BANGKOK – “Ending Plastic Pollution” has been set as the theme for World Environment Day on June 5, but Thailand is falling behind Asian and European countries in the fight against plastic waste.
Thailand is the world’s sixth biggest contributor of ocean waste, while China is the largest. Thailand generates 1.03 million tons of plastic waste per year, with over 3% of that finding its way into the ocean, Tara Buakamsri, Thailand country director for Greenpeace.
Of the country’s total waste, plastic accounts for 12%, higher than China’s at 11%. A survey by the government in 2017 found that on average Thais each use eight plastic bags per day, which equates to around 198 billion per year.
“Most people, especially the middle class people, know how to segregate waste, how to reuse and how to recycle, but because of how many products they use in their daily life, they just throw a lot away,” Tara said.
At a large food and beverage expo in Bangkok last week, plastic packaging was ubiquitous. Several food producers interviewed said they were willing to use environmentally friendly products, but the low cost and convenience of plastic made them reluctant to change.
“It comes down to what you see as more important. In Thailand we tend to consider price first, whereas in Europe and Japan companies prioritize the environment,” said a representative of a prominent family business who wished to remain anonymous.
He said the onus was on consumers to start recycling. But activists said there needs to be greater awareness first.
Thailand has some 400 recycling facilities around the country and it rewards rubbish collectors for sorting out recyclables. But in doing so, personal responsibility is taken away from consumers, who leave the problem to others to, literally, sort out.
Yai Yanee, owner of snack company Siam Delicious, said she is paid by a company that comes to her factory and sorts out her trash. She amasses about 200kg of waste every week, for which the company pays her 3,000 baht ($94).
“I don’t have time to sort the rubbish myself,” she said.
Geoff Baker, founder of nongovernmental organization Grin Green International, blames plastic bag producers and retailers for exploiting consumers’ ignorance. He pointed to cashiers at convenience stores who dish out bags for small and single-item purchases without thought.
CP All Group, owner of the 7-Eleven franchise in Thailand, responded in a statement that it vigorously upholds policies in line with international environmental standards, and implements a “say no to plastic bags” campaign.
“It has been on the national agenda to raise awareness of the importance of using our resources efficiently and reduce the number of plastic bags, and lessen the impact we make on the environment,” according to the statement.
Still, with the country’s mini marts and convenience stores poised for aggressive growth around the country this year — CP All Group is set to operate 11,000 stores by the end of the year — changing people’s attitude to plastic will be vital.
Malaysian tourist Louisa Lausin, who was at the food expo, said Asian consumers see shrink-wrapped fruit and vegetables as a mark of freshness. She said that before her government imposed a ban on plastic bags in certain Malaysian cities, she had not bothered with recyling.
Other Asian governments have been similarly spurred into action. China recently reported a 66% drop in plastic bag use since a crackdown on free distribution began about 10 years ago. China has also banned imports of plastic waste.
Malaysia, Indonesia and India have all pledged to ramp up efforts to cut plastic bag use, either through bans, taxes or committing more money to clean up polluted waters.
The European Commission, which has the potential to pressure Thailand into raising its environmental standards, announced it was proposing new EU-wide rules to target single-use plastics. In the past, Thailand has capitulated to EC rules over its fishing industry, so the European body could force change on the government.
Since 2015, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has appealed to Thais to cut down on plastic bag use and to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Waste management is also part of his 20-year national strategy.
To some extent, those efforts have gained traction as recycling has increased, said Greenpeace’s Tara. Some cafes and shops in Bangkok also now offer refilling services for shampoo, detergent and other products.
But critics said that the government is just paying lip service, pointing to a China Daily report that claimed Thailand imported plastic waste from the U.K. this year for the first time. This is a seemingly regressive step given Thailand’s recycling infrastructure is barely capable of processing its own plastic, let alone any other country’s.
Following the death of the whale after experts tried for five days to save it, Jatuporn Buruspat, head of the Marine and Coastal Resources Department, was quoted by Reuters as saying his ministry planned to raise public awareness of the plastic problem on World Oceans Day on June 8.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s major retail chains Tesco Lotus and Central Group have pledged to further reduce plastic use in their operations, and on a permanent basis.
The announcements drew praise from some environmentalists, but Greenpeace said the level of commitment remained inadequate to have the needed effect on Thailand’s plastic-waste nightmare.
A fundamental shift in consumer behavior was needed, it said.
Tesco Lotus corporate affairs director Salinla Seehapan said the chain would eliminate all “expanded polyethylene” packaging by the end of this month and switch to recyclable materials instead.
Tesco Lotus will also continue efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags, she said.
“We have been gradually reducing expanded-polyethylene packaging in all 2,000 outlets since last year and we are proud to announce that, by July, none of our stores will use it,” Salinla said.
“From now on, our food products will be packed in recyclable thermoforming plastic plate, which could reduce the use of expanded polyethylene by more than 400 tonnes a year.”
Cheap and lightweight, expanded polyethylene foam packaging remains in wide use for wrapping food, electronic and electrical goods, furniture and more, but it is considered non-biodegradable. Scientists say it will take thousands of years to fully break down.
Its lightness actually contributes to the waste problem, since the wind carries off discarded pieces, littering streets and often ending up in the sea.
There it can break up into micro-plastic easily swallowed by marine life, thus contaminating the food chain and posing a health hazard to consumers of seafood.
Salinla said Tesco Lotus would maintain its policy of banning plastic bags on the fourth day of every month in a bid to encourage customers to bring fabric bags or their own plastic bags to reuse.
The chain will also open a sixth plastic-bags-free outlet on Koh Chang in Trat by the end of the year where the bags are banned year-round.
Central Retail Corp president Nicolo Galante had earlier announced its ambitious goal to become Thailand’s first plastic-bags-free retailer by the end of this year.
Beginning on World Environment Day, Galante said, all of the chain’s outlets except its food markets would stop automatically placing purchases in plastic bags. Customers will have to specifically request a plastic bag or bring their own.
Greenpeace country director Tara Buakamsri said he was pleased to hear the two retail giants were taking stronger measures to reduce plastic waste, but warned that it’s still not enough to meet the national goal of abandoning expanded polyethylene food packaging completely by 2022.
Every retailer and every consumer must adopt more intensive measures to cut down on the use of all kinds of single-use plastic, Tara said.
“The big companies’ CSR [corporate social responsibility] campaigns alone cannot end plastic pollution,” he said. “The key to solving the problem is changing consumer behavior, and Thais are heavily addicted to plastic.
“So we should focus on lessening their reliance on single-use plastic by fostering different behavior and a fresh mindset.”
The Plastic Institute of Thailand estimates that, in 2015, more than 2.048 million tonnes of plastic were used in product packaging and more than 476,000 tonnes were used to make plastic bags.
Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya, director-general of the government’s Environment Quality Promotion Department, said every Thai was generating 1.15 kilograms of waste a day on average through reliance on single-use plastic.
The result is more than 2 million tonnes of plastic waste annually.
And only 500,000 tonnes of the waste was being properly managed and recycled each year, Rutchada said.