States or Companies? Whose responsible for the dumping of plastic into the ocean

A 2016 report produced by the Ellen MacArthur foundation studying the impact that the growing importance of plastic in global economies is having on the level of sea pollution in the region found that plastic production has increased twenty fold since 1964 and reached 311 million tonnes in 2014. Additionally, the report noted that currently the equivalent of one garbage truck of waste is being dumped into the ocean every minute and this figure is likely to double or triple by 2030 and 2050 if no action is taken. However, despite the damning evidence and blatant impact that rising levels of plastic in the world’s oceans is having on the environment there has been little to no interest in solving the crisis from the country’s most responsible:

  • China
  • Indonesia
  • Philippines
  • Vietnam
  • Thailand

These five South-East Asian countries contribute to 60% of plastic in the world’s oceans. A contribution which has been steadily rising at a time correlating with the increasing westernisation and industrialisation of the state’s economies. This correlation has slowed the process of solving the environmental crisis as there has been increasing debates as to where responsibility truly lies, as the responsible states have been keen to highlight the significant role that Western companies indirectly play in the dumping of plastic. Is it therefore possible that those directly dumping are not mainly responsible for the roughly 8 million tonnes of plastic being dumped into the ocean each year? And will the dumping continue and potentially grow if neither side is willing to acknowledge their accountability?

The core argument framing Western companies as the main culprits of plastic pollution in South-East Asian countries revolves around noting the impact the selling of cheap small products made in disposable non-recyclable plastic has on the environment. The size of the products sold by these companies is the most significant factor noted by the leaders of China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand as well as environmental actors such as Greenpeace. These states and NGOs contend that Western companies take advantage of people on low and limited incomes to sell cheap goods in small quantities without any thought for the environmental impact. The selling of goods in this manner has led to the coining of the phrase ‘Sachet economy’, and the Philippines is a great example of this, as products such as instant coffee, shampoo, cooking oil, food seasoning and tooth paste are sold in single use sachets to a country of 103 million people where the high levels of poverty minimise the financial ability of bulk buying. The problems resulting from ‘sachet economies’ are only likely to worsen as the increasing modernisation and westernisation of these states economies has led to a dramatic increase in demand for consumer products, and yet there is no interest from the western companies producing the small cheap goods polluting our oceans due to there being no acknowledgment of responsibility and financial benefit for them.


However, Western companies such as Nestle cannot be held totally accountable for the increasing rates of plastic pollution. In fact, in a 2016 report Greenpeace criticised and declared both Western companies and the South-East Asian countries as culpable for sea pollution. Using the Philippines as an example once again, Greenpeace found that 1.88 million tonnes of plastic being dumped into the ocean was in fact recyclable. This statistic becomes less shocking when one considers that 74% of plastic being dumped by the Philippines happens after the waste has been collected. In this sense, even if Western companies did improve the recyclability and size of its goods, it remains unlikely that we would see a drop-in the levels of plastic in the ocean unless collection facilities and transport systems were modernised.

This is a trend that is present throughout the five countries most responsible for dumping as on average only 50% of their total trash is collected. Therefore, a key method of improving levels of plastic in the ocean would be a modernising and expanding of garbage services, as well as closing leakage points in collection facilities, improving education on the benefits of recycling and increasing the financial incentives linked to being environmentally friendly. Should some or all of these suggestions be adopted then these five countries could reduce their plastic leakage by 65%, which would cut global leakage by 45% by 2025 at a cost of just $5 billion a year according to the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment. However, the determination from these South-East Asian countries to grow economically at the expense of any other concerns including environmental makes the implementation of such changes extremely unlikely.

What is therefore required is a recognition of responsibility from both the Western companies supplying one-use throw away goods and the South-East Asian countries allowing the dumping to occur. Once there has been this recognition then the childish squabbling can cease and there can finally be effective discussions about how to end this growing crisis. Yet, when one considers that financial concerns consistently trump environmental worries then the implementation of real and lasting change on the volume of plastic being dumped into the ocean unfortunately remains slim.


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