Plastics factories feel bag ban pain
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Plastics factories feel bag ban pain

Industry, govt scramble for solution as layoffs loom

Naphat Thipthanakit, managing director of Pack and Save and vice president of the Thai Plastic Industries Association, says the plastic industry has been hurt financially by the government's rush to ban single-use plastic bags. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)
Naphat Thipthanakit, managing director of Pack and Save and vice president of the Thai Plastic Industries Association, says the plastic industry has been hurt financially by the government's rush to ban single-use plastic bags. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

An unusual quiet has settled over the production line at Pack and Save, a factory producing plastic bags in Pathum Thani province.

Orders have shrunk 90% since the government introduced a campaign to ban single-use plastic bags in department stores and convenience shops early last month, says the company.

The factory's customers include retail giants like Central Department Store and The Mall Group, both of which stopped giving out single-use plastic bags on Jan 1 this year.

As a result, production has been scaled down and work-hours have been cut drastically. Staff, who depend on daily wages topped up by overtime, have begun quitting their jobs. Those who remain are wondering how long they can keep working.

Among them is Suree Samanmitre, a 58-year-old who has been working at the factory for over two decades.

Since production was cut, she has lost the 4,000 baht in overtime she used to earn every month. Her daily wage has also fallen, after the factory reduced the working week to five instead six days.

"I relied on the 4,000 baht from overtime work to pay my house rent and cover my debts. Now I'm forced to tighten my belt by eating only instant noodles with egg. If I lose my job, I'll go back to farming in my hometown in Chachoengsao province," she told the Bangkok Post.

Pack and Save is among 300 plastic factories bearing the brunt of a public campaign that led to voluntary bans on single-use plastic, starting Jan 1.

Under public pressure, the start date was brought forward from the 2022 deadline announced by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and retailers in 2018. They defined single-use plastic as sheets of less than 36 microns or 0.036 millimetres in width.

The Pollution Control Department (PCD), however, has permitted the production and use of thicker plastic bags, with widths exceeding 40 microns.

Naphat Thipthanakit, managing director of Pack and Save and vice president of the Thai Plastic Industries Association, said the plastic industry was caught unprepared by the abrupt ban.

The industry, he said, had been willing to cooperate and prepare for lower production in 2022.

He said 47 out of the 86 plastic-bag producing factories that are members of the association have been affected by the sudden ban.

"Now I'm forced to tighen my belt by eating only instant noodles with egg." — Suree Samanmitre, a 58-year-old worker

The only manufacturers not affected are those that export to other countries.

The association estimates the ban has cost the industry 24.3 billion baht and placed 6,030 workers at risk of losing their jobs.

"All the companies have no objection to scrapping the use of thin plastic bags, but this should have been done based on the original schedule," Mr Naphat told the Bangkok Post.

He said the plastic industry did not object to the policy and agreed that the number of single-use bags should be reduced.

Yet the policy had sent an unclear message, meaning the public had reduced consumption of all plastic bags -- including bags thicker than 40 microns, he said.

The thicker bags can be reused and recycled many times.

Mr Naphat said that the association is pondering petitioning the Central Administrative Court for compensation on grounds that the government policy undermined their business and left them facing the possibility of collapse.

As an example he cited his own factory, saying it might have to halt operations by the middle of this year, making the 150 remaining workers redundant, if the government did not help.


Mr Naphat said his association had already proposed a solution.

It suggested the government could promote and encourage the use and production of thicker and larger plastic bags.

The bigger bags advocated by the association measure 30x30 centimetres, weigh 15 grammes and are over 40 microns in thickness. The bags, which weigh about the same as a small plastic bottle, can be reused more than 30 times and then recycled.

Eighty percent of plastic bottles with similar specifications are sold to recycling factories.

The bigger bags "will provide income for garbage scavengers who collect and sell them to recycling plants", he said, adding that the thick plastic bags can fetch eight baht per kilo.

"With proper plastic waste management, plastic would no longer be a problem for the environment and marine life. The thicker and larger plastic bags are the best option for the circular economy because they can be recycled," he said.

The Pollution Control Department has heeded the association's proposal, said a ministry source, and will soon announce a policy to promote thicker plastic bags.


Government and conservationists, meanwhile, are championing so-called bio-plastic bags made from plants such as cassava. Yet the association has a different view.

Bio-plastic bags can lead to a false sense of security, it said.

Without proper production methods -- including intense heat -- bio plastics won't degrade within 180-day time frame as promised, claimed Mr Naphat.

"If they end up in marine environments, these bags will not decompose quickly and can last for decades. These bio-plastic bags can endanger marine animals too," he said.

He warned the mass production of bio plastic could undermine food supplies for people and animals, because at least 50% of economic crops like cassava and sugarcane would go to feed the bio-plastic industry.

"That would see rising demand for agricultural land and for fertiliser, pesticide and water, which could worsen climate change impacts."


Wijarn Simachaya, president of the Thailand Environment Institute, said banning single-use plastic bags had dramatically reduced plastic use.

Yet, the sustainable solution lies in a circular economy -- a value chain that promotes the total reuse and recycling of materials, he said.

"Plastic is not all bad. What made it a villain is the absence of a good garbage collection and disposal system that ensures proper disposal or recycling," said Mr Wijarn, also former permanent-secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

The government and business sector shared the same goal of helping the plastic industry absorb the impact of change by adopting a circular economy and recycling more plastic materials, he added.

"The problem is that Thailand does not have reliable garbage collection and disposal that can help the industry move to a circular economy."

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