Plastic bubble: Solutions to address the environmental and health risks of plastic

With many emerging markets still facing high levels of plastic waste two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, solutions are being developed to address its environmental and health challenges. Plastic – which accounted for 12% of global solid waste pre-pandemic, according to the World Bank – took on a more prominent role as personal protective equipment (PPE) and single-use plastics by delivery food services proliferated. Although the OECD found that overall plastic use fell by 2.2% in 2020 due to lockdowns, the increased use of PPE and single-use plastics exacerbated plastic littering.

Pandemic-level production of PPE and single-use plastics has continued in some spheres: China’s recent mass-testing strategy has resulted in copious plastic and medical waste. Compounding the issue is poor recycling. The OECD estimates that 9% of plastic waste is recycled, with 50% ending up in landfill, 22% evading waste-management systems and 19% incinerated.

Emerging Markets

The situation poses a number of challenges for emerging markets. Unlike global carbon emissions, the creation of plastic waste is more evenly spread. According to the World Bank, in 2018 the US, China and India were responsible for 13%, 11% and 9% of plastic waste, respectively. Europe – excluding Russia – comprised 20%, Latin America 11%, sub-Saharan Africa 9%, and the Middle East and North Africa 7%.

Emerging economies, which often bear the brunt of the damage plastic waste can inflict, therefore have an important role to play in tackling the issue. On top of the plastic that emerging markets produce, plastic waste is often exported from developed nations to emerging markets. While this provides opportunities for lower-income countries, much of the plastic is difficult to recycle and ends up in local ecosystems. The toxic chemicals contained in burned or discarded plastics have been linked to serious health issues such as cancer for those sorting through plastics. For example, Zambia has experienced several cholera outbreaks due to poor drainage exacerbated by plastic-clogged systems.


At the public level, emerging markets have been leaders in banning certain plastics. Bangladesh was among the first in the world to ban thin plastic and polythene bags in 2002, while more than 30 African countries have implemented full or partial bans – or introduced heavy taxes – on plastic products. In May 2021 the Association of South-East Asian Nations launched a regional action plan to combat marine debris. It includes guidelines to phase out single-use plastics, harmonise standards on recycling and packaging, and strengthen measurement and monitoring.

Foreign countries have also offered aid. The US International Development Finance Corporation gave India’s Banyan Sustainable Waste Management a $9m loan in 2022 to boost its plastic recycling capacity from 15,000 to 51,000 tonnes per year. It also pledged to provide Sri Lanka’s BPPL Holdings, a polyester yarn manufacturer using recycled plastic materials, a $15m loan to expand its capacity and strengthen recycling infrastructure.

On the innovative end, Hong Kong-based start-up EcoBricks uses plastic waste from old washing machines to create construction materials. In June 2022 its inaugural project provided 15,000 bricks to pave a promenade in Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district, with the plastic sourced from 560 old appliances. In a similar initiative, a team from Indonesia’s University of North Sumatra developed a biodegradable wood-plastic composite to construct houses, fencing or furniture. While research is continuing, initial tests suggest the material could be digested by termites native to Indonesia, which could position the composite to replace other more environmentally harmful building materials.

These tools build on existing innovations. In 2018 Siam Cement Group and Dow Thailand Group unveiled a 220-metre strip of road made from recycled plastic that was collected, cleaned and crushed into smaller pieces before being mixed with asphalt. The recycled road is 15-30% more stable than asphalt concrete and is also thought to be more resistant to water erosion.