Just before leaving to buy a takeaway meal from a nearby shop, Chaiyuth Lothuwachai makes sure he has placed enough lunchboxes in his bicycle’s basket for his family. “I’m sure my lifestyle would be 100% disposable plastic free if I could plan for it,” said Chaiyuth, DVP (Specialist) at the Digital Marketing Department of the Stock Exchange of Thailand and “Bike in the City” page administrator, who is determined to minimise plastic waste in his everyday life. Sirinya Wattanasukchai specially for the Bangkok Post.
In addition to lunchboxes, Mr Chaiyuth always prepares tote bags. He also reuses plastic bags and straws before eventually stuffing them into plastic bottles to be turned into “eco-bricks”, which can be used for constructing buildings such as a school library in Kanchanaburi.
He is part of a growing movement in Thailand of people trying to combat the excessive consumption of single-use plastic items. A large number of people want stricter measures such as a complete ban on single-use plastic. However, many disagree on the grounds that such a lifestyle, while noble, is more agreeable to middle-class car owners.
Using one or two plastic bags a day may sound trivial, but imagine a city of 8.2 million people, like Bangkok, where eating out and takeaway food is common but waste sorting isn’t. Thais currently use about 45 billion plastic bags each year, and Thailand is among the five Asian countries responsible for 60% of the over nine million tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans.
According to the Plastic Industry Club, a public-private organisation seeking more sustainable solutions to plastic use in the country, plastic is involved in every industry in Thailand, from automotive to packaging, whereas those in durable-goods industries, such as automotive or electric appliances, are not mentioned as much because of their longer lifespan, short-lived plastic products such as cups, straws and bags are problematic. The packaging industry is the sector with the highest demand for plastic.
Nevertheless, it is indisputable that plastic accommodates people’s fast-paced lifestyles and improves their mobility.
Arunee Srisuk, a 40-year-old businesswoman with a green conscience, said plastic became an efficient and convenient solution as people began to travel longer distances to their workplaces and admits that she too occasionally uses single-use plastic bags during unplanned shopping trips.
In her opinion, the proposed ban would merely promote “a lifestyle for idealistic, rich people”.
It’s easy for the middle class to drive around with extra tote bags, personal sets of utensils and bamboo straws while they share how environmentally friendly they are on social media, she says, adding that carrying a traditional stack tiffin carrier to work has also become a trend.
These people are in the middle class and either live near convenient city train lines or drive, Ms Arunee said. But those on low incomes or the minimum wage, who mainly use unreliable land transport like public buses, won’t be able to live such a lifestyle.
Kaew Jaichum is among the housekeepers who have been given free food-grade lunchboxes and tumblers, but she has refused to use the items.
“I can’t deal with the bother of carrying more stuff in my bag,” she says while packing her uniform into a disposable bag after work, as she prepares for her daily three-hour commute home by bus.
She is well aware of the plastic ban campaign but, for her, the bags are still necessary. She usually puts her dirty shirt in its own bag to separate it from other personal items and food.
Encouraging end-users to reject plastic bags without offering a proper alternative is the wrong strategy, says Getthip Hannarong, founder and partnership manager at Yolo Zero Waste Your Life, a start-up that tries to help people live a zero-waste life by recycling and reusing.
Instead of repeatedly telling people to say no to plastic bags, she said, the government should immediately ban them and, at the same time, introduce a more environmentally friendly and durable alternative.
“You can’t just ban something without providing an alternative option for people,” said Ms Getthip. “If all single-use plastic bags were banned now, it wouldn’t be practical for everyone to carry lunchboxes to put their takeaway meals in,” she added.
Ms Getthip and her start-up group have been trying to put plastic waste into the recycling system so it can be put to alternative uses. Although water bottles may contain a certain amount of recycled plastic, unlike many countries, the Thai government has not yet allowed recycled plastic to be used for food packaging. This means the lifespan of plastic containers, such as water bottles, is being cut short.
For the time being, used plastic can be recycled into eco-bricks, pails, basins or ornamental objects, she said.
But the Thai government has been sluggish. In mid-April, the cabinet agreed in principle for plastic waste management to be included in the 2018-2030 roadmap draft, as proposed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to reduce consumption of single-use plastic items.
At least three supermarket chains and shopping malls have plans to stop giving away plastic bags by offering extra membership points to customers who bring their own bags. In January, the country’s largest convenience store chain donated its first 25 million baht from its CSR campaign to encourage customers to reduce their plastic consumption.
The campaign paid off, with about 1.5 billion plastic bags, or about 2.6 tonnes of plastic, saved across the country after eight months. The ministry also plans to ban plastic cap seals, OXO-degradable plastic and microbeads. By 2022, four more items — thin plastic bags, styrofoam containers, straws and cups — will also be banned.
Paradorn Chulajata, chairperson of the Plastic Industry Club, the Federation of Thai Industries, agrees that complete bans aren’t a sustainable solution and also advocates, like Ms Getthip, reducing use and providing more environmentally friendly options to customers. Public education is also important so people know they can recycle plastic waste rather than disposing of it along with their other rubbish, he adds.
According to Mr Paradorn, of the 4 million tonnes of plastic waste produced in Thailand each year, 1.9 million tonnes are single-use plastic items such as bags and straws. Only about 400,000 tonnes are recycled and 1.5 million tonnes go to landfills. About 30,000 tonnes are left out of the waste management system while about 10,000-30,000 tonnes is washed into the ocean.
The club has been trying to convince the government that, with advanced technology, used water bottles can be recycled into food-grade water bottles.
“This way, plastic will never be the culprit, but over-consumption will be,” said Mr Paradorn.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist, Bangkok Post.