Post-Pandemic Priorities for Sustainable Waste Management in the GMS

2020 began with Thailand implementing a ban on single-use plastic with the aim of reducing plastic waste by 30% this year. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has led to about 50% more plastic waste generation, owing to increased use of plastics for minimizing the spread of infection through personal protection gear (e.g., masks, gloves, face shields, gowns) and packaging food, coupled with a substantial decrease in recycling. In April and May 2020, nearly 50 tons of infectious plastic waste was collected daily from medical centers, but only about 43 tons could be effectively incinerated. The widespread lockdown also caused a substantial increase in domestic waste. The Pollution Control Department of Thailand  reported that the amount of food delivery-related plastic waste alone increased by 15% from 5,500 tons per day to 6,300 tons.  

According to ADB, during the period of 60 days since the outbreak of COVID-19 Pandemic, Asian cities collectively may have churned out over 60,000 tons of infectious medical waste. One of the acute environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is the sudden surge in the demand for and use of plastic products. The pandemic created massive upstream supply chain disruptions and downstream waste disposal problems. Furthermore, the increasing amounts of medical and household wastes are not in line with waste management facilities available in the GMS. 

Sustainable waste management in the context of COVID-19 was one of the key topics discussed by the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Working Group on Environment via video conferencing on 23 June 2020, which was attended by nearly 140 participants. The meeting called for improved guidance on plastic waste management policies and legislation to help the GMS countries to have a sound legal and institutional basis to address waste emergencies such as the COVID-19. “Strengthening policy support and capacities to manage waste in safe and sustainable ways using appropriate technologies is one of the main focus areas of the ADB technical assistance entitled GMS Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability Program," said Dr. Srinivasan Ancha, Principal Climate Change Specialist, ADB. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed many vulnerabilities in waste management chains in GMS, which could hinder disease containment and increase environmental pollution. 

“The GMS is a hotspot for plastic waste even before the pandemic. The increase in packaging and single-use plastics during this pandemic will have a major impact on the subregional environment and biodiversity, if not addressed quickly,” noted Dr. Mushtaq Ahmed Memon of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 

“While there is a clear need to focus on an immediate humanitarian response, governments cannot lose sight of environmental sustainability,” said Ms. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.  

COVID-19 is indeed turning into a disaster from a waste management perspective. Currently, resource optimization and decision-making tools to support post-pandemic waste management are lacking in many GMS countries. “The present time thus calls for sound application of disaster management principles in COVID-19 waste management,” stressed Dr. Memon. He noted that the pandemic created a longer-term disaster-like situation, requiring appropriate waste storage and treatment systems. Basic principles for disaster management—prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery—must be integrated into COVID-19 waste management strategies at local, province, and national level. He reported that Wuhan, People’s Republic of China, quickly adapted and improved its waste management system to cope with COVID-19, although the amount of medical waste alone skyrocketed from 40 to 240 tons per day.  

Dr. Memon identified several challenges for sustainable waste management in the GMS: 

  • Lack of appropriate regulatory frameworks and limited enforcement of policies  
  • Unclear institutional arrangements and overlapping roles 
  • Lack of financing, including lack of budget for waste collection and separation 
  • Inappropriate business models with limited private sector participation in waste value chains, which are not yet designed to sustain self-earning models  
  • Limited use of appropriate technologies and primitive infrastructure  
  • Continuation of the informal sector – Even after many decades, waste management remains an informal sector and has not evolved into the formal sector with green jobs and quality livelihoods; and  
  • Behavioral and lifestyle challenges, such as lack of societal attention to proper disposal, reduction, and segregation of waste at source.  

In addition, the Mekong region faces transboundary waste management challenges, according to Dr. Memon. In terms of financial support, Dr. Memon highlighted the need for new investments for promoting sustainable waste management. “The pandemic will obviously result in reduced GDP, and the countries may pay less attention to sustainable waste management. This is where ADB and other institutions can assist the GMS countries," he said. He also emphasized that sustainable waste management is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  

Successful containment efforts and sustainable waste management should go hand in hand in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. For the GMS to succeed in this effort, Dr. Memon urged policymakers to consider:   

  • Creating a roadmap for sustainable waste management system in the GMS, including laying down clear objectives on what GMS countries want to achieve, building capacity to conduct waste inventories, and agreeing on modalities for transboundary cooperation on sustainable waste management and circular economy.  
  • Promoting South-South cooperation through creation of a GMS hub to (i) share technologies and knowledge to support investments in waste management and related environmental services; (ii) agree on common inventory systems, definitions, and labelling; and (iii) control illegal movement of waste across the subregion.  
  • Enhancing upstream and downstream investments in sustainable waste management aimed at zero emissions in open environments by promoting participation of the private sector and in collaboration with international agencies. 

The GMS Working Group on Environment can play a catalytic role in piloting regional and subregional governance models for sustainable waste management, besides improving national and local governance models. The group can help in building consensus among the GMS stakeholders, especially the governments and the private sector, to prioritize the design and analysis of sustainable post-pandemic waste management chains, including logistics, recycling, and treatment technologies and policies. With such efforts, the pandemic crisis can be turned into a positive opportunity for sustainable waste management in the GMS.