COVID-19 led to a sharp increase in the production of single-use plastics, a significant proportion of which end up in the world's oceans. With the pandemic gradually coming under control, emerging markets are now stepping up their efforts to combat marine pollution.
Largely due to the demand for personal protective equipment and packaging for food delivery services, the pandemic led to a dramatic increase in the use of single-use plastics.
Highlighting the sheer scale of production, a study led by researchers at the University of Aveiro in Portugal estimated that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion disposable gloves were used each month last year.
While much of this has ended up in landfills, the sudden increase in plastic production has put significant pressure on marine ecosystems, with plastic accounting for around 80% of all marine litter worldwide.
In fact, a study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ in July last year predicted that, unless there is a significant drop in production, the amount of plastic reaching the sea each year could increase from current levels of 11 million tonnes to 29 million tonnes, resulting in a cumulative 600 million tonnes in the world's oceans by 2040.
The effects of such pollution on wildlife are severe. UNESCO estimates that plastic debris causes the death of more than 1 million seabirds each year, along with more than 100,000 marine mammals.
Meanwhile, research by the University of Newcastle in Australia and the World Wildlife Fund estimates that humans consume an average of 21 grams of microplastic, equivalent to half a bowl of rice, every month, and much of this comes from food and water.
One of the worst affected regions in terms of plastic debris is Southeast Asia, where it was reported during the early months of the pandemic that face masks and latex gloves were regularly washed up on beaches.
Indeed, while COVID-19 has worsened the situation in terms of marine plastic debris, the problem is not new to the region.
According to a 2015 study by US waste and recycling expert Jenna Jambeck, six Southeast Asian countries were among the top 20 in the world in terms of waste mismanagement.
Indonesia ranked second, the Philippines third, Vietnam fourth, Thailand sixth, Malaysia eighth and Myanmar 17th in the study, which estimated that the countries' combined marine plastic pollution reached 1.4 million to 3.5 million tonnes per year, out of a global total of 8 to 12 million tonnes.
In an intergovernmental attempt to address the situation, ASEAN member states launched a regional action plan to combat marine litter in late May.
The plan aims to reduce plastic inputs into the system, improve collection capabilities, minimise leakage and create value for waste reuse. It includes guidelines for countries to phase out single-use plastics, harmonise regional standards on plastic recycling and packaging, and strengthen regional measurement and monitoring of marine litter.
Given the international nature of marine litter (a significant amount of plastic washes across national borders via rivers or ocean currents), this intergovernmental development marks a significant turning point for ASEAN countries in terms of combating pollution.
It also builds on many individual country strategies and initiatives, such as Malaysia's ban on non-biodegradable plastics, the Thai government's proposed tax on e-waste, and Indonesia's efforts to improve waste recycling technology and develop waste collection bins.
In addition to human and marine health factors, reducing plastic litter in waterways can also generate tangible economic benefits for the countries concerned.
As detailed by OBG, the so-called blue economy, a broad term that encompasses areas ranging from fisheries, waste management and shipping to tourism and renewable energy, has considerable social and economic value, with some estimates suggesting that the global ocean economy is worth around $1.5 trillion annually.
Indeed, in December last year, the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group of 14 countries comprising Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal, launched a new ocean action agenda.
As part of the agreement, all member states agreed to sustainably manage 100% of their national waters by 2025, as part of a 74-point agenda designed to improve the health of the world's oceans and waterways.
If the agenda is achieved, the panel says it will enable the world's oceans to generate six times more food and 40 times more renewable energy than current levels, as well as lifting millions of people out of poverty and contributing one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to stay within the 1.5°C target.
There are also significant economic opportunities in processing used plastics.
A series of World Bank studies in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand published in March found that more than 75% of the material value of plastics is lost, the equivalent of $6 billion per year in the three countries, when single-use plastics are discarded rather than recovered and recycled.
In terms of examples of successful recycling and reuse, last year in Accra, Ghana, local authorities distributed face masks produced by Trashy Bags, a non-governmental organisation that recycles water bottles and ice cream sachets.
On the other hand, Tanzanian company Zaidi Recyclers, which processed waste paper before the pandemic, began producing face shields made from recycled plastic bottles, while Thai design company Qualy transformed unused fishing nets into COVID-19 face shields and disinfectant bottles.
Meanwhile, a pioneering study led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently succeeded in using genetically modified bacteria to convert plastic bottles into vanilla flavour.
Building on previous research that used mutant enzymes to break down materials used in plastic beverage bottles into their basic form of terephthalic acid (TA), the researchers used engineered E-coli bacteria to transform TA into vanillin, a component used in the food and cosmetics industries and in pharmaceuticals and cleaning products.