The global trend towards recycling is seeing more recycled material used in drinking water bottles, but Thailand remains bogged down by regulations prohibiting their use in any type of food packaging, say industry executives.
The Thailand Institute of Packaging and Recycling Management for Sustainable Environment insists much more can be done to encourage the recycling of plastic bottles.
But Veera Akaraputhiporn, a vice-chairman of the institute, said an obstacle remains with the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that prohibit the use of recycled materials such as plastic resin in the production of food and drink containers.
"The FDA regulations are going against the global trend and need to be changed," he said.
Because of such regulations, investors are cautious despite the availability of technology that has already been used in other countries such as the US, Belgium, France and China.
None of the bottles of water sold in Thai supermarkets are made from recycled plastics. In comparison to cans and glass that have recycling rates of 90% and 70%, the recycling rate of plastic is 30-40%.
"If technology can be brought in, the recycling rate of plastics will skyrocket," said Mr Veera, who believes the price of used bottles might increase by at least three times as demand surges.
Using recycled resin will also reduce the dependence on imported petroleum-based resins from China, lowering the environmental problem.
The FDA, meanwhile, cites consumer safety as justifying its regulations.
"We will not allow the use of recycled material in food and drinks packaging until it has passed all safety and toxicology tests. So far, no one has provided tangible proof of this," said Tipvon Parinyasiri, director of the FDA's Bureau of Food.
When plastic is recycled, its original colour fades or changes, meaning that more additives need to be used for the product to get back its attractive looks. It is crucial to have these tested.
Recycled plastics can be used to make water bottles in other countries where manufacturers maintain tight controls on the source of raw materials and recycle only plastic bottles that they produced themselves.
In Thailand, those involved in plastic recycling are small enterprises that tend to collect plastics from everywhere without knowing the source.
"If the source is unknown, you don't know what additives were used in the new plastic being recycled and what more will be added, meaning you cannot guarantee its safety," Ms Tipvon said.
"There is already a lot of illegal recycling going on. Some of the 20-litre bottles you see are made from recycled plastics."
She said the plastics industry is growing too fast for its administration to keep up, with strange types of plastics being made.
While the FDA does not have control over the plastics industry, it regulates the use of plastics in consumer products.
"As long as the research results are not out and there is nothing to convince us of its safety, recycled materials can be used for other things such as tables and chairs but not for food," Ms Tipvon said.
Thailand produces 15 million tonnes of waste each year, of which 9 million tonnes are non-organic waste that can be recycled. However, only 3 million tonnes are recycled, with a total value at delivery sites worth 20 billion baht.
"People do not know the value of these recyclables. They think everything is trash, so it ends up in landfills and causes even more problems for the environment and communities living close to them," said Mr Veera.
The institute has advocated at-source or upstream waste separation by people in homes, schools and offices across the country to reduce landfill waste.
It has also been involved in matching the supply and demand of recyclables.
"If people collect recyclables but no one takes or buys them, then the enthusiasm will die down and the whole recycling system would no longer make sense," Mr Veera said.
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- Writer: Soonya Vanichkorn