Why vulnerable communities are vital in leading the fight against plastic waste in Asia

By Yeo Zong Hao

Vulnerable communities are leading the fight against plastic waste by implementing sustainable waste management solutions, shares Eileen Cai, Chief Advisor, APAC Regional Projects Director of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.

Eileen Cai, Chief Advisor, APAC Regional Projects Director, Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Image: Alliance to End Plastic Waste

From the metropolitan areas of Kolkata to the ecologically vital Sundarbans region of West Bengal, a new generation of eco-warriors is spearheading a movement towards responsible plastic waste management. 


Plastic waste harms communities and environments worldwide. However, vulnerable communities in Asia bear the brunt of this crisis disproportionately. India alone sees 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste generated annually as a result of rapid population growth and urbanisation, according to the Central Pollution Control Board of India.  


The Singapore-based non-profit Alliance to End Plastic Waste is now partnering with these communities to tackle the critical task of waste management. Just last year, they trained more than 45,000 students between 11 and 18 years old through a changemakers programme aimed at raising awareness about the alarming scale of plastic waste pollution in India and the role they can play in combating it.  


GovInsider sits down with Eileen Cai, Chief Advisor, APAC Regional Projects Director, Alliance to End Plastic Waste, to gain insights into how organisations can partner with vulnerable communities to develop sustainable solutions, and the challenges they will have to overcome.


Developing customised waste management solutions


A critical challenge that developing countries in Asia face is that funding to invest in waste management infrastructure is often scarce. 


“There is a lack of budget allocation and chronic underinvestment in waste infrastructure. Without access to proper waste management infrastructure, billions across Asia resort to open dumping, burning, and improper waste disposal practices,” says Cai.


In the Jembrana Regency, Indonesia, the Ijo Gading River is the island’s largest ocean plastic contributor, accounting for 12 per cent of Bali’s total plastic waste leakage.  


Cai shares that some residents believed the burning of waste piles helps to drive away pests and insects. She highlights the urgent need for sustainable waste management solutions in such communities.


For instance, the Alliance has worked with Project STOP and Jembrana residents to implement a waste management system, where waste collected from residents is regularly brought to a sorting and processing facility. Then, organic waste is composted and recyclables are processed for sale. Finally, the profits from these sales are used to sustain the facility.


"Local communities need viable alternatives, which should be convenient and affordable waste management services. They also need to be fit for purpose because waste management is very localised and unique to the local context,” explains Cai. 


Education and skill development as catalysts for change 


In the fight against plastic waste, education and skill development are critical for sustainable change. These tools can empower communities with the expertise needed to effectively address the challenges posed by plastic pollution. 


“If we want long-term sustainable impact, we need to ensure that we train the community, bring them up to a certain capacity or capability to be able to own and operate the waste management facilities which we are building,” shares Cai. 


Capacity-building and skill development programmes play a crucial role in integrating informal waste workers into their waste management solutions. This prepares individuals from these communities to become integral players in the waste management hierarchy. 


The training they receive in operating waste management facilities and handling plastic waste also contributes to their own livelihoods and well-being.


“For Project STOP Jembrana, we provided household waste collection and built a sorting facility for the Jembrana Regency. We trained the waste collection drivers along with the workers that are operating the sorting line so that they can operate the facility sustainably,” shares Cai. 


The Alliance also actively engages with communities to garner support and buy-in from the local population. For example, the Alliance works with the regency head in Jembrana to establish communication channels through the local media to reach out to local communities. 


“We support him in providing the figures and inputs, to talk about how much they have improved in terms of waste aggregation and also the target that they are moving towards,” explains Cai. 


By instilling a deeper understanding of the environmental and social impacts of plastic pollution, these initiatives promote responsible waste disposal and foster a sense of ownership and commitment to creating a sustainable future.


"They bring back the knowledge that we give them to their peers, communities, and most importantly, their families, the adults, and this really encourages behaviour change,” Cai adds.


For example, the changemakers programme saw students take the message back to 300,000 people including their peers, families, and communities. The aim was to rally communities around the plastic waste management issues threatening their region and the Sundarbans Delta ecosystem. 


Engaging in partnerships for sustainable solutions


“The Alliance's key focus is to divert plastic waste from the environment, especially in high-leakage geographies like Asia and the Global South,” says Cai. Key to this is strategic partnerships that help them support communities in managing plastic waste. 


For instance, the Alliance partners with national and local governments, the private sector, and financial institutions to build integrated waste management solutions. These solutions are designed to move communities up in the waste management hierarchy by addressing waste collection, sorting, and recycling needs.


By providing concessionary funding to build and de-risk integrated waste management models, the Alliance enables communities to take ownership and operate these facilities sustainably. Successful de-risked models also attract capital for the Alliance to replicate and scale up these solutions regionally and globally. 


Currently, the Alliance’s Bersih Indonesia: Eliminasi Sampah Plastik aspires to bring together municipal and national governments, expertise and funds from the private sector, and the participation of local communities in a coordinated push to transform the waste management landscape.


“The funding will provide waste management infrastructure and services to serve 2.6 million residents for the first time,” shares Cai. The goal is to develop a self-sustaining and commercially viable waste management system to bring Indonesia closer to its goal of achieving near-zero leakage by 2040. 


In the absence of government funding, vulnerable communities need to develop economically self-sustaining plastic waste solution models that can meet local needs. You can find out more about how the Alliance is supporting communities in building waste management solutions transparently and accountably by reading their latest progress report.