Harmonizing Marine Plastic Pollution Data in the East Asian Seas

Combating plastic pollution needs inclusive regional action in harmonizing data collection. Photo credit: ADB.

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Regional cooperation and improved data practices can help address the challenge of plastic pollution more effectively.


Navigating the intricacies of plastic pollution in the East Asian Seas region demands a harmonized approach to data collection and management.

In a move to build a stronger collaboration toward this approach, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) organized Bangkok Plastics Week—a series of capacity-building events focused on data monitoring approaches and regional cooperation to tackle marine plastic pollution.

Experts and stakeholders shared best practices, tools, and strategies for collecting, analyzing, and managing plastic pollution and marine litter data for better policies, actions, and to track effectiveness. They also discussed how to align local and national needs, regional priorities, and international goals, including an anticipated Global Plastics Treaty.

A working group session organized by the Economic Impact and co-facilitated by COBSEA and ADB tackled the role of regional bodies and stakeholders in implementing a global international binding instrument at the local level.

The events, which provided a platform for networking, partnerships for collaboration, and peer learning, were attended by government officials from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, People's Republic of China, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

Data Collection and Management Challenges

The East Asian Seas region faces significant hurdles with the fragmented and inconsistent data on plastic pollution, which hinders the countries’ ability to effectively address and compare the scale of pollution at national and regional levels.

Local and national-level challenges in data connectivity and technical capacity further complicate progress. The informal sector, a significant player in waste collection and recycling efforts, is often excluded in data collection, resulting in incomplete datasets that hinder a comprehensive assessment of the entire plastic value chain.

Ensuring data availability is an ongoing issue, exacerbated by budget and capacity constraints and difficulties in managing up-to-date data from different sources. This shortfall directly impacts informed decision-making and the tracking of progress toward mitigating plastic pollution. Therefore, addressing these challenges is imperative for countries to successfully achieve their goals at national, regional, and global levels. 

Solutions for Data Harmonization and Management

Regional coordination and cooperation are essential to establish common definitions, quality standards, and harmonized data collection and reporting methodologies—leading to more robust and comparable data at the regional level and systematic data management at the national level. 

  • Harmonization at regional level: COBSEA countries[1] adopted the Regional Guidance on Harmonized National Marine Litter Monitoring Programmes as a guide for robust and harmonized data collection based on existing capacities and global guidance—toward better data comparability. 
  • Capacity building for harmonized data collection: COBSEA provides regional and national trainings on monitoring methods, and has conducted national baseline surveys in COBSEA countries, in partnership with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. This includes regional training of trainers and a series of tailored national training sessions, as well as the development of handbooks and training videos on monitoring methods. 
  • Systematic national data management: ADB supports member countries to develop tailored data management systems and capture detailed plastic waste data. COBSEA supports the development of national monitoring programmes to track the effectiveness of interventions over time and promote national source inventories to manage fragmented data sources.
  • Greater data comparability: A regional assessment of mismanaged plastic in the environment based on harmonized monitoring data from COBSEA countries is under development in 2024 to inform evidence-based action. This assessment will ground-truth existing publications that build largely on modelling and estimates with limited primary data.
  • Greater data transparency for coordinated decision making: COBSEA provides a regional mechanism to strengthen, harmonize, and share plastic pollution data. The East Asian Seas Regional Node of the Global Partnership on Plastic Pollution and Marine Litter (GPML) may serve as a central hub to facilitate data sharing and access to robust, comparable, primary data. This may include a regional database and accessible dashboard to promote transparency and active engagement across the region.
Recommendations for Inclusive Regional Action

Regional bodies play a significant role in supporting inclusive national action plans, policies, and interventions aligned with the forthcoming Global Plastics Treaty—an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including on marine environment.

Harmonizing data collection is critical to ensure that information from various sources is both comparable and traceable. Financial and technical support from regional bodies and the private sector is essential for data digitization and traceability.

Advocating for inclusivity and promoting capacity-building, knowledge-sharing, resource optimization, private–public sector dialogues, country ownership, and better coordination are key to sustainable initiatives that meet regional needs.

Regional organizations, such as ADB and Regional Seas including COBSEA, are important to build partnerships and cooperation on plastic pollution, share and harmonize data, replicate good practices, and leverage effective investments toward regional priorities and global goals.

ADB’s role in supporting countries to enhance data management systems for plastic waste and fostering compliance with the global mandate through technical and financial assistance is indicative of the collaboration needed. Other recommended areas for ADB support include:

  • Collaboration with developing member countries to develop tailored data management systems, and capture detailed plastic waste generation, collection, and disposal information.
  • Sustainable financial support for data infrastructure, software, and training, which is vital for maintaining operational and up-to-date data systems across member countries.
  • Assistance to countries in aligning their national strategies with international agreements and commitments to mitigate plastic pollution.
  • Facilitation of dialogues and partnerships to exchange best practices and innovative solutions, recognizing the transboundary nature of plastic pollution.
  • Collaboration between the public and private sectors and support for sustainable business practices and circular economy initiatives for plastic waste reduction.
  • Technical capacity enhancement in member countries through trainings in data collection and analysis for informed decision-making.
  • Support for regional knowledge platforms, such as the East Asian Seas Regional Node of the Global Partnership on Plastic Pollution and Marine Litter (GPML), which are recognized as valuable tools for exchanging information, promoting science-based action, and ensuring data consistency and transparency.

A concerted effort toward harmonized data collection and management is key to tackling plastic pollution. With improved data practices and regional cooperation, the region can address this environmental challenge more effectively.

Looking ahead, maintaining transparency, and prioritizing inclusive actions are fundamental to ensure that regional efforts contribute to a more sustainable future.

[1] COBSEA countries include Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, People's Republic of China, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.


Bangkok Plastics Week.

Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. 2022. Regional Guidance on Harmonized National Marine Litter Monitoring Programmes. Monitoring Efforts and Recommendations for National Marine Litter Monitoring Programmes. Bangkok: United Nations Environment Programme.

Global Plastics Summit.

Hyunjeong Jin
Marine Pollution Liaison Specialist, United Nations Environment Programme

Hyunjeong Jin supports plastic pollution and marine litter efforts of the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia Secretariat, administered by the United Nations Environment Programme. She collaborates with governments, industries, academe, and civil society in bridging science and policy to address marine plastic pollution. Her expertise includes ocean governance and digital knowledge management. She focuses on evidence-based action and fostering regional and global cooperation through digital solutions to combat marine plastic pollution.

Natalie Harms
Programme Lead on Plastic Pollution and Marine Litter, United Nations Environment Programme

Natalie Harms leads the plastic pollution and marine litter efforts of the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia Secretariat, administered by the United Nations Environment Programme. She has worked with local and national governments, informal waste workers, businesses, and coastal communities on solutions to prevent plastic pollution and protect marine and coastal ecosystems in the East Asian Seas region. Her areas of expertise include ocean governance, marine litter planning and monitoring, ecosystem-based solutions in islands, environmental rights and gender mainstreaming.

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