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BANGKOK – Gliding through a Bangkok canal on a paddle-board, Lilly fishes out plastic waste daily. In her mission to clean up Thailand, where the average person uses eight plastic bags every day.
“I am a kid at war,” the bubbly 12-year-old says. Every day she has an hour-long routine picking up cans, plastic waste and bottles in a Bangkok canal.
“I try to stay optimistic but I am also angry, our world is disappearing,” she adds.
Thailand is the world’s sixth largest contributor to plastic waste in ocean pollution and Lilly is trying to stop that.
Whether it’s for wrapping up street food, takeaway coffees or for groceries. Thais use 3,000 single use plastic bags per year. Tweleve times more than someone from the European Union or America.
In June, Lilly won her first victory; she persuaded Central, a major supermarket chain, to stop handing out plastic bags in its stores once a week.
“I told myself that if the government did not listen to me, it would be necessary to speak directly to those who distribute plastic bags and convince them to stop,” she told Channel News Asia.
This month some of the biggest brands, including 7-Eleven, pledged to stop handing out single-use plastic bags by January next year.
Young Activists like Lilly can help Capture the Worlds Attention
Mindsets have started to shift this year with the deaths of several marine mammals whose stomachs were lined with plastic waste.
The demise last month of a baby dugong was mourned on social media.Reviving discussion in the government over a proposed ban on most single-use plastics by 2022.
But critics say along with new rules there need to be enforcement mechanisms such as fines.
For now young activists like Lilly can help capture attention.
“You might be able to tune out all of the evidence and advocacy in the world, but it’s very hard to ignore a child when they ask why we’re trashing the planet that they have to live on,” says Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, regional coordinator for chemicals, waste and air quality with UN Environment.
It’s up to us says Ralyn Satidtanasarn Lilly is her Nickname
The US-Thai youngster started campaigning at the age of eight after a seaside vacation in southern Thailand. She was horrified by a beach covered in rubbish and plastic waste.
“We cleaned up with my parents, but that was not helpful because other waste was thrown out to sea the next day,” she said.
Then came the global movement initiated by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. Who has become a key face in the battle against climate change and plastic waste.
Inspired by the young Swede, Lilly did sit-ins in front of the Thai government buildings.
“Greta Thunberg gave me confidence. When adults do not do anything, it’s up to us children to act,” she insists.
“My place is here, the fight is also in Southeast Asia,” she says.
She also takes part in cleaning sessions organized by local association Trash Hero. Other activists praise her but say she is up against massive corporate interests.
The main obstacle is the petrochemical industry, one of the main markets for plastics; accounting for 5 per cent of Thailand’s GDP and tens of thousands of jobs.
“Lilly is a very good voice for the youth of this country but the lobbies are very powerful and that makes any change difficult,” concedes Nattapong Nithiuthai, who set up a company turning discarded waste into flip flops.
She can also count on the support of her parents, who help her write speeches to the UN and government officials.
Her mother, Sasie, herself a former environmental activist, adds: “At first, I thought it was a child’s fad, but Lilly hung on, so I decided to support her.”