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Environmentalists in Thailand Worry New Factory Act May Create More Plastic Waste

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BANGKOK – Environmentalists in Thailand are pressing Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to slow the enactment of a law they say could create a loophole in monitoring pollution and result in Thailand importing more plastic waste from abroad.

The law amends the 1992 Factory Act and is set to take effect in October. The amendment was approved in late February by the National Legislative Assembly, the then military-government’s rubber-stamp parliament, to create a business-friendly environment, according to the government.

It was one of many laws the outgoing military junta rushed through parliament before a contentious general election in late March.

Under the amended rules, only industrial companies with more than 50 employees and machinery exceeding 50 horsepower are subject to monitoring for waste discharge and antipollution measures. Previously the law applied to any industrial site with seven or more workers and machinery of at least five horsepower.

Environmentalists say factories that employ fewer than 50 people will be exempt from mandatory five-year licensing requirements and will escape pollution monitoring by the Department of Industrial Works.

While the revised law may cut red tape and be more business friendly, the environmentalists say the amendments open big loopholes that will foster the toxic business of waste imports, particularly of plastic, which have ballooned in Thailand since 2016.

The new factory act “will increase nontransparency and corruption,” said Penchom Saetang, head of Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand, a local green group. “Thai authorities need to revise the new Factory Act based on views from public consultations.”

A recycling plant near Bangkok: According to Greenpeace, Thailand’s plastic waste imports jumped nearly sevenfold between 2016 and 2018 to 481,000 tons. – Photo Reuters

Analysts expect over 40% of the country’s 60,500 registered Thai and foreign-owned factories to benefit from the looser rules. These include the seven Thai companies that hold licenses to import electronic waste for recycling.

“The new factory act opens the doors for companies to invest in factories and plants that will result in the country becoming more polluted,” said Supaporn Malailoy, manager of the Enlaw Foundation, a local environmental advocacy group. “There is concern that the local authorities who will give factories permits to operate may lack specialization in assessing the environmental impacts of the factories.”

The change in the law follows an earlier push by the junta to ease pollution rules three years ago that also angered environmentalists: Order Number 4/2559. The edict suspended planning laws in towns and cities that restricted the opening of toxic and heavily polluting waste disposal projects in areas where people live and places zoned for farming.

According to Earth Foundation, another Thai green group, three provinces near Bangkok where industry is expanding highlight how investors have capitalized on the waste trade. Chancheng Sao, southeast of Bangkok, now has 159 plastic waste processing plants; Samut Prakarn, south of the capital, has 663 plants; and Samut Sakorn, also to the south, has 924 plants, the group said.

Somnuck Jongmeewasin, an academic at Silpakorn University International College in Bangkok, said Order 4/2559 has increased the number of waste processing plants across the country because “it only needs permission from local authorities to give a green light to set up a factory in a community.” This easily leads to “corruption between the local government officials and the companies,” he added.

The Thai government in April approved a draft of a long-term plan to reduce plastic waste, including a ban on the use of plastics in products such as straws and cups by 2022. But experts warn the new factories act could undermine such efforts and worsen the already serious plastic waste problem.

By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Nikkei Asian Review