Thailand’s product packaging is uniquely dense. Vendors provide more plastic utensils, bags and seals than in any of the sixteen countries I’ve been to during the past seven years. Even China.
Market food is often given in small plastic sleeves which are skillfully wrapped with rubber bands and placed inside another small bag with handles. Each food item tends to get its own set, often leading to over twenty packaging articles by the time shopping is done.
Styrofoam containers are lined with polyethylene as well. Utensils and straws are thrown in more often than not. More than once have I had an employee attempting to double-bag a six-litre water jug — even though it had a carry handle.
This alarming trend is now a dangerous convenience which most everyone is used to. But it hasn’t been like this for that long, neither does it need to continue. There are a number of things that can and should be done, but before getting into that, let me tell you what is actually happening with discarded plastic in Thailand today.
Plastic is durable, easy to mold, and cheap to produce. So cheap that retailers often wrap everything on the shelf in it for the shiny, clean look that attracts customers.
There’s another property that plastic has, making it a unique and dangerous material. It does not rust like metal, it does not turn into plant fertilizer like food waste, it does not stay inert like glass or stone (although it takes hundreds of years to fully disintegrate).
With time it becomes brittle and loses shape when exposed to the sun, eventually transforming into micro particles which turn water, food, and soil toxic.
Those particles have already been found in our tap water.
Plastics have been in use since the late 1800s and in mass-production since the 1950’s. On the grand scale of human history, this material is very new, though it has already clogged our waterways, oceans, and lands like no other pollutant. As of today, there are more than eight million tonnes of polyethylene products dumped into oceans every year. This garbage does not sink, does not dissolve, does not decompose. It piles up.
What about recycling?
In Thailand (as well as most other southeast Asian countries) trash is sorted through multiple times, by hand. Items that have a resale value — such as plastic and glass bottles are picked out and sold to one of the multiple junkyards around the country — who then sell it again to a recycling plant in bulk.
Not everything that the people bring to these yards can actually be recycled. Plastic bags, straws and styrofoam containers (which seem to dominate food packaging) cannot be sufficiently processed. Instead, they end up at one of Thailand’s major landfills or an illegal dump site (a river creek or a forest).
I’m not sure how much government involvement there is in this process, aside from a posted ten thousand baht fine (or three years in jail) for illegal dumping. There’s little done to enforce the law.
Nattapon, a junkyard owner in Chiang Mai describes his trade as a business, rather than social service. Plastic trash has variable value (depending on item type) and an expiration date, he says. The country’s economic well-being also plays a key role in efficiency and profitability. The job is to collect, compile, and sell to a processing plant for profit.
An economic slowdown seen during the past few years is forcing him to keep trash for longer as the price offered by the factories is currently too low. Should the garbage spend too much time in the sun and dirt, however, it can no longer be processed.
His yard is dominated by plastic bottles, some metal (mostly car parts), glass bottles and aluminium cans. Plastic bags, packaging, and straws cannot make him any money; they are sent straight to landfills. More than once, Nattapon says, people left their trash at the door and drove away — he couldn’t pay them for what they brought.
Garbage disposal and processing isn’t a simple or straight-forward operation. Even those who are willing to dig through trash are not guaranteed compensation unless they know what they are doing.
It’s important to understand that although a lot of the material is being recycled in Thailand, the practice is not exactly efficient. It would be naïve to think that all of our waste is safely taken care of. That’s simply not the case. Here, or anywhere else in the world.
This essay has been in-part possible thanks to The Last Straw org. — if you are in Chiang Mai, please take your time to support them. Their mission is to reduce single-use plastic products.