The Reality of Plastic Pollution in Vulnerable Asian Communities

plastic reality

When we talk about environmental issues, we tend to focus on humankind’s negative impact on nature. We’ve all seen the statistics about endangered polar bears, reduced fish populations, and changing landscapes. While these are concerning issues, there’s one massively impacted group that we fail to recognize: humans themselves.

Plastic pollution has a massive effect on humans, especially those in vulnerable communities. Due to harmful chemicals in the plastic, changing ecosystems, and even the poor aesthetics of plastic waste strewn upon a beach, low income areas suffer the most. Unfortunately, they are also the ones who have no voice when it comes to sustainable development goals.

Vulnerable communities in southeast Asia are among the most susceptible to the dangers of plastic pollution. Due to unorganized waste management strategies, importation of plastic waste, and fast-growing economies, many Asian communities find themselves drowning in plastic waste. This results in a plethora of dangers, from reduced tourism to life-threatening disease. 

It’s a disservice to omit vulnerable communities from topics surrounding plastic pollution. Although preservation of our earth should be a concern, we cannot abandon the most vulnerable among us. It’s important to take a hard look at the real effects of plastic pollution and how it negatively affects large groups of people on a daily basis.

Here’s how plastic pollution affects vulnerable communities in Asia and how TONTOTON seeks to alleviate this pressing hazard.

Environmental justice: how plastic waste affects vulnerable communities

plastic waste

Environmental justice is a movement that seeks to equalize the burdens and benefits of regulations surrounding environmentalism. It acknowledges that not every community experiences climate change in the same way, and some communities are more susceptible to pollution and waste than others. The goal of environmental justice is to give a voice to all and provide opportunities for all humans to take part in the decision-making process regarding sustainable development goals.

Unfortunately, the global community is far from achieving environmental justice. In fact, it’s the communities that are most vulnerable to the dangers of climate change that are voiceless when it comes to environmental regulations. As a result, they are the ones dealing with the greatest consequences, many of which most of the world is blind to.

When it comes to plastic waste, the consequences go beyond the unsightly images of waste pollution. A report by the UN Environmental Programme analyzes the effect of plastic waste on vulnerable communities across the world. It found that the effect of plastic waste goes further than we may have previously imagined.

Plastic waste reduces marine resources, jeopardizing those who depend upon those resources, like fishers. Furthermore, it can cause health issues when fish and other seafood that contains nano and micro plastics are consumed. This poses a particular problem among those whose main diet consists of seafood.

The report found that women are at a particularly high risk from plastic pollution. Many single-use plastics contain chemicals that are harmful to humans, and those plastics are often found in cleaning supplies and other such items in the home. They’re even found in feminine hygiene products. Since women hold a more traditional homemaking role in many communities, they see more exposure to these harmful chemicals which have been shown to produce higher rates of miscarriage, infertility, and cancer. 

The UN report also noted that plastic degradation due to exposure to sunlight is a cause of greenhouse gas emissions, and the migration of chemicals from plastic packaging can cause reproductive and neurological issues, negatively impact the immune system, and prompt early puberty. Greenhouse gasses emitted from plastic waste can also create a breeding ground for pests that carry diseases. 

Marine plastic also litters beaches that were once pristine, affecting the tourism in those areas. Reduced tourism greatly impacts the local economies and the locals’ abilities to provide for their families.

It’s also low-income communities that tend to see the most plastic waste. This is due to a number of factors: mismanaged landfills are typically placed around low-income communities, lack of education results in community members burning, burying, or throwing their plastic waste into waterways, and the privatization of waste management outside of urban centers means that low-income communities are often the ones held responsible for plastic waste collecting, sorting, and recycling. 

It’s clear that plastic waste has a massive, lasting impact on vulnerable communities, but they are also kept out of conversations and decision-making processes, putting them at further risk and taking away their voice in a matter that they are most impacted by. Because of this, a massive humanitarian issue is largely being ignored.

Plastic pollution in Asia: Who is responsible?

hon son island

It’s easy to look at this issue and place the responsibility for change on local and national governments. However, the issue is far more complicated than that.

The plastic waste issue is one that’s often shuffled around. For example, plastic imports in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia play a huge role in the social injustice of plastic waste. These countries do not have the resources to handle the mass amounts of plastic waste input, and the plastic waste often ends up in communities that are most vulnerable to it. The importation of plastic waste is a global issue; developed countries should not ship their plastic waste to countries who do not have the ability to manage it. 

Beyond countries exporting their plastic so that they can relinquish responsibility for it, companies and corporations often shift the blame for their plastic waste, too. Marketing campaigns often encourage the customer to recycle their plastic or reduce their plastic use, placing responsibility in the hands of the individual. However, the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility argues that plastic waste and its management should lie in the hands of the producers of the plastic rather than those who consume it. 

While entities argue about who is responsible for the plastic waste issue, the reality is that it must be addressed by all stakeholders: individuals, NGOs, companies, and governments. It must also be acknowledged on many different levels: municipal, state, and global. A coordinated effort is required in order to reduce plastic waste and save communities who are at risk of destitution, disease, and death.

For the time being, in Asia, the responsibility of plastic waste and other solid waste largely lies to the private sector, NGOs, non-profits, and other grassroots organizations. In lieu of proper regulation and government action, these are the groups that need support.

A community-based approach to plastic waste

phu quoc island

TONTOTON seeks to provide much-needed support to waste pickers and other community members in some of the most vulnerable communities in Vietnam and Cambodia. Through projects funded by a certified plastic credit system, we provide personal protective equipment, training, and access to healthcare, protecting waste pickers from the hazards of the job. 

We have also provided additional income by monetizing a type of plastic waste that has been ignored until now: low-value, post-consumer plastic. The benefits of this are twofold: individuals enjoy an increased livelihood and more plastic waste is removed from the environment than before. 

We seek to empower individuals in communities most devastated by plastic waste to take matters into their own hands while supporting their families by doing so. They are uniquely motivated to address the plastic waste issue, and we provide as much support as we can. When you invest in the TONTOTON plastic credit system, you aren’t just helping to remove plastic from the environment, but you’re also helping to make an immediate and immense impact in the lives of the people who need it most.