not want to be seen as reflexively defending plastic.
“We shouldn't say plastic is good, they are not going to accept that,” he said. “They will say, ‘You are from the industry.'”
Waste management conditions vary widely across Asia, from developing nations like India and Bangladesh to more mature economies like Malaysia and Singapore, with big differences in government spending on the problem.
But it was clear that Indian government officials see plastics waste as an increasing problem.
Avinash Joshi, joint secretary of India's Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, echoed Dow Chemical's message to the Plastindia conference, that not dealing with waste will hurt the industry in the pocketbook.
“We have to bring together industry, government, civil society, [nongovernmental organizations], everyone to address the issues of waste management,” Joshi said. “Unless we do it I don't think we can achieve the growth which we want to achieve.”
He urged industry to step up its efforts, including financially.
“We have to do very positive contributions first to rule out the negative perception and then to contribute both physically and financially in the efforts to bring out the positive attributes and bring out the sustainable methods of plastics waste management,” he said.
Major political figures in India are also chiming in on plastic waste.
The chief minister and head of government in Gujarat state, where Plastindia was held, told the local plastics manufacturers association in a letter that she recognized benefits of plastics but was concerned they were a “destructive hazard” to the environment.
“Today, the issue that concerns humans the most is environmental imbalance and global warming and other adverse effects harming us due to growing levels of pollution,” Anandiben Patel said in a letter released by the Gujarat State Plastic Manufacturers' Association at the APF meeting.
She continued: “Plastic, when invented and became popular, was considered to be a boon for the society, but due to its misuse, has become one of the most destructive hazard[s] for the environment.”