The global plastic waste pandemic is not something Myanmar is excluded from. Plastic items such as bags, bottles, food packaging and straws are now widely used across the country.
We can see plastic waste almost everywhere and it affects each and every one of us, but we can all do something about it. It is time for Myanmar – businesses, individuals and the government – to address plastic pollution before this golden land turns into a plastic country. The recent fire at Htein Bin landfill, covering Yangon in a stnch of burned plastic for days, was a clear reminder that our relationship with plastic in Myanmar has become toxic – quite literally.
Plastic has been around for a long time. The material has been instrumental in advancing solutions in health, transport and manufacturing. However, during the 2000s, there has been a significant global increase in the use of single use plastic items – which we use only once, on average for about 12 minutes and which are then thrown away never to be used again. Many of these items are made of plastic that has low value for recycling and ends up in our rivers to later be transported to our oceans, where it not only harms marine wildlife, but enters the global food chain as micro-plastics. If we continue to use and discard plastics the way we do now, estimates suggest that we will have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
An obvious reason for why we use a lot of single use plastic is because it is convenient. It is easy. We do not have to bring our own reusable bags to the market – we can get as many as we want for free. We can buy bottled water almost everywhere and we can discard it wherever. We can order takeout food, which comes delivered in Styrofoam or other plastic packaging and we do not have to cook ourselves. Plastic is easy to use, but getting rid of it is the difficult part. I only found out recently that most of the plastic ever produced is actually still out there.
It has not been recycled or reused. It is at the bottom of our oceans, on islands in the Myeik archipelago and even in the Arctic ocean, where microplastics were recently found in the sea ice. Plastic does not just disappear. Scientists have not agreed on how long it actually takes for plastic to disappear. Some say 450 years, some say never. This means that a bag you picked up this morning to use only once, will “survive” you for generations.
Imagine what that means for the 80 million bags approximately used per day in Myanmar, and what it means for the bags we will use tomorrow and the days, weeks and years after that.
Clearly, proper waste management is one of the challenges. In Myanmar, we are paying very little for waste management, at least as private individuals. Where I live, close to Aung San stadium in Yangon, I pay K600 per quarter for my waste to be picked up by Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). This is obviously not enough to fund proper waste management. The cities and towns across the country are in urgent need of more bin lorries or similar equipment and infrastructure to collect waste, as well as more space for landfills, where waste can be processed and properly managed. There is just not enough money available, which is why so much of the waste ends up on our streets, rivers or areas of cultural or natural significance such as Bagan, the waterfalls in Shan State or Kyaiktiyo in Mon State.
‘Yes, we can solve plastic pollution in Myanmar. It starts with reducing our own personal use of single use plastic and switching to alternatives.’
Littering is unfortunately a common practice in many places. The fact that there is no proper waste collection and not enough bins in public places to properly dispose waste, threatens the environment but also creates a “broken window effect”, where people think it is already dirty so why bother keeping it clean? The practice of simply throwing waste on the ground is something we must find ways to change now.
So how do we solve this problem? Can we solve it? Can we give up the convenience of using single use plastic? Can we increase funds available for waste management? Can we stop littering? Can we raise awareness on the impacts of the overuse of single use plastic and what alternatives are out there?
Yes, we can solve plastic pollution in Myanmar. It starts with reducing our own personal use of single use plastic and switching to alternatives. The less waste there is to manage, the less money we have to spend on expanding landfills, buying bin lorries, installing and managing dustbins and cleaning up on the street. There are alternatives to single use plastic, many of them traditional to Myanmar, including the lunch box instead of using small plastic bags, having your tea in a proper cup at the teashop instead of taking it away to drink it five minutes later at home, using leaves and other reusable material for food packaging – we need to bring these sustainable back practices and introduce new ones.
We need to address plastic pollution at the policy level and put in place instruments that will make it more expensive to use single use plastic and cheaper to use more sustainable materials. We need to stop littering and increase financing for waste management. These are changes we urgently need to turn the tide on this plastic pandemic that is threatening our water, food, wildlife, nature, health and the very beauty of Myanmar.
It is clear that beating plastic pollution requires all of us to change the way we use and discard plastic. We need the support of the private sector to drive change and bring more sustainable solutions. We need the government to put in place policies that can help us use less plastic and switch to more sustainable material as well as increase the budget for waste management. We also need all of us, individuals, who call this country home and who care about its future to think about how our use of plastic is impacting the very land and water we depend and how we can use less of it.
On June 5, Myanmar and the rest of the world will celebrate World Environment Day and this year’s theme is “Beat plastic pollution”. Let this be the starting point for our fight against plastic pollution and to ensure a clean Myanmar for present and future generations. Why not try to live a day without single use plastic?
Hanna Helsingen is a member of Thant Myanmar. Thant Myanmar is a grassroots movement formed in 2018, aiming to reduce single use plastic pollution in Myanmar by highlighting, supporting or initiating efforts and commitments towards this goal. The movement wants to get everyone thinking about the amount of single use plastic people use, how people use it, which items we can refuse or replace with non-plastic options and thus, ultimately, move towards a cleaner Myanmar.