Stepping out of the customs office in Maesai for entry into Thailand from the Myanmar border Tachileik, a sprawling local market is spread out along the road that’s perhaps the perfect example of proliferation of single-use plastic. Fruits and other perishable food items were all wrapped in thin, transparent plastic on display. If you bought an orange, the shopkeeper will invariably hand you the fruit inside a plastic bag and will give you another plastic packet with it. “Plastic inside another plastic, you lose your mind looking at that habit,” is how a European traveller explained, at the border.
Enter Bangkok, it’s 2 pm. Chinapa Jittipon materialises from a 7-Eleven store with two plastic bags for her lunch break. One carries a soft drink, the other holds her lunch: some fast food and a banana in its own plastic wrapper.
“Plastic bags are necessary for office life. I know that if it’s wrapped in a plastic bag, it will be clean and fresh,” said Jittipon, 34, whose consumption habits reflect the challenges facing anti-plastic campaigners in Thailand, where plastic bags are handed out without a second thought on any visit to a shop or market. Thailand’s relationship with plastic, notably single-use, is deep-rooted.
Often blamed for dishing out unnecessary plastic bags, CP All group, which runs the popular 7-Eleven chain in Thailand, had said in a statement last year in December that “under its ‘Sustainable Packaging Policy’ framework, its business units in Thailand must commit to ensure that 100 per cent of plastic packaging must be reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by the year 2025”. But not many Thais agree and the situation on the ground tells a totally different story.
According to a report by the Ocean Conservancy, five countries in Southeast Asia are responsible for 60 per cent of waste going into oceans – China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. This also serves as a reminder of the failure of the government and the retail industry to bring the national environmental consciousness in sync with the rest of the world.
But how did Thailand get on this list?
To get some perspective, a report published by Thailand’s Pollution Control Department in 2019 said that due to rapid urbanisation and increasing population, at least 27.82 million tonnes of solid waste was generated in the country in 2018, a jump of 1.64 per cent from 2017.
Thailand’s waste management challenges
Thailand’s capital Bangkok, a megacity city with over 12 million people, produces approximately 10,000 tonnes of waste per day, which is part of the nearly 27 million tonnes generated every year across the country.
In the report titled ‘Booklet on Thailand State of Pollution 2019’, Bangkok generated 4.85 million tonnes of solid waste, which is 17 per cent of the total waste produced in the country. Only 0.93 million tonnes (19 per cent) was segregated and recycled, it said.
What should not come as a surprise then that the river Chao Phraya, that flows through Bangkok, is the most polluted among all rivers in Thailand. Bangkok’s waterways also double up as garbage dumps. Not only waste, but many waterside buildings release waste water into rivers and boats that run on salvaged diesel from trucks blow exhaust directly into them as well.
Some of Thailand’s specific waste management challenges include open-air city-centre dumps and waste burning, a total absence of street litter bins, an impractical waste recycling system, no separate collection of waste by authorities, rampant overuse of plastic grocery bags and the need of financial and technical assistance for implementation of policies.
Experts say the biggest challenge for Thailand is from low-quality plastics that aren’t collected by the informal waste pickers and therefore not captured in the waste statistics. “The biggest challenge comes from plastics that are low value in a system that relies heavily on the informal recycling community. Waste pickers rationally focus on higher value items given that the work is a means of survival for them. This means that lower value plastics are less likely to be captured,” said Chris Oesterich, Director at the ASEAN Social Innovation Review and co-founder of the Circular Design Lab that brings design, facilitation, systems thinking, and implementation experience to the table.
“We need to find a way to incentivise the collection of all plastics or we’ll continue to see the problem of waste mounting,” added Chris.
Some believe the issue with the majority of Thais is they still don’t see single-use plastic as a problem, even when the pollution caused by it is all too visible. “Even a glass of water comes with a plastic straw. That’s crazy,” said Claire, 33, an expat who works at an international school in Bangkok.
“One of the problems is that a lot of people here don’t cook. So you buy on the street. If you eat on the street, it’s ok. But if you want it to take away, you know how many plastics they will give you. And when you refuse a plastic bag at the grocer or takeaway food on the streets, they give a surprised look,” she added.
Meanwhile, Thais attribute the mounting trash problem in their cities and rivers to the ‘vicious cycle of throwaway culture’. “It’s not that we don’t know there’s a problem, we know how to segregate our waste, we know how to reuse and recycle. But an average Thai just uses a lot of products in their daily life that they just throw a lot away,” said Rattasong Wittasit, 45, a shopkeeper on Sukhumvit road.
Grin Green International, a non-governmental organisation in Bangkok, says Thais focus more on their daily lives and dismiss the real issue that could affect them all. “Thailand is known for its “easy-going” culture. Anytime we do a public campaign or awareness program, 90 per cent of the audience we gather is the foreigners and visitors to the country. We rarely get the attention of the Thai citizen. Education in this matter is not being done enough,” said Donggeom Yun, Public Relations Coordinator for Grin Green International.
Push for waste-to-energy plants
To deal with the surging trash problem, the Thailand government’s policy seem to favour waste-to-energy plants, which they believe could possibly be one of the measures to deal with non-recyclable waste. But the push for WTE plants has already led to steady import of plastic trash into the country, which is drowning in its own waste. However, after China almost stopped its plastic garbage imports in January 2018, Thailand is also planning to ban its waste imports by 2021.
“I’m personally not a fan of waste-to-energy with plastics, but there are some circumstances where that is the “optimal” solution due to systemic constraints like costs that keep other solutions from being viable at least for for-profit businesses,” explained Chris.
Way ahead from here
Thailand has similar waste management challenges like India, where there are certain endemic issues that prevent the proper implementation of the solid waste management rules. If the challenges are similar, so will some of the solutions.
One way could be using social pressure and increased education in changing attitudes. “Increased education and social pressure to ‘do the right thing’ may help in changing behaviour. But it will take time to use social pressure to let people know that it’s wrong to dispose off waste in open,” said Sasikan Puangrak, 22, a student at Thammasat University, Bangkok.
In Thailand, municipal authorities often spend their energies on other areas such as water and sewage infrastructure, road maintenance, public amenities, and disaster response. So waste management takes a back seat and this often results in open dumping and burning of garbage that lead to health and environmental problems. However, there is a lot of scope for resource recovery to avoid waste from ending up in landfills.
Chris believes that people and governments already know that plastic and climate change are mounting problems, but they are easily distracted by the problems of the day. “Governments around the world have had plenty of notice of the need to deal with these issues. But given the choice of implementing change that sees an immediate benefit tends to beat the option that avoids an eventual problem, as the former choice is more likely to help keep them in office,” he said.
From a consumer standpoint, he sees this a systemic issue that necessitates an ongoing process with a couple of important steps. “We need to reframe our mindsets around resources and begin rationalising our choices. Do we need a plastic bag for the water bottles we buy? Can we carry a water bottle instead? What can be substituted with something that is less problematic in terms of disposal? These are the sorts of questions we need to consider for all of the resources we consume,” he added.
Shift to a circular economy
There is value in waste, undeniably. If people start perceiving waste as precious items that can be reused multiple times till the end of its life cycle, and then repair it to keep it in circulation within the economy, then it’s a win-win for brands, consumers and the environment. A circular economy is the need of the hour.
Dr Shweta Sinha, a lecturer at the Pridi Banomyong International College (PBIC) at Thammasat University, Bangkok strikes a cautious note. “Circular economy is a very vast concept, it’s important to see how it is implemented as it will not give a magical cure to the problem. It should finally lead to reducing the plastic production rather than increasing the production,” she said.
“When the planet was relatively big and people were relatively few, the wastes of our industrialising societies were problematic, but they could still go “away.” Today there is no “away,” said Chris.
“I think the circular economy is a requirement. We have to figure out how to make our resources cycle in a way that’s broadly beneficial while mitigating our impacts as a whole and restoring the ecosystems we’ve long taken for granted.”
This article is the second of a five-part series documenting the individual waste management case studies of India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal.