Plastic still proliferates
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Plastic still proliferates

A bag ban is not as straightforward as many of us believe

Plastic still proliferates
Inside Thitithip's family-owned grocery store.

Several retail chains have taken the initiative to cut down on plastic waste by not giving out plastic bags, and people find themselves carrying their own tote bags when they shop at malls and convenience stores.

The adjustment seems to be going well. But while the public focuses on big-business initiatives, they may overlook community-based, family-owned grocery shops and street vendors that also contribute to the plastic waste issue.

While some have hopped onto the no-plastic bandwagon, others find it more challenging to change.

Thitithip Leepipatpaiboon, who runs her family's grocery shop in Klong Toey, said she no longer gives out plastic bags if customers only purchase a few "dry" items. While most don't bring any bags with them, they've had no problem with this practice so far and are willing to just carry items with them.

"But if they ask for a bag, I still give it to them," said Thitithip.

The shop now hands out about 20 plastic bags a day. Mostly, it's for customers who purchase eggs.

This family-owned traditional grocery store has been in operation for about four decades, and has been using plastic bags for as long as they can remember. Sitting nearby, Thitithip's elderly father said that the shop used to wrap items with newspaper for customers in the past. They don't do that anymore.

As Thitithip's shop caters mostly to people living in the community, the family doesn't find it hard to adjust their way of doing business. And gladly, nor do their customers.

Not everyone finds it easy to change, however, especially those who rely on convenience and mobility. In this land of street food, countless vendor carts still sell their food and drinks the same way they've always done, which involves an obscene amount of plastic waste daily.

At a smoothie vendor, a mango smoothie we ordered is served in a tall cup complete with lid, straw and handle -- all made from plastic. Nid Inthapanya, the owner, generally sells about 50 drinks a day. That would result in about 200 pieces of single-use plastic waste.

"This is a down period," Nid explained. Some offices on the street she lives on have closed down, resulting in fewer customers coming in. In the past, she used to sell up to 300 drinks per day -- meaning as many as 1,200 pieces of plastic could leave her shop in less than 24 hours.

Nid also sells noodles on the side. Most of the customers usually dine in, and she doesn't receive many takeaway orders; hence, not many containers are needed. However, even for people who eat in, she would serve drinks in those same disposable cups. Nid mostly runs the business herself and has no time to wash up everything during a busy period.

Most customers don't bring their own cups and bags when they buy things from vendors, which contributes to the amount of plastic waste. Photos: MELALIN MAHAVONGTRAKUL

Plastic cups, she said, are the most time- and cost-efficient products for her.

"When they finish drinking, they can also just toss it anywhere. It's easy," said Nid.

Nearby, fruit vendor Thairat Tanduang sells cold watermelon, pineapple and many other kinds of fruits to passers-by from her cart. She estimated that she uses "half-a-kilo" of food bags daily to carry pieces of fruit for customers, plus 200-300 grocery bags for people to carry their entire purchase. This doesn't include mini-pouches she uses to put sweet chilli dips that she automatically gives to all customers unless they say otherwise.

There are many reasons plastics remain these vendors' go-to option. Mainly, they both agreed on low cost, high availability and easy access as their deciding factors.

And if not plastic, they're also at a loss of what they could use in its place.

"I don't think there's anything that can replace plastic bags, at least not for a business like mine. What's a better alternative anyway? It would be worse if I started using foam containers," said Thairat.

Fruit vendor Thairat uses more than half-a-kilo of plastic per day.

This goes both ways. The vendors also reported that customers rarely bring their own cups or bags. The trend may have been picked up at chain stores, but not with vendors.

"If I were to tell customers to bring their own plate or bowl, it would just be an inconvenience to them. Many have to walk far, too. How are they going to carry it? So, we just go with what's easiest for both of us," continued Thairat.

Finally, they echoed the same sentiment: not everyone can afford the time and money to be environmentally friendly.

"People are losing jobs. They buy, eat, drink and spend less. The economy is in the rough," said Nid. "The government better fix other problems rather than meddling with plastics."

To date, there has yet to be any clear policy or campaign being promoted to reduce plastic use among the grassroots economy. With no practical solutions or affordable alternatives in sight, and with everyone still buying these foods and drinks without bringing their own container, plastic waste generated from vendors will continue to pile up.

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