Asia: Home of Zero Waste Solutions

Far from being a poster child of global plastic pollution, Asia is actually a treasure trove of Zero Waste solutions. 

Sherma E. Benosa

Materials Recovery Facility and Garden in Tacloban, PH. ©Rommel Cabrera/GAIA

For many years, developing countries in Asia have been maligned as the world’s worst marine polluters—a narrative that was challenged in 2018 when environmental groups showed through coordinated global brand audits that the sources of pollution in Asia were actually multinational corporations headquartered in the West. These findings were consistent with those of the massive cleanup and brand audit conducted in the Philippines in 2017.

Early in 2019, an investigative report released by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) accompanied by a data report by Greenpeace East Asia showed that many rich countries, including those known for supposedly high recycling rates, have been sending their mixed waste to Southeast Asia in the guise of recycling. 

Now we know: Asian countries may be the leakage points of marine plastic pollution, but the pollution starts somewhere else—right in the backyards of the Global North countries that point to Asia as the culprit.

Solutions that Work

Because of the undue focus on Asia as the poster child of the global plastic pollution, the world has failed to see and recognize the solutions springing up in the region. From the quaint town of Kamikatsu, Japan, to the crowded city of Shanghai, China, to the disaster-prone cities and communities in the Philippines, to the multicultural cities in India, to the laid-back communities in Vietnam, to the megacity that is Seoul, South Korea, and many more, there are various successful community-led solutions that truly work, waiting to be acknowledged and scaled up. 

Different Faces, Common Threads

These Asian solutions are context-specific, developed as a response to communities’ respective sociocultural and political contexts. But while these solutions have different faces, they undeniably share common threads.

They are decentralized. The tendency for cities is to centralize waste management. However, efficient solutions in Asia show that decentralization is the way to go. In Trivandrum City in Kerala, India, waste management is decentralized down to the household level. Households are required to segregate their wastes and manage their own kitchen and garden waste through at-home composting. Only residuals and other waste streams are collected by the ward (village).

In Kamikatsu, Japan, households themselves sort their waste into 45 categories, wash them and transport them to the recycling center. Only the waste of the elderly is collected by a waste collector following a fee-based scheme. 

In Zero Waste communities in the Philippines, waste management is decentralized down to the village level. Households are mandated to sort their waste, and the waste collectors employed by the village collect these discards regularly. Collected wastes are brought to a materials recovery facility, where the biodegradables are composted, the recyclables are temporarily stored until they are sold, and the residuals are kept until the city truck picks them up for disposal. 

A slightly modified system is implemented in villages in Indonesia and Vietnam that have started to implement a community Zero Waste program.

They are community-led and community-centered. Efficient programs not only have the buy-in of the community, they are also community-led. In Potrero, Malabon, one of the first villages in the Philippines to embrace Zero Waste, a volunteer group of 15 women, called Ladies’ Brigade, worked with their village head, Sheryll Nolasco, to implement the program. Today, members of the Ladies Brigade have been integrated into the formal waste management system of the village, receiving an honorarium.

In Trivandrum, young volunteers who call themselves Green Army International have been instrumental in the implementation of the Green Protocol, a government initiative to excise single-use plastics out of public events.

In Seoul, South Korea, the citizens are at the center for their impressive Zero Waste initiatives. Given the limited space in the city, the vigorous voices of the citizens and environmental groups have helped shape the overall framework of the city’s waste management.

They are cost-efficient. Prior to Zero Waste program implementation, the City of San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines was spending PhP 70 million (USD 1.4M) annually on waste hauling. With Zero Waste program, the city has not only increased its waste diversion rate from 12% in 2012 to 80% in 2018, it also reduced its spending for waste disposal to only PhP 34.6M (USD677,404), a savings of nearly 50%. This despite the increase in the hauling cost per ton. Without a Zero Waste program, the city would be spending roughly PhP 100 million in 2018.

In Tacloban City, also in the Philippines, garbage collection services prior to the implementation of Zero Waste program covered only 30% of the households, yet cost for hauling alone reached Php80 M (USD1.5M). Now with almost 100% waste collection coverage, the city is saving Php 21.6 M (USD 413,000) in its annual budget, with diversion rate of 31%. The savings are expected to increase once full rollout of waste segregation has been in place. 

They have supportive policies that are strictly implemented. Seoul, South Korea’s progressive waste diversion policies are the envy of the world. The city’s visionary solid waste management policies include a volume-based waste disposal fee system (where residents are charged based on the volume of waste generated), a deposit refund system, extended producer responsibility, and bans on problematic products and packaging. South Korean waste management law also requires households to sort their wastes and imposes a ban of USD 1,000 per violation.

The Philippines is another Asian country with progressive laws on municipal solid waste management. The country’s solid waste management law requires the decentralization of  waste collection down to the smallest unit of government, defines the roles of various actors (households, communities, cities and municipalities), and mandates the creation of materials recovery facilities and the closure of open dumpsites. The country also has a law that bans incineration, making the Philippines the only country in the world with such a ban. Cities and communities that have strictly implemented these laws are now among the country’s Zero Waste models.

The importance of supportive policies is especially highlighted in cities without good policies to implement a Zero Waste program, such as Bandung City, Indonesia. Compliance to Zero Waste programs in the city is dependent on informal processes, mostly from commitments of community leaders and active participation of residents. YPBB, an NGO supporting the city in their Zero Waste program implementation, believes that more active participation from the community will improve once the city has defined its kerulahan-level (village-level) waste management policy.

They have champions and leaders with strong political will. In communities and villages that have made big strides in their Zero Waste program implementation, there is always at least one leader championing Zero Waste. Program implementation is beset with many challenges, among them changing people’s behavior. Without strong political will, Zero Waste programs cannot fly.

In a 2018 interview, Dr. Vasuki of Kerala India, then Director of the Suchitwa Mission, shared that it was difficult at first for the people to embrace the Zero Waste program. “People were resistant and critical about it. They thought it was impossible, impractical, and just not doable. So, we had to demonstrate that it was possible. We approached every segment of the society. We convinced people that waste is everybody’s responsibility. Changing people’s behavior is a slow process. But what I learned is that, when we showcase models and make people understand the benefits of the program, they [will eventually] support it. People [can] change,” she said.

The Suchitwa Mission is an arm of the Government of Kerala responsible for evolving implementation strategy and providing technical inputs for sanitation and waste management projects

Echoing Dr. Vasuki, Mr. Benedict Jasper Lagman, councilor of the City of San Fernando and author of the city’s plastic-free ordinance, underscored political will as crucial in their success. “We may not be the first city to have a ban on plastic bags, but we may be among the few with strict law enforcement,” he said. “When the people see that you mean business, and they see the importance of the program, they follow,” he added.

They are against incinerators or the so-called waste-to-energy technologies. Incinerators and waste-to-energy facilities are widely seen as a solution to the massive plastic waste problem, no thanks to the aggressive marketing efforts of the industry. But communities that have embraced Zero Waste have proven that not only are incinerators not the solution, these technologies also undermine their Zero Waste work, and worse, create more problems. 

In 2001, Kamikatsu banned the use of their incinerators installed just three years prior, following a national regulation due to health concerns about the amount of dioxins produced by small-scale incinerators. In 2003, the town declared its Zero Waste goal of eliminating waste by 2020, without resorting to incinerators or landfills.

Meanwhile, before the City of San Fernando took the road to Zero Waste, they inked a contract with a gasification company to assist the city in managing their waste. But after three years, the company had not yet delivered on its promise of establishing the facility, prompting the city to cancel the contract. After the city implemented a Zero Waste program, they have diverted most of their waste, from 12% in 2012 to 80% in 2018, proving that systemic change—not expensive technology—is what’s needed to efficiently manage our waste.

They provide livelihood and empower their waste workers. Zero Waste programs acknowledge waste workers as the heroes in program implementation. Without them, the program would not stand a chance. Zero Waste improved the lives of waste workers by providing them livelihood and giving dignity to their work.

In India, the integration of waste pickers into the formal system has tremendously helped the sector. Hasiru Dala, an organization based in Bangalore, for example, worked with the city’s civic body to issue formal identification cards to waste pickers. With the IDs, women were able to open bank accounts, hundreds of youth were able to get education loans, and families were able to avail of health insurance. 

In the Philippines, the waste workers that used to pick waste from the streets have been officially integrated into the Zero Waste program as formalized waste workers. This allowed them to earn better wages under better working conditions.

Vilma Morales, a waste collector in Potrero, Malabon City, used to rummage through household waste—usually mixed—dumped along the curbside. She used to earn about USD 20-40 a month from selling recyclable materials to junk shops. Today, Vilma receives a monthly salary of PhP 6,000 (roughly USD 60) as a village waste worker. This is on top of what she earns selling recyclables from the recyclable waste she collects from households.

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The Asian experience shows that if we really want solutions that work, we must look to community examples and listen to community voices. It may seem counterintuitive, but in the discourse on the massive plastic waste problem, those spearheading the solutions are not the business executives peddling their “hi-tech products” and trumpeting their “recyclable packaging” by God-knows-when, but the impacted people themselves. 

The impacted communities may seem small and powerless, but they hold the key to the solutions, with their intimate knowledge and understanding of the problems that beset them. As with many things we’ve seen, the Goliaths of the world may be powerful, but in the end, it is the Davids who save the day. 

Sherma E. Benosa works at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) as communication officer for Asia Pacific. She may be reached at sherma@no-burn.org.