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How effective are recycling programmes in East Asia? We crunched the numbers to compare Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mainland China’s records on waste and recycling. The results show that Taiwan is ahead of the others, and has valuable lessons to share. 

Around the world waste is piling up. The rise of single-use packaging and our ‘throw-away culture’ is having a massive impact on our ability to deal with waste. Last year, over 2 billion tons of waste was generated globally. An estimated 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from waste in landfills and open dumps. 

The World Bank states that there are large disparities between high-income and low-income countries when it comes to waste. Waste generation is much greater in high-income countries as high-income means high-consumption and therefore high-waste. While waste collection and some recycling infrastructure is almost guaranteed in upper-middle-income and high-income countries, in low-income countries less than half of urban waste is collected. Likewise, recycling rates vary significantly in high-income and low-income countries. As countries develop and urbanise, this waste crisis is only going to get worse; the World Bank estimates that in the next 30 years, global waste generation will increase by 70%.

Recycling is a key component to stem the tide and eventually achieve zero waste. Further, it is a useful indicator of a country’s attitude to the overall waste issue. As such, it is telling that many high-income, high-consumption nations continue to export their waste abroad. This ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach was challenged at the end of 2017 when China banned the import of waste under the ‘National Sword’ policy. Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Singapore, both high-income states in East Asia, have struggled with this policy as a collapsed global export market has left their poor domestic recycling markets exposed. On the other hand, Taiwan is an importer of recycling waste and was affected by a flood of waste entering the country following China’s ban, with imported plastic and paper more than doubling from 2017 to 2018. 

East Asia Pacific produces 23% of the world’s waste, the most of any region. Within East Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China generate a combined 223 million tons annually. Of these four countries in East Asia, Taiwan is seen as a world leader in recycling and zero waste with high recycling rates and low waste disposal for their income level. Taiwan’s success with recycling is proof that the rest of East Asia can achieve a low-waste economy through effective policy, infrastructure and education.

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asia recycling figures

From the data above on recycling in the various countries in East Asia, China has the lowest per person waste generation and disposal rates, due to a lower income per capita than the others. China doesn’t provide official statistics for recycling but it has a goal of achieving 35% waste recovery in major cities by 2020. Taiwan has similar disposal rates to China and a much more advanced recycling industry. It has the second best recycling rate, closely following Singapore. Hong Kong lags behind the other areas with high-generation, low overall recovery and very low local recycling capacity. 

Taiwan is a recent success story. As recently as 1993, it was called ‘Garbage Island’ as only 70% of waste was collected, while the rest was openly dumped or burnt in pits. Back then ‘Garbage Island’ had a paltry 5% recycling rate, but for the last 10 years, has boasted a recycling rate of above 50%. Similarly, daily disposal rates have improved from 1.14 kg per person in 1998 to 0.4 kg per person in 2013.

The remarkable turnaround was sparked by activists’ protesting to compel the government to stop using harmful incinerators to deal with waste and to instead adopt a zero-waste framework. The drive towards zero waste was achieved in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the implementation of a range of regulations. These policies were centred around a ‘4-in-1’ system of extended producer responsibility (EPR) that holds all stakeholders in the waste lifecycle responsible, from manufacturers to consumers. Additional measures, such as a municipal solid waste (MSW) charging scheme, were implemented to shift consumer behaviour and raise money for recycling infrastructure, collection services and education. In fact, education was a crucial component of the overall framework as communities have been a big part of Taiwan’s success. Recycling has become a ‘ritual’ with rubbish and recycling trucks playing classical music to alert residents and volunteers helping residents sort their waste correctly. 

Hong Kong and Singapore on the other hand have sky-high daily disposal rates. Both space-constrained cities face waste crises that are growing out of control. Hong Kong’s landfills are effectively full. Extension of an existing landfill provides capacity until 2030 and the city’s first incinerator is due to be in operation by 2024. Hong Kong only recycles 30% of waste and, due to the limited recycling infrastructure in the city, almost all of this is sent overseas to be processed. 

Singapore incinerates almost all waste that is not recovered for recycling which significantly reduces the volume sent to landfill. Despite this, the city’s only landfill will be full by 2035 if current levels of dumping continue. There is hope that the Singaporean government is taking the issue seriously as 2019 was declared a ‘year of zero waste’ to help kick start the waste reduction movement. One positive is that industrial and construction waste recycling is well established in Singapore which results in a high overall recycling rate of 59%, of which 34% is exported. Household recycling is lacking at 17% and is an obvious place for improvement.

Each city has detailed plans to respond to the crisis. Hong Kong’s 2013 Blueprint set ambitious goals to reduce waste by 40% from 2011 levels and increase recycling to 55% by 2022. Key to this blueprint was a focus on certain waste streams and an MSW charging scheme, where users pay to dispose of waste. The Environment Bureau described the MSW charging as ‘one of most forceful tools in waste reduction’. The scheme was first proposed over 15 years ago, in 2004, and after many delays, it was recently scrapped, serving a massive blow to environmental lobbyists. Measures such as education and a focus on certain waste streams, such as waste electronic and electric equipment (WEEE) have led to some improvements, however overall, ambitious goals and blueprints to reduce waste in Hong Kong have so far failed. 

Singapore’s Masterplan sets three goals, namely to reduce waste disposed of in landfills by 30% by 2030, increase the overall recycling rate to 70% and extend the lifespan of the Semakau landfill beyond 2035. Much like Hong Kong’s blueprint, the masterplan focuses on food waste, WEEE, and packaging. In fact, Hong Kong and Singapore have similar extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. Hong Kong’s, called a producer responsibility scheme (PRS), covers plastic bags, WEEE and glass bottles. Singapore’s is still being implemented but will likely cover WEEE by 2021 and plastic packaging and other waste streams in the following years. Both EPRs could be expanded to include more waste and be more holistic like the Taiwanese ‘4-in-1’ system. 

China is the world’s largest waste generator, and waste levels are rising fast as incomes continue to rise. By 2030 it is estimated that the country will produce double the municipal solid waste of the US, the second-largest producer. China’s waste generation per capita is low, due to its status as a lower-middle-income country. Despite this low waste generation, China is still faced with a growing waste problem. Major rivers in China are a significant source of ocean plastic, and landfills are filling up much quicker than expected

Landfills are major waste disposal methods in China with 56% of waste ending up in them. Incineration is growing and is currently responsible for 39% of disposal. Official recycling rates are not published in China so little is known about how much waste is recycled. Major cities in China are taking the lead in recycling with an initiative to increase recycling to 35% in 46 urban centres. In addition, there are 10 cities that are yet to be confirmed, to pilot China’s ‘zero waste cities’ programme. Shanghai is the first pilot city and now has strict rules on waste sorting and disposal in the hopes of improving its recycling rate which was as low as 10% in 2017. 

Taiwan is the clear leader of East Asia when it comes to zero waste and recycling, although the other three countries’ governments are starting to prioritise it. Taiwan’s turnaround from ‘Garbage Island’ shows it can be done. Policies to ensure that all stakeholders work together and are held accountable, investment in collection and recycling facilities, as well as community engagement appear to be crucial to Taiwan’s success. While conditions vary and different solutions may be required at each location, the Taiwanese model is a useful and proven starting point.

Featured image: Flickr

Desert locust swarms have been multiplying across East Africa and the Middle East since January as a result of unusual climate processes. The desert locusts are crop-devouring insects that travel in swarms over 1 200km in size and eat as much in a single day as 35 000 people. Swarms are now plaguing parts of India and Pakistan, and a second wave of locusts is beginning to form in Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. The COVID-19 pandemic is hampering efforts to stop the spread of the swarms of locusts, exacerbating the pressure on the already food insecure region’s food supply.  

The current spate of locust swarms has affected communities in 23 countries, stretching from Tanzania to Pakistan. The locusts have most recently invaded Western India, affecting over 50 000 hectares of land, and Pakistan. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an estimated 38% of Pakistan’s territory is now a ‘breeding ground’ for locusts, resulting in the worst locust plague in over three decades. 

In East Africa, the last major desert locust swarm hit at the end of the harvest season in February, resulting in an estimated US$8.5 billion in damages to crops, livestock and other assets. A new generation of locusts is now expected to hatch in the region in June. This may have an even greater impact on crops as this outbreak will coincide with the beginning of the harvest season. The new swarm is also expected to be larger. “I can’t tell you if it’s by 20 times, but [the population] is much bigger,” comments Cyril Ferrand, FAO Resilience Team Leader for East Africa. As a result, the FAO is predicting that up to 25 million East Africans may suffer from food shortages in 2020. 

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The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has further complicated efforts to combat locusts. New safety regulations have disrupted supply chains, making it challenging to transport pesticides and other equipment to badly affected areas, while border closures have hampered essential personnel movement. Locust swarms travel quickly, covering up to 100km per day, so the ability to expediently move equipment and personnel is essential. 

While the world struggles to contain the COVID-19 virus, many communities affected by locusts feel like the swarms pose a more immediate threat. “Some people will even tell you that the locusts are more destructive than the coronavirus,” says Yoweri Aboket, a farmer in Uganda. The coronavirus has also impacted local communities’ ability to respond to the swarms threatening their livelihoods. “If the coronavirus was not around I could’ve sought help, but there’s nowhere I can run to now. All places are closed,” says Tiampati Leletit, a farmer in Northern Kenya.

The swarms are the result of unusually high levels of precipitation in the Arabian peninsula, likely caused by changes to the climate and environmental degradation. However, the response to the locust swarms also has the potential to negatively impact the environment. As locusts ravage crops, some farmers have had to resort to cutting down trees to sell for charcoal, resulting in deforestation. Efforts to combat the locusts also include widespread pesticide spraying, which can affect crop growth and lead to the death of domestic and wild animals. 

In January, the FAO appealed for $76 million in funds to support the fight against desert locusts, a sum that was upped to $153 million in April as the swarms expanded their range. So far, 85% of this target has been raised. With this sum, responders have been able to save up to 720 000 tons of wheat, enough to feed 5 million people. 

This is a promising start, but governments and organisations will need to continue to work together to curtail the locusts’ spread. During plagues, desert locusts can affect 20% of the world’s land mass, damaging the livelihoods of a tenth of the global population. This unprecedented risk has been complicated by the coronavirus, but we still have the opportunity to support those who are most vulnerable. The World Bank, for example, recently made $500 million available to preserve food security and protect the livelihoods of those impacted. Further similar efforts will be required in tandem with broader efforts aimed at combating the climate crisis that gave rise to this generation of locusts. 

This is a follow-up piece to Earth.Org’s first story about the locust swarms plaguing parts of Africa and Asia. See the first piece here.

Featured image by: Iwoelbern

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released its Global Renewables Outlook report, which shows that renewable energy could power economic growth post-COVID-19 by spurring global GDP gains of almost US$100 trillion between now and 2050.

Impact of Renewable Energy on Economic Growth

The report says that advancing the renewable-based energy transformation is an opportunity to meet international climate goals while boosting economic growth, creating millions of jobs and improving human welfare.

While the report acknowledges that the path to deeper decarbonisation will require total energy investments of up to USD$130 trillion, the socio-economic gains of such an investment would be ‘massive’. Investing in renewable energy would boost global GDP gains above business-as-usual by USD$98 trillion between now and 2050 by returning between USD$3 and USD$8 on every dollar invested. It would also quadruple renewable energy jobs to 42 million, expand employment in energy efficiency to 21 million and add 15 million in system flexibility. 

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Further, low-carbon investments would yield savings eight times more than costs when accounting for reduced health and environmental externalities, the report says. 

The agency’s director-general, Francesco La Camera, said the global crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the ‘deep vulnerabilities of the current system’ and urged governments to invest in renewable energy to encourage economic growth and help meet climate targets.

Camera says, “Governments are facing a difficult task of bringing the health emergency under control while introducing major stimulus and recovery measures. 

By accelerating renewables and making the energy transition an integral part of the wider recovery, governments can achieve multiple economic and social objectives in the pursuit of a resilient future that leaves nobody behind.”

The report also looked at energy and socio-economic transition paths in 10 regions globally, which are all expected to see higher shares of renewable energy use, despite embarking on different paths. Southeast Asia, Latin America, the EU and Sub-Saharan Africa are poised to reach 70-80% shares in their total energy mixes by 2050.

The report also found that renewable energy would help to reduce the energy industry’s carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by 2050 by replacing fossil fuels. Renewables could play a greater role in cutting carbon emissions from heavy industry and ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ sectors, particularly through investments in green hydrogen.

The agency urges stronger coordination on international, regional and domestic levels, with financial support being directed where needed, ‘including to the most vulnerable countries and communities’. 

Andrew Steer, chief executive of the World Resources Institute, says, “As the world looks to recover from the current health and economic crises, we face a choice: we can pursue a modern, clean, healthy energy system, or we can go back to the old, polluting ways of doing business. We must choose the former.” 

Featured image by: Aaron Crowe

A new study states that it is not too late to save our planet’s coral reefs before they go extinct.

Coral Reef Extinction Facts

Coral reefs host a quarter of the Earth’s marine biodiversity and support livelihoods of more than half a billion people. But, the planet has already lost half of its coral reefs over the last three decades, and more than 90% of them might become extinct by 2050.

Corals face a number of threats including overfishing, diseases, and pollution, while the biggest of them all is climate change. The world’s largest coral reef system- the Great Barrier Reef, which is visible even from outer space- has lost half of its coral in the past two years because of extreme heat stress from global warming.

While conservationists around the globe are grappling with how to preserve the last surviving ‘underwater rainforests’, the most comprehensive study on coral reefs published last week has suggested a few ways to save them. As part of the research, an international group of 80 scientists surveyed more than 2,500 coral reef systems across 44 countries to determine how to protect them in the face of extensive damages caused by human activities and global warming.

“The good news is that functioning coral reefs still exist, and our study shows that it is not too late to save them,” said Emily Darling, the lead author of the study and a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientist leading the global coral reef monitoring program. “Safeguarding coral reefs into the future means protecting the world’s last functioning reefs and recovering reefs impacted by climate change. But realistically — on severely degraded reefs — coastal societies will need to find new livelihoods for the future.”

Examining coral abundance in the Indian and Pacific oceans, they found that many of the reef systems were full of complex species that created distinctive structures and were functioning in spite of deadly marine heatwaves in recent years.

Heatwaves had affected many coral reefs during the El Niño event between 2014 and 2017. But 450 reefs in 22 countries survived in protective cool spots. The scientists believe those areas should be the focus of urgent protection and management efforts. Previously, the Indo-Pacific reefs were also hit by mass coral bleaching and heat stress in 1983, 1998, 2005 and 2010, before the world’s most intense, longest and largest bleaching event between 2014 and 2017.

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A marine scientist gathering data on coral reefs in the waters of Fiji. Credit: WCS

How to save coral reefs?

The researchers outlined three conservation strategies to save the reefs: protect, recover, and transform. As part of the first strategy, the international network of coral reef conservation should focus on protecting functioning coral reefs found in East Africa to Southeast Asia, the Coral Triangle, and the Pacific. The second strategy is to promote rapid recovery of coral reefs impacted by the 2014-2017 coral bleaching event. To implement the third strategy, selected coastal communities around the world should be relocated to avoid dependence on reefs that are no longer functioning.

The scientists pointed out that strategic local management can help protect corals through tools such as marine protected areas, or other management restrictions that reduce threats and keep coral reefs above functional thresholds.

“While coral reef sustainability depends largely on reducing carbon emissions, identifying reefs that are likely to respond — or importantly, not respond — to local management is critical to targeting development and management strategies to build the well-being of the millions of people dependent on coral reefs across the globe,” said Georgina Gurney, study co-author from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University

The researchers also noted that limiting global temperature within two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels is the only way to ensure the survival of reefs.

“Saving reefs will require combining local and global efforts, such as reducing local dependence on reef fish to maintain a reef’s important functions while also reducing carbon emissions to keep warming below 1.5C,” said Tim McClanahan, co-author of the study and Wildlife Conservation Society senior conservation zoologist.

Gabby Ahmadia, director of marine conservation science at World Wildlife Fund and co-author of the study said that the study would help policymakers and conservationists make informed management decisions for coral reefs and the communities that rely on them before they go extinct.


As the world becomes more connected, invasive species spread further posing greater threats to our ecosystems, agriculture, and even food security.

Invasive bugs are wiping out millions of trees across the United States devastating forests and causing release of more than six million tons of carbon– equivalent to the emissions of five million vehicles–into the atmosphere each year. A study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that US forests are under constant threat from at least 15 invasive species– pests that come from foreign lands.

The menace of Alien Invasive Species (IAS)– non-native animals, plants, fungi or microorganisms that grow and spread quickly endangering native organisms–is not just confined to the US. Hundreds of forests and habitats across the globe are ravaged by them, and the ramifications are truly alarming. Invasive plant species frequently alter ecology by driving native crops to extinction, destroying terrestrial or aquatic vegetation, and polluting the native gene pool through cross breeding.

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How do invasive species spread?

In the past few decades, globalisation has enhanced international trade and the movement of people, goods, food products, and animals resulting in the mobility of various species outside their native habitats. Extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and hurricanes have further accelerated the pace of this mobility. Climate-induced changes on land cover and atmosphere also boosted their proliferation. A study from the Stanford University finds that increased nitrogen concentration in the atmosphere, which favours fast-growing plants, has allowed alien grasses to invade California’s native nutrient-poor serpentine grasslands.

In 2016, the European Commission revealed that more than 1800 species of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms in the European Union were identified as invasive, and their numbers have been growing rapidly. Those like American bullfrog, African curly waterweed, and Indian house crow are major threats to the EU’s ecosystems.

In Asia, a biodiversity research conducted in Nepal concluded that the country suffers an annual loss of $1.4bn due to crop failure caused by invasive bugs. Researchers identified at least 26 invasive species, and predicted that majority of them would spread quickly across the nation. 

In Africa, a study revealed that as many as 775 invasive species have found their way to the South African forests harming the native vegetation.

Why are invasive species a problem?

Invasive species have caused the extinction of at least 142 native species and endangered as many as 500 species globally, according to a study from The University of Tennessee. In the US, where 4,300 such species have been cataloged, they are the second biggest cause of plant and animal extinction. Zebra mussel–a native to freshwaters in Eurasia–has endangered at least 30 freshwater mussel species in the lakes and rivers throughout the Midwest and the southern regions of the country. In Hawaii, Argentine ants have been displacing native ant species that are vital to pollination and seed-dispersal on the island.

In England, feral cats have been killing 25-29 million native birds every year. Ship rats–natives of Indian subcontinent–have been causing catastrophic declines in bird population on many islands across the world.

Besides biodiversity loss, invasive species cause significant loss to the world economy. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that invasive insects alone cost the global economy more than $70bn every year. A study from Stanford University found that in the US, crop and forest production losses from invasive insects and pathogens have been estimated at almost $40bn every year. The UK economy suffers losses of more than £1.7bn annually as food production affected by alien bugs.

Invasive species can also cause more frequent wildfires in different parts of the world. In the US, invasive grasses that burn more readily than native plants have increased the frequency of wildfires in southern California shrublands. As fire clears swathes of native shrubs, these invasive plants often fill in the space left behind, creating a positive feedback loop.

The impacts of invasive species are increasingly compounded by climate change. So the policy responses addressing these issues need to take the links between climate change and invasive species into account. Mitigation policies should incorporate prevention and control of invasive species by establishing effective biosecurity measures to tackle alien plants, animals, and microorganisms before they become invasive.


Forests in Southeast Asia have faced extensive deforestation in recent decades. Socioeconomic pathways of Southeast Asian countries will decide the fate of their forests.

Millions of hectares of once-lush, intact forests in Southeast Asia have given way to agriculture. If deforestation continues at the current pace, experts say, over half of the existing biodiversity in the region would disappear by the year 2100.

Scientists argue that the future of deforestation in Southeast Asia’s forests depends on the socioeconomic pathways the countries in the region will adopt. A group of researchers has boiled the future of forests in the region down to a few likely scenarios called Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) These scenario projections largely depend on the willingness of local governments to adopt and enforce effective climate change mitigation measures to protect the commons.

Southeast Asia’s forests, from 2005 to 2015, have lost over 80 million hectares—one-third—causing a loss of 4.5% of Aboveground Forest Carbon Stocks (AFCS). Indonesia and Malaysia are leading the way for forest clearance and land conversions to agriculture and palm oil plantations. 

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Maps showing the spatially allocated projected forest cover changes in Southeast Asia under the five shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs) (2015–2050). The four insets show the spatially allocated projected forest cover changes in some parts of Laos and Vietnam (inset 1), Cambodia (inset 2), Malaysia (inset 3) and Indonesia (inset 4)

The group, scientists from the National Institute for Environmental Studies, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, the University of Tsukuba in Japan and the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Italy, published their findings in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

The first scenario, SSP 1, assumes inclusive development and respect for perceived environmental boundaries, as well as high investment in human capital, education, and awareness. Conversely, SSP 3 presents a polar opposite dimension that assumes fragmentation, comparatively weak global institutions and a lack of cooperation in addressing global environmental concerns, together with poor investments in education and awareness.

Based on their projections, researchers found that SSP1— the green road scenario—would yield the greatest net forest cover increase of 9.5% (19.6 million hectares) and an 8% increase in AFCS by 2050.  SSP3— the pessimist path—would cause the greatest net forest cover loss of 2.5% (5.2 million hectares) and a 4% decrease in AFCS by the same year.  Southeast Asia could lose over 39,000 hectares of intact forests and 580,000 hectares of protected forests under SSP3. Intact forests are better at storing carbon as compared to degraded forests. The protected forest areas are also important reserves of tropical biodiversity.

Hectares of once-lush, intact forests in the Sambas District, Indonesia have given way to palm oil plantations
Photo by Wakx is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

For this study, the researchers constructed a spatiotemporal model of forest cover change in Southeast Asia from 2015 to 2050. They used the European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative (ESA-CCI) land cover maps as their data source to detect forest cover changes from the recent past to the present. Their research method was built on a state-of-the-art spatially explicit, pattern-based land change modeling approach, and employed the Land Change Modeler (LCM), which is available in a software package called TerrSet. Their approach included three major parts: forest cover change quantification, transition potential modeling, and forest cover change spatial allocation.

Based on their findings, the authors urge Southeast Asian countries to strive towards the SSP1 pathway encouraging policymakers and businesses in the region to work together to drive inclusive economic growth aligned with the UN sustainable development goals.

Initiatives like the New York Declaration on Forests and the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) can provide the fertile policy framework to boost restoration in the region.

There are reasons to be optimistic. “The awareness that government leaders and their respective peoples have of various global environmental issues, including deforestation and its widespread consequences, has undoubtedly increased in the last few decades,” the paper says. “Arguably, all of these things can have a significant impact on forest protection, conservation, and expansion, sustaining the likelihood of SSP 1—the sustainability scenario.”


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