Southeast Asia’s economy continues to grow by leaps and bounds, but with its rapid development has come rapid, sometimes unstructured, urbanization. The urban population of the region is projected to rise to 400 million by 2030. Aside from urbanization, growing affluence in the region has allowed for greater consumption of electronics which, if improperly disposed of, may become public health and environmental hazards. The same goes for plastic waste, which may take up to 1,000 years to decompose. With the plastic waste imports banned by China in July 2017, diverting the world’s plastic to Southeast Asia, the region could quickly transform from the world’s food basket into the world’s landfill. This article considers the challenges and opportunities of Southeast Asia’s waste management industry, before exploring the use of blockchain for its commercial viability.
According to the “Regional E-Waste Monitor” report issued by United Nations University (UNU), Asia generated 18.2 million metric tons of e-waste in 2016 or 40.7 percent of the worldwide total. Within Southeast Asia, Singapore is the leading e-waste generator in the region followed by Malaysian and Thailand. Looking at consumer trends, the report attributed the increase in the amount of e-waste generated in the region to a rapidly expanding middle class that can afford to purchase electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), as well as the fast-paced digital innovations that have led to a high turnover rate of EEE.
Given these conditions, it is imperative that Southeast Asian countries put in place adequate mechanisms to properly manage e-waste. The failure to properly handle e-waste could directly harm local residents through contact with or inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as indirectly through soil and water contamination.
Other than e-waste, plastic waste is also a major problem, especially following China’s ban on plastic waste imports. Based on research estimates, China’s ban has displaced about 120 million tons of plastic waste in 2017 alone. As a result, the amount of plastic waste exported to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines has more than doubled.
Becoming the world’s landfill has come with environmental, economic and public health consequences for Southeast Asian countries. Based on the report “DISCARDED: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis,” by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Southeast Asian people are paying a heavy toll in the form of tainted water, failed crops, and respiratory illnesses as a result of improper waste disposal.
Few people are aware of the potential gold mine that is recycling e-waste. According to the report “Global E-Waste Monitor 2017” issued by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), US$57 billion have been lost due to the improper disposal of e-waste. This is because the rare earth materials and other precious metals, including gold, in improperly disposed EEE could have been extracted and recycled. Based on the report, India was the fifth-highest generator of e-waste in 2017, generating about 2 million metric tons, of which only 5% was properly recycled.
In order to address India’s e-waste problem, local startup Eleven01 is providing technological support to the Sansodhan E-Waste Exchange as part of a joint venture to incorporate the use of blockchain as part of the latter’s e-waste aggregation platform. As indicated by their collaboration, blockchain’s features of decentralization, automation and immutability could pave the way for a more efficient and transparent e-waste ecosystem, in keeping with ITU recommendations that call for a circular economy approach.
Plastic waste management is a critical issue in Asia, especially Southeast Asia. China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are responsible for more plastic leakages into the ocean than the rest of the world combined. To make a substantial impact on ocean plastic, Plastic Bank has expanded its Social Plastic ecosystem to the Philippines, with plans to cover Indonesia in the future. Through its Social Plastic ecosystem, Plastic Bank aims to kill two birds with one stone, using blockchain to increase the rate of plastic recycling and provide a stable source of income for the poor.
Plastic Bank establishes plastic waste collection centers run by local entrepreneurs. These collection centers employ the poor to collect ocean-bound plastic waste, which is then processed into Social Plastic or plastic with higher degradability than virgin plastics. Social Plastic is then sold to international corporations for use as environmentally-friendly packaging materials.
Southeast Asia has made impressive strides in economic development, but at a heavy environmental cost. However, blockchain can help to realize new commercial models for proper waste management and help the region strike a sustainable balance for more holistic prosperity.
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