Sustainability has been the focus of attention in Asia for the last two to three years with pressure from international agencies, such as the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), and social media channels condemning the region for the state of waste packaging in the environment.

Clearly, the upsurge of hashtags, Twitter and Facebook eco warriors have industry worried. The reputational and compliance risks are real – real enough for me to have been commissioned to research a Compliance Guide to the Asian Sustainability Regulatory situation in eight countries.

Having dissected and analysed the legislation and packaging waste data, a very clear conclusion became obvious: North East Asian countries – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even China – are obviously cleaner, greener and generated much less ocean pollution; while South East Asia – Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam – are the core major polluters.

This raised the question: Why? It isn’t because NE Asia is more populous, nor is it because they are more developed nations than their southern neighbours. If anything that should stand against them given that their per capita plastics consumption is higher.
The answer lies in the legislation, and the way these NE Asian countries have framed and implemented it in contrast to the SE Asian nations.

All four NE Asian countries have complex multilayer Circular Economy laws; Japan since 2002, China since 2008, and South Korea and Taiwan since 2010, while their southern neighbours have simple one-dimensional waste management laws.

Although the details of the Circular Economy and its implementation methodology differs in each of the NE Asian countries, the structure of the legislation is essentially the same: A multi-dimensional suite of interrelated laws. At the top-level is a Fundamental Law that acts as the principal, and sets the motivation and outcomes for the Subsidiary Legislation.

The Subsidiary Legislation then deals with the practicalities and details of how the waste should be managed and disposed of. Waste from packaging, household equipment, motor vehicles, computers, food and building demolition have their own material-specific regulations.

The legislation of all the NE Asian countries deals with end-of-life products not as articles (packaging, cars, PCs) but as materials, and once discarded by the consumer and collected, the component parts enter a recycling stream according to their base material; glass bottles are recycled along with glass from motor vehicles, metal cans join metals stripped from vehicles and household products, while plastics also have a common waste stream.

At this juncture, word about China is called for: Having passed its Circular Economy Law in 2008, China has been making steady progress towards its implementation. It is not quite there yet, but it is the largest country on earth and it is coming from a very low base. As we have seen, National Sword and Green Fence aimed to control and choke the flow of cheap recovered plastics from outside the country with the objectives of forcing the creation of a domestic plastics recovery and recycling industry, rationalising and decommissioning the country’s back-yard polluting recyclers, and creating a ‘pure’ waste stream.

But in the Asian view the Circular Economy is about much more than packaging waste: China is the largest contributor to re-forestation. There are now more than 283,000 electric cars on the road, while all new car parks – private and public – must be equipped with electric-vehicle charging stations, and China has banned the production of fossil fuel automobiles with effect from 2025.

A one-dimensional approach

In SE Asia, the approach is totally different. Here, a one-dimensional legislative structure focuses on Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and the process of who picks up the garbage and puts it in the open dump, but even then not a single one of these countries actually fully implements its own regulations.

Most of the MSW Laws were enacted within the past ten to 15 years and some of these require the separation of materials into different resource streams, which does not happen in any SE Asian country. In addition, some laws reference Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) although none actually implement it – it is a buzzword in the legislation that has no implementation regulations.

There is also a plethora of ‘national strategies’ to address the perceived challenges related to waste management broadly through various Environmental Acts and policy documents such as Green Growth, Sustainable Development and Climate Change policy, regulatory framework, and strategies. Researching them makes for great reading, littered as they are with bold forward-looking statements.

From the institutional aspect, waste management policy making at the national level is under the jurisdiction of the Ministries of Environment, while many other line-ministries also have roles in regulating specific waste streams.

However, without exception, a disharmony and lack of coordination among these institutions and stakeholders become a prominent cause of the mismanagement of waste.

At the local level, provincial government – the municipality – is responsible for handling waste management services. However, local level funding is rarely available to collect the garbage outside the main city centres. None of these countries have the ability, nor the political will, to implement their laws.

The sad reality is that, in the target ASEAN countries, the following is true in more or less every country (Singapore excluded): Less than 40 per cent of household garbage is collected; all household garbage that is collected is co-mingled; all co-mingled garbage is disposed of in open dumps as none in SE Asia are sanitary landfill.

The 60 per cent of household garbage that is not collected by municipal authorities is disposed of either by burning in the garden or roadside, or by being dumped at the roadside or in a ravine or river, eventually finding its way into the sea.

It is only recently that politicians in SE Asia began to take note of the fact that existing landfills were filling up much faster than in earlier years and were close to approaching their expiry date.

The reason is simple; the SE Asian economies have seen exponential GDP growth in the past decade and disposable incomes grew by a staggering 600 per cent between 2004 and 2014. Stronger economies mean a lot more money in people’s pockets, which leads to higher consumption and a recipe for garbage mountains.

The result is that multinational corporations have no reference to guide compliance, and no clear rules to follow. In this regulatory vacuum, companies like Unilever, Coca-Cola and Danone are beginning to roll-out their own waste management programmes, which is not quite what was intended by the term EPR.