Before coming to Bangkok, I learned in GHD of ASEAN’s immense growth potential despite varying economic profiles. ASEAN states are emerging as frontier markets built to the rhythm of industry, commerce, and tourism. Strong income growth is propelling households into the consuming class, where shoppers are developing a preference for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) packaged in single-use plastics later discarded in waterways or leaked out of garbage trucks enroute to landfills. Gradually, waste mismanagement is becoming part of the soft underbelly that could stymie growth. Experts are already seeing the effects on flooding from clogged drainage systems, on fish and marine organisms that have ingested plastic, and with the prospect that tourist numbers may dwindle due to polluted beaches. Coca-Cola ASEAN Public Affairs & Communication (PAC) recognizes the environmental consequences associated with plastic buildup, and is creating the impetus for lasting, scalable change. With my belief that shared value and sustainability are most strongly melded at the nexus of public-private collaboration, I was intrigued to work with the company as it defines the terms of engagement for how it will act to tackle plastic waste in ASEAN.

Coca-Cola Sustainability staff amidst discussion with Thai government counterparts.

The good news is that leaders are slowly beginning to act. This year’s The Economist World Ocean Summit and UN Ocean Conference—if nothing else—have served to inform leaders across sectors of the risks of plastic buildup. As a leading beverage company with operations in four ASEAN countries named among the top five plastic polluters globally, Coca-Cola is committed to creating a circular economy to mitigate effects. Even as government efforts evolve slowly, the company is getting ahead of the issue with assessments of key drivers and potential solutions. My role has been to conduct business intelligence, keep pulse on global public forums, and follow social influencers to construct an evidence base and gauge stakeholder sentiment. With this knowledge, we are making determinations about the capabilities of stakeholders to influence policy, forge alliances, and innovate solutions that increase plastic uptake value. Parallel efforts are happening locally, too, ranging from plastics innovation competitions, youth education campaigns, beach cleanups, and recycling events across Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Working on the issue makes me conscious of my own use of plastic and the way I dispose of it. Living in Bangkok means grabbing snacks from nearby 7-11’s, and taking water bottles from the office to stave off the humidity. I also notice a startling reliance on plastic containers from the food vendors who serve green curry and kra por pla in clear plastic bags to the tapioca milk tea kiosks that give out plastic top handles to customers choosing to take beverages to go. I find myself with too many leftover plastic bags from retail purchases, and not many receptacles around to recycle them. All around I see a busy labor force either too strapped for time to cook at home, or fascinated with the latest trends and merchandise sold in malls and outlets across the metropolis.

A shot at the ASEAN Business Unit where I was based for the summer.

The dependence on portable plastic would be fine if it were coupled with higher recycling and national recovery rates. Yet inadequate infrastructure, consumer apathy, and fragmented, informal waste collection defines the current waste management landscape. As such, only a small percentage of solid waste is properly collected and sorted. Moreover, the absence of localized technical proficiency is lacking. This warrants a solution around public engagement and awareness, a closed loop to increase the value of discarded plastic, and collaboration with the informal sector to formalize sorting and recycling schemes while guaranteeing steady income streams and stable operations at recycling centers.

With senior leadership set to visit Bangkok in the near future, the pressure is on to get the numbers right, show results from our assessments, and make a strong business case that the schemes and models under consideration are worth the investment. While I am anxious about how our work will be judged, I hope more than ever that our efforts will give rise to a suite of solutions driven in large part by industry actors who are brilliant marketeers with the capacity to help consumers to change their relationship with plastic. I am optimistic that the risks will eventually jolt government leaders into action, and that solutions will hue to tenor of localized efforts already underway. The summer has been one of the hallmark experience of my professional life not only because of name and affiliation, but because I truly care about the sustainability of the environment in the place I temporarily called home.

ASEAN Public Affairs Communication staff during a field visit to a local community project.

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