Activists decry plastic ban loopholes
Increase in waste imports from China may mean no net decrease from government plan
The recent ban on single-use plastic bags at major retailers created a stir for consumers and businesses, with social media abuzz with workarounds such as shoppers using wheelbarrows and stockings to carry off their 7-Eleven hauls.
But is this step enough to reduce Thailand's massive plastic waste epidemic?
Not according to some environmental activists in Thailand. Imports of plastic waste from overseas continue and have actually increased because of a burst of shipments from China, meaning the plastic bag ban may not make a dent in this year's plastic waste total.
According to a 2015 study in Science, Thailand ranked 6th in terms of the amount of plastic waste the country contributed to the ocean. The government's plastic bag ban, as well as a long-term plastic reduction roadmap, aims to remove Thailand from these rankings and move towards a more circular plastics economy.
Tara Buakamsri, head of Greenpeace Thailand, said the country has imported around 400,000 tonnes of plastic since China stopped importing foreign plastic waste in 2018. Thailand produces another 2 million tonnes of plastic each year.
"Even though we have a roadmap for plastic waste management, it is on a voluntary basis and there is no legislation yet to enforce the roadmap," he said. "Most of the plastic waste being dumped and mismanaged goes into canals, rivers, tide waters as well as the ocean."
While plastic is imported to Thailand to be recycled, much of it ends up as waste sent to landfills, and some ends up in the nation's waterways.
"The ban doesn't really address how we reduce the impact of plastic waste in the ocean," Mr Tara said. "The next step should be to enact a law to make the ban on plastic products, especially single-use plastic containers for food, in a more effective manner that does not put undue burden on the consumer."
A shopper holds a reusable bag at a supermarket after local stores were ordered to stop providing plastic bags to customers. Patipat Janthong
Between 2014 and 2018 Thailand imported 906,521 tonnes of plastic from 81 countries, according to data from the Commerce Ministry. Japan made up 30% of the exports, with Hong Kong at 18% and the US at 16%.
Plastic imports nearly doubled between 2018 and 2019 because of Chinese imports.
A report by the environmental advocacy group Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) said Chinese companies, some based in the Eastern Economic Corridor, are creating joint venture companies here to continue recycling imported plastic, moving their stockpiles of plastic waste into Thailand.
"Since 2018, we've observed and found different types of waste being imported from China as well as many other places like Japan, the UK, the US, Singapore and Hong Kong," said Penchom Saetang, director of EARTH.
"It contradicts the Thai government's policy to reduce and stop using plastic bags because at the same time they allow imports of plastic waste, which is very discouraging to Thai consumers."
Another factor exacerbating the plastic waste situation is a loophole in the recently ratified Factory Act, which exempts factories with less than 50 employees or 50-horsepower machines from national factory regulations.
According to Amarin Saichan, a lawyer from the EnLaw Foundation, this loophole could lead to the proliferation of unregulated recycling plants in the country.
"From now on, those that fall below this threshold will be regulated by local authorities under the public health law, which is much weaker in terms of environmental standards and controlling capacity," Mr Amarin said.
"Many cases of pollution leakage and contamination from industrial waste management plants were found to be factories with less than 50hp machines or 50 workers. In addition, according to current law, waste management or recycling factories are not required to perform environmental impact assessments before applying for operating licences."