Call for Laws to Tackle Plastic Pollutants in Rivers

The Mekong River Commission is calling on Cambodia, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam to introduce laws that tackle the issue of macro- and micro-plastics that pollute rivers
Mekong River in Phnom Penh, December 21, 2022. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Mekong River in Phnom Penh, December 21, 2022. Kiripost/Siv Channa

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is making an urgent call for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to implement laws to tackle the growing challenge of macro- and micro-plastics that contaminate the soil, air and fisheries, impacting the ecosystem and human health.

The MRC today released its inaugural report on riverine plastic pollution in the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB). In it, the MRC recommends that Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam pass and enforce new rules and regulations on waste littering surrounding the “3Rs” of reduce, reuse, recycle, and riverine plastics waste management.

The report states that these policies should specify the responsibilities of the government and other organisations, identifying the “clear responsibility of national government, local government, private sector and community”.

In 2020, the MRC’s Riverine Plastic Monitoring (RPM) Programme – the first of its kind in the world – estimated that the four countries had produced about eight million tons of plastic waste. At ports and piers, 70 to 90 percent of solid waste was identified as plastic bottles, plastic bags and Styrofoam.

“As our region is undergoing rapid economic development and urbanization, plastic has found a wide variety of applications, due to its relatively low cost, light weight, durability, ubiquity, and malleability,” said Dr Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the MRC Secretariat. “Yet, we must close our gaps in knowledge about the flux, transport behaviour and pathway of plastic pollution, to minimize impact on the Mekong, but also to contribute to saving the ocean.”

Experts now view plastic pollution as having a major impact on the “sustainable ocean economy”, which three billion people worldwide rely on. The MRC said collective action is essential as most of the pollution flows from about 1,000 rivers globally directly into the oceans. In addition, the Mekong is one of the prime plastic polluters of the oceans.

The MRC reported that micro-plastics are even more harmful. The miniscule pieces of degraded plastic, synthetic fibers and plastic beads can be easily ingested by humans and animals. Academic publisher ‘Scientific American’ described micro-plastics as, “Very dangerous, as micro-plastics have been found to physically damage organs and leach hazardous materials that can harm the immune system, halt growth and reproduction.”

The issue of plastics pollution first rose to the forefront in 2017, when a German-led team carried out research that documented how large rivers were the main source of many hundreds of metric tons of plastics that had begun to suffocate parts of oceans. The researchers ranked the Mekong 10th.

In 2021, a team of researchers estimated that more than 1,000 rivers account for 80 percent of global annual emissions, with small urban rivers among the most polluting.

In the Mekong, the MRC, an intergovernmental agency tackling transboundary water issues, teamed up with the UN Environmental Programme in 2019, which then was the only organisation monitoring the Mekong for plastics pollution.

Through UNEP’s CounterMEASURE project, MRC has helped “map” the issues of riverine macro- and micro-plastics, plastic leakage hotspots, and plastics accumulation.

The MRC also launched the RPM Programme to assess “basin-wide status and trends of riverine plastic waste pollution” and generate “data, information and knowledge to support decision-making.” Through this programme, the four MRC Member Countries developed their own “RPM methodology” to monitor this transboundary issue in a joint, cost-effective manner.

The RPM unveiled the scope of plastic pollution and spurred several MRC actions. Internally, the MRC Secretariat launched a “paperless initiative” and banned plastic bottles from meetings. The MRC also kick-started public awareness campaign, “Let’s act green for a greener Mekong”.

In 2020, the MRC went on to commission a comprehensive study of plastics pollution, including within fish. The report states that the mapping activities with UNEP saw limited effectiveness because they lacked standardised survey methods and synchronised monitoring.

The MRC said this reinforces the importance of member countries being involved and coordinated, from the government to on-the-ground data collectors.

The report recommends that moving forward, the complexity of “riverine plastic debris” will require “comprehensive approaches, including multi-sectoral cooperation and oceanographical knowledge.”

“Our work doesn’t end here, as much more must be done to protect the Mekong River Basin,” said Dr Kittikhoun. “We’ll look into more campaigns to raise public awareness and how to encourage relevant government officials to take meaningful actions.”