An ocean of solutions to plastic pollution at SEA circular conference

On Thursday 14 November 2019, the SEA of Solutions was wrapped up after four days of discussing how to combat plastic waste at the United Nations’ Conference Center in Bangkok.

The conference was hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia, COBSEA. Through the initiative SEA circular, the two players aim to combat plastic pollution via corporation and actions.

The SEA circular project runs in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, from 2019-2023. Next year, the conference will be in Vietnam.

The project is supported by the Government of Sweden.

To represent Sweden, Ambassador for the Ocean at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Helen Ågren, was sent to Bangkok to express her hopes for a solution in the nearby future. She only gave a short speech at the opening session, but here she said, that she is positive the combat against plastic pollution in South East Asia will succeed.

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The Swedish Ambassador to Thailand, Staffan Herrström, hosted a reception to welcome Helen Ågren, the Ambassador for the Ocean at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, to Thailand.

People are the problem

During the four days, representatives of all ages and backgrounds have gathered to discuss the issues of plastic pollution in South East Asia.

Thailand, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are the five biggest contributors to plastic pollution worldwide. Up to 60 percent of the plastic waste in our oceans stems from here.

And even if you think that recycling has come a long way, think twice. Only about 9 percent of all plastic is recycled. Almost 80 percent never make it further than landfills, where it piles up. Or possibly ends up in the ocean.

The outfits worn by the models at the SEA circular were made entirely from recycled materials.

Everyone in the heavily cooled conference room definitely agreed that something needs to be done about this problem.

Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, stressed that the Thai people are aware of the situation.

“Plastic bags are not the problem. It’s the people who use them and throw them away that are,” the minister said.

“But changing the mindset and behaviour is not easy,” he continued.

This was a common belief throughout the conference, where plastic was compared to both cars and cigarettes.

Varawut Silpa-archa also happily announced that as of next year, 48 retailers have collaborated to stop handing out single use plastic bags.

Recycling soda bottles

Not all solutions were as visually clear as the upcoming ban on plastic bags in Thailand.

Many solutions were linked to investments in recycling systems and education. However, there is still debate about where the money should come from. The consumer, producer or government?

There didn’t seem to be one player, who gets to pay for the entire clean up, if asking the speakers. Rather, there should be a combined effort from all sides to reduce the use of plastic.

“If you wanna go far, you go together,” as chairman of the recycling company PETCO, Casper Durandt, said.

Lillygol Sedaghat, spokesperson for the Planet or Plastic Campaign by National Geographic.

Among the speakers representatives of the World Bank and other investors promised to pour a lot of money into finding a solution. Not only for cleaning the oceans of existing plastic, but to prevent plastic from surfing into the waves in the first place.

Another speaker promising change was Coca-Cola ASEAN. Belinda Ford represented the company, when she said that from 1 January 2020, Sprite will only be poured into clear, recycled plastic bottles. Furthermore, the company intends to recycle one bottle or can for every bottle produced.

The plastic mafia

Anything can become a crime and apparently there is also a black market for plastic trading.

“Is a plastic bag a drug,” asked the moderator, Veronica Pedrosa, at one of the plenary sessions on organised crime behind plastic waste.

While some countries have banned or implemented restrictions on trading of plastic waste, plastic scrap may be a different story.

“People take advantage of the ambiguity,” Interpol’s representative Benedicte Niel said.

The solution here sounded that Interpol needs to continue working on unraveling the mafia syndicate behind illegal plastic trading.

Huib van Westen, coordinator of the Regional Enforcement Network for Chemicals and Waste, however questioned whether a complete ban is the right answer.

He urged for the world to stand together and take responsibility whether being from a plastic exporting or importing nation.

“I’m not sure that the policy-makers are ready to do this (ban plastic trade). They need support. We need to take them by the hand, because this is new to them.”

Examples of trash Thai people can collect and receive money for by GEPP.

Louise Hardman, founder and CEO of the Plastic Collective further pleaded for a different narrative if we are to target the issue and recognise that plastic can be an illegal currency.

“Every time we call it plastic waste, we don’t give it value. I call it a plastic resource.”

Plastic alternatives

In between plenary sessions, attendees could visit exhibitors and learn more about combatting plastic waste in South East Asia.

The Thai project GEPP, which has been running for a year, is paying people for their trash. Though not every piece of trash has a price yet, the representative seemed hopeful that this would be the case in the future.

Biodegradable tableware by Gracz.

In the other end of the room, the non-profit organisation CORA, presented data on beach-cleaning and education in the Philippines. During one single clean up recently, a total of two tonnes of garbage was collected from one beach. The organisation is also educating young people and are hoping to become a regular part of teaching at schools worldwide.

Other exhibitors were showcasing various alternatives to plastic materials such as reusable silicone straws and bamboo toothbrushes.

Between exhibitors, models were posing in clothes produced entirely from recycled materials while guests were sipping on coffee.

Plastic alternatives by Refill Station Bangkok.

A song about plastic

Back in the conference room, the SEA circular was concluded by the final words of 11 speakers, who each had 90 seconds to offer a possible solution from their position.

“Improve regional development, so the problem doesn’t move to another region.”

“We need corporation from different parties and authorities.”

“Everyone is responsible. We have waste, we have a problem. Prevent waste and minimise it through recycling.”

Awareness, knowledge, reducing the cost of collection, recycling and empowering the youth with knowledge were just some of the pledges made towards a plastic-free future.

“We must turn the tide for green plastic solutions and better decision-making. We already have the solutions and we must continue scaling them up (…) We cannot move forward without each other,” the moderator finally concluded.

Then Antoinette Taus from CORA closed the conference to the tunes of a song about plastic, the professional singer had written, as well as a rap about UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.

CORA, the philippino non-profit organisation for cleaner oceans and beaches.

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