Urgent action is needed to deal with plastic litter in the ocean – and a sea change is occurring on this front. Some countries in Southeast Asia are developing plans of action for policy reform as a notable first step. Legal frameworks that support the shift towards a circular economy approach in plastics, spur systemic changes in production and consumption, and promote positive individual behavior would help address the longer-term problem.
The world is in the midst of two urgent crises – the climate emergency and deteriorating ocean health.
In the face of climate change, marine and coastal ecosystems act as the world’s largest carbon sink. Recent studies reveal that the oceans have absorbed roughly 30% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution until well into the 1990s.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that widespread and rapid changes in the Earth’s climate have already been and will be occurring across the globe and are primarily brought about by human-led activities. This includes the human impacts on the oceans, which directly affect its capacity for climate mitigation and resilience.
Among the most glaring impacts in recent decades is the mismanagement of plastic waste and its leakage to the sea, which has put large swathes of the oceans in a precarious state. The plastics life cycle from production to disposal contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, while the ensuing marine pollution impacts the state of ocean health and its ability to sequester carbon.
Indeed, the world’s oceans are facing a plastic predicament. Against the backdrop of global warming, 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean annually. This comprises 80% of all marine debris and threatens food safety and human health, industries such as tourism and fisheries, while further contributing to climate change.
The problem of plastic pollution is perhaps more pronounced in Southeast Asia, a region which faces a dire marine plastic pollution crisis. In a 2021 study, six of the top ten countries ranked according to annual plastic leakage into the ocean are from this region - the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. Collectively, they cause 580,000 metric tons of plastic waste to flow into the oceans each year.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the region is home to some of the most vulnerable areas in the world facing the adverse impacts of climate change. These challenges highlight the need to urgently develop both regional and national approaches in Southeast Asia to spur action towards addressing the plastics problem, thereby contributing to the respective climate change agendas of Southeast Asian countries.
Regional approaches in Southeast Asia: leading the way for national action
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is leading initiatives to address the transboundary issue of climate change and marine plastic pollution in the region. Notably, ASEAN heads of state have adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris to facilitate regional collaboration between ASEAN and its partners to reduce plastic pollution and prevent marine debris.
Building on the commitments in the Bangkok Declaration, the ASEAN Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris proposes the phased implementation of a systematic and integrated response to guide regional actions and identifies potential solutions along the plastics value chain. This is advancing in parallel with recent developments on regional climate action. In October 2021, the first ASEAN State of Climate Change Report was launched and provides an overall outlook on the state of climate change in the region and outlines opportunities for cooperation and collaboration towards 2050 climate targets.
Other regional initiatives aim to address the marine plastic pollution crisis in the region. The Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), a regional intergovernmental mechanism under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), brings together nine Southeast Asian and East Asian countries, to work towards the sustainable development and protection of the marine environment and coastal areas. This includes spurring efforts focused on addressing marine pollution, and COBSEA countries have thereby adopted the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in 2019 to guide regional action on this matter.
Such developments to address marine litter focus on preventing leakage from both land-based and sea-based sources into the ocean. Accordingly, these regional approaches contribute to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 14 (Life Below Water) target of preventing and significantly reducing marine pollution, and broadly towards SDG 13 (Climate Action).
However, considering that most of these action plans are directive and non-binding in nature, a course of action must evolve to implement these goals in national and local legislation. Governments and stakeholders, from industry to civil society, must work hand-in-hand to translate the targets into respective national legislation and bring about systemic change on the ground.
Setting the stage for national policy reforms
Across Southeast Asian countries, there is a multitude of laws and regulations in place on waste management and pollution which could help address the marine litter problem at some point in the value chain. However, many of these laws require updating to ensure a more comprehensive framework to managing plastic waste. This includes adopting circular economy approaches to plastics, adopting better design and alternatives, and implementing rights-based legal frameworks for management.
Fortunately, there is an ongoing sea change in the plastic policy landscape in the region. In line with regional efforts, countrywide actions tackling marine pollution in recent years have been complemented by national policy roadmaps and action plans which seek to shift systems towards a circular economy approach for plastics and more comprehensive systems for solid waste management.
In Indonesia, the government has launched the country’s Plan of Action on Marine Plastic Debris (2017–2025), which provides for strategies to be implemented at the local, national and international levels. Although the country already has existing legal instruments dedicated to marine environmental protection and climate change, the strategies would spur the development of comprehensive policy approaches to address plastic pollution. This is also in line with the country’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to invest in more waste management strategies and technologies.
Malaysia’s legislation for plastic waste management includes laws for municipal solid waste by the federal government to ensure an integrated approach, along with proscriptions of discharge of environmentally hazardous wastes into Malaysian waters. Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics (SUPs) 2018–2030 was then launched to provide coherent policy direction for a uniform approach in addressing SUPs. In 2021, the government launched the National Marine Litter Policy and Action Plan 2021–2030 to provide specific policy guidance to achieve a circular economy approach, addressing waste management issues specifically associated with plastic pollution and marine litter.
These roadmaps and action plans provide a good first step towards addressing the challenges of current legal frameworks, which is important to address the glaring gap on policy approaches being focused on the downstream levels of the value chain. This would lead to a comprehensive environment that would address the issues of the entire plastics value chain, enable changes in the social behavior of individuals to stop littering, and signal the shift to a more sustainable consumer society.
National action and priorities towards policy reform
To address the challenges, it is important to adopt measures towards improving plastics and marine litter governance, as well as wider environmental governance. These measures would encompass the enabling framework to effectively manage waste over the entirety of the plastics value chain, as well as adopting rights-based approaches to engage stakeholders.
In the short term, managing waste across the value chain is essential to mitigate plastic waste leakage. This includes enacting regulation to strengthen solid waste management by improving collection, transportation, and disposal. An equally important aspect is to increase plastic waste recovery through improved separation at source, recovery, and recycling. Comprehensive legal instruments such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations can be designed to expand the current focus from downstream waste management to the entire life cycle of plastics using circular economy principles.
In the medium term, countries should strive to adopt legal frameworks that promote systemic changes on production and consumption. This would ensure sustainability in production and consumption through promoting eco-design and single-use plastic regulations to reduce the potential impacts of plastic products. This also covers strengthening anti-litter regulations and encouraging positive behavioral change against littering.
In the long term, improved environmental governance of plastics is key to ensuring the long-term sustainability of measures addressing marine litter. Institutions should be strengthened to support a coherent and coordinated approach to policy and regulation across the value chain. Governments must also uphold environmental and human rights and achieve a gender-inclusive framework to address plastic pollution.
Through regional and national action, countries in Southeast Asia are on the path in evolving policy frameworks to prevent plastic litter in the ocean. Collaborative approaches to implement roadmaps to prevent marine litter and adopt circular economy approaches are paving the way for governments to enact regulations towards a comprehensive framework to address marine litter. This is also consistent with country goals and commitments to enhance ocean health and promote climate action.
Ultimately, the development of policy and legal frameworks in accord with identified priorities is envisaged to address the array of problems plastic pollution pose to our seas. Regional and national plans have provided the impetus for governments and stakeholders to take concrete steps and develop corresponding legal instruments. With these tools, now is the time – more than ever – to safeguard the health of our oceans in the face of climate change.
Rocky Guzman is the Deputy Director of the Asian Research Institute for Environmental Law. He is an environmental lawyer and policy specialist with extensive background on oceans issues. Rocky has worked and conducted research on topics from fisheries management and plastic pollution, to marine conservation and strengthening the rule of environmental law.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
 Relevant laws in Indonesia include the Waste Management Law of 2008, Law No. 32/2014 on the Sea; Law No. 32/2009 on Protection of the Environment; Presidential Decree No. 83/2018 on Marine Debris Management, among others.
 Relevant laws in Malaysia include the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 (Act 672), the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) 1974 (Act 127), among others.