Not waste management alone: Why a Circular Economy is the only realistic way to tackle Asia’s rising mountains of waste

By Alex Oprunenco, Brent Welsch, Ida Uusikyla, Luong Nguyen, Shumin Liu

June 3, 2021


We need to reframe the challenge from how we manage waste to how we generate less waste.


The landfill in Viet Nam’s Da Nang city represents a larger Asian story. With the city’s waste growing by 16% every year, the landfill capacity is being used up faster than city authorities imagined. This is a reality mirrored across many major cities in Asia.

What can we do? React to the symptoms: build more landfills, bring in segregation bins, invest in recycling? Or we can go further and start challenging the current take-make-waste model by designing out waste and pollution, keeping products in use and seeking to regenerate natural systems – all the key elements of a circular economy. The question we grapple with is: How does one start working against the grain of what many institutions, systems and behaviours stand for?

Of the several countries of our regional initiative, Viet Nam was the first. As we started dealing with this question, we could see our “portfolio approach” , defined as a set of development interventions that act in a concerted way and learn from each other over time, taking shape through four interconnected elements. These features include: (1) policy coherence and decision-making; (2) movement for change; (3) organizational learning and capability; (4) transitional financing vehicles. Starting from the policy coherence and decision-making, we will share our learnings on each as we develop our organizational offering in circular economy space.

We need to reframe the challenge from how we manage waste to how we generate less waste.

Due to real-time constraints, the usual expectations of public policy teams are to tout easy silver-bullet solutions with short-term impact and political appeal. In the domain of plastic waste “bans” on single-use plastics, awareness campaigns and extended-producer responsibility are primary examples.

Despite the good intentions of these interventions and the improvement they might contribute to, these piecemeal approaches in isolation are not completely sufficient for two main reasons: 1) they ignore interconnections throughout the waste-management chain from production to disposal; 2) they overlook the underlying factors that serve as root causes for why these dynamics (economic, political, social) exist in the first place.

For instance, banning plastic bags alone cannot address the waste problem due to a few reasons. In 2019, the government of Viet Nam launched a campaign targeting zero disposable plastic use in stores, markets, and supermarkets. Despite some progress, the government also realizes its limitation and the need for a more holistic approach, which requires changes in citizens’ behaviours, business mindsets, waste treatment and taxation.

In Da Nang, Viet Nam we tried testing our approach. This work brought together a portfolio of interventions that collectively inform more coherent policy choices in this problem space.

That coherence is achieved by:

  • Testing assumptions through field experience. We used ethnography to understand how issues of plastic pollution are experienced by different segments of the population and actors in the waste management system. It helped reveal some “unseen” aspects often missed through traditional data-gathering and analysis. For instance, we discovered the important and seemingly invisible function that informal waste-pickers have in “managing” waste. Their invisibility implies that they are filling a system gap but are not recognized for doing so through official channels. Moreover, the policies and projects stewarded through official mechanisms rarely consider existing social or cultural norms, such as that ordinary people do not want to appear in public handling waste. Perhaps a nuisance, but it can ruin a waste segregation project as our field experiment in Da Nang showed.  
  • Looking beyond quick technical fixes. Embedding the ethnographic research into the systemic design process allowed us to shift the focus from a framing of “plastic waste” as a technical/management problem to a more nuanced understanding, where behavioral and cultural patterns rise in importance. We were able to see and accept the limitations of exciting tech-driven interventions.
  • Taking a life-cycle perspective. As we were reflecting on the artefacts we generated, we could firm out another intuitive hunch that plastic pollution is a tip of the iceberg and a longer-term transformative change would require a shift in how we design, produce, and consume goods and services in the modern economy. While we had ‘circular economy’ in the back of our minds at the outset of this work, here it was beginning to emerge as an imperative direction. Ignore it and you end up chasing ever elusive spectre of waste management.
  • Nesting change efforts with local community and develop local examples to drive it. As mentioned, plastic pollution is ultimately a behavioral and cultural challenge, not a technical one. Hence, to seed it in the context we needed to invest in the local community as the social infrastructure through which these behavioural changes can take place. In our experience with incubating the 5 Green Avengers and developing a Circular Economy Hub it created many alternative paths. As we were recently reminded: Systems do not change systems. People do

As a recognition of this approach, UNDP team in Viet Nam was asked to support the city to develop the Circular Economy Roadmap marking our transition from being innovators on the fringes of the ecosystem to strategic designers helping shape a new policy vision and framework. This work has garnered further support from Finland, including via Sitra and funding from Japan Cabinet Office via Japan SDG Innovation Challenge. At the moment we are engaged with JAMSS, a space agency, to trial the application of remote sensing technology to detect plastic waste, a novel technology that can help our Danang municipal partner to detect early waste hotspots and manage them properly. 

We are now a year and a half into this effort. Around the world, there are ongoing explorations of the strategies, approaches and practices to turn a viable circular economy model into reality, such as the mission-oriented approach to green growth. We are keen to leverage the knowledge and experience of the network and thrive together with the ecosystem.