Reducing the volume of plastic waste in Thailand has been an unachievable task for a long time. Cutting down on single uses of plastic materials has also been an issue largely ignored by most consumers. Official attempts, such as public awareness campaigns and voluntary cooperation sought from businesses, have always been short-lived, leaving piles of plastic waste mountains rotting on poorly managed dump sites. But a recent effort by the Pollution Control Department (PCD) suggests that we may be able to tackle the plastic waste problem and expect concrete results if government agencies take serious action, set achievable time-bound goals and reach out to key stakeholders, especially the private sector that generates plastic materials.
On Wednesday the PCD reported its progress on its plan to end the use of plastic cap seals on drinking water bottles. Director-general Sunee Piyapanpong said nine manufacturers of drinking water have stopped using plastic cap seals. By next year, the PCD targets half of all manufacturers to do the same. By 2019, it aims for all of them to put an end to this unnecessary packaging.
Plastic cap seals on water bottles are not materials used to assure hygiene or safety standards, according to the PCD. Due to their light weight and minute scale, cap seals become plastic waste that is difficult to manage. They are too small to be effectively collected. Their light weight makes it easy for them to be scattered in the environment.
Every year Thailand generates 4.4 billion bottles of drinking water, with 60% using plastic cap seals, generating 520 tonnes of waste.
In setting this goal for ending cap seal use, the PCD goes beyond the usual approaches of raising public awareness or seeking voluntary cooperation from the private sector. It has engaged all manufacturers in talks and invited them to join a memorandum of understanding — an agreement that they will follow the same direction.
The effort of the department is an example of a step-by-step approach that government agencies should apply when it comes to tackling the single use of plastic bags. It has been proved that voluntary efforts by asking for cooperation from consumers and businesses does not yield concrete results.
Instead, the widespread habit of the single use of plastic bags occurring almost at every point of sale has become a common habit in Thailand. At supermarkets, fresh markets, convenience stores, mom-and-pop shops and street vendors, the average Thai consumer is offered plastic bags for almost everything they bought, and they in fact also expect it as a kind of service. Every year, Thais use more than 70 billion bags, which account for more than 20% of the country’s total solid waste.
Even though there have been many campaigns in recent years urging consumers to opt for cloth bags, the efforts have not been successful as they have been only temporarily adopted by a small portion of consumers and retailers.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha himself tried to lead a renewed attempt in June, acting as a poster boy for a campaign run by the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion calling for consumers to refrain from plastic bag use three days a week. The campaign has done little to change consumers’ behaviour.
It is time for authorities to start taking a more vigorous approach through concrete action to cut down the use of plastic bags. They should explore enforceable options such as the imposition of levies on the production and distribution of plastic bags by businesses and the use of them by consumers. Banning them outright may face public resistance.
If buyers have to pay one or two baht for every bag they need, they will eventually reduce the use of plastic bags or even recycle the old ones they have.
Meanwhile, state agencies should also understand the nature of many Thai consumers who usually rely on takeaways as sources of cooked food wrapped in plastic bags or foam containers. If the government provides incentives for businesses to produce and use food containers made from recyclable materials, this can draw wider support.
The need to cut down plastic waste is an urgent matter. Plastic waste harms our livelihoods, blocking drains and exacerbating flooding, for example. It also poses threats to the environment. Last year Thailand reportedly dumped 2.83 tonnes of garbage into the sea, 12% of which was plastic waste. Marine animals have ingested plastic bags, mistaking them for food. Plastic waste in the ocean has also degraded into microplastic consumed by marine microorganisms such as zooplankton and fish, entering into our aquatic food chain.
Government agencies need to engage directly and equally with all manufacturers and distributors of plastic materials, setting tough rules that will protect the environment even though this may upset them.
Source: Bangkok Post