Economic growth in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been remarkable in recent years. Spurred by tourism, commerce and global demand for regional exports, growth is propelling households into the middle class where consumers are developing preferences for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) such as soft drinks, snacks and toiletries.

However, improper disposal of PET plastics used to package grocery store favorites is generating waste that is entering global waters at an alarming pace. The highly fragmented and informal solid waste landscape in municipalities across the region is well below capacity needed to manage disposal.

More than 50 percent of plastic waste in global waters is estimated to come from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. The impacts—seen through worsening floods, polluted beaches and impacts on marine organisms—have mobilized government and industry leaders to action. Coca-Cola ASEAN in Bangkok has been increasingly focused on the issue of marine debris and recycling, and I was intrigued to join its Public Affairs & Communications team to support development of a better understanding of the landscape and approach to stemming the tide on marine debris.

Through my research, it became clear that working across the value chain of PET plastic producers early on, building on existing local efforts of professional recyclers and informal waste pickers, industry efforts, government policy, and NGOs were essential. I spent the summer understanding the waste landscape in the region, especially in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Mapping the ecosystem of actors illuminated a regional waste influencer network with capabilities to unlock synergies and localize technical proficiency. These interconnections were underscored in advocacy for an industry-led voluntary collection recovery program envisioned to run in partnership with municipal governments. Globally, these include buy-back models in Brazil (CEMPRE), South Africa (PETCO), and Sri Lanka to increase PET plastic value in order to strengthen regional collection and recycling.

I also looked at existing programs and learnings from other Coca-Cola sustainability initiatives in the region. In the Philippines, for instance, the country team weaves together public engagement recycling programs with watershed conservation and women’s economic empowerment initiatives. The Agos Ram Pump communities received solid waste management training and learned recycling/upcycling techniques for water conservation to prevent source contamination.

Likewise, women in the 5by20 project in the Philippines use recovered aluminum can tabs to make fashion jewelry and bags. Coca-Cola also supports coastal cleanups in the Philippines and across the region. In Singapore and Myanmar, the company has held recycling bin design competitions.

My time at the ASEAN Business Unit allowed me to see firsthand how the company is currently working and planning to address, in partnership with NGOs, governments, and industry, the issue of plastic entering the ocean. Through a systems approach that prioritizes shared value among actors, the company is aiming to contribute in meaningful ways to marine debris solutions in the region.

Yanique Campbell, who will graduate from Georgetown’s Global Human Development program in 2018, previously worked with the UN World Food Program and the Organization of America States, and is a State Department Rangel Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar alumna.