Not all trash is equal

Knowing what can be recycled, reused or reduced can go a long way towards saving the planet, explains a Greenpeace official

Refill Station is one of Thailand's renowned bulk stores where customers can buy products using their own containers. (Photo: Refill Station)

People know recycling is the process of converting waste into reusable material. But as they assume that recycling is a solution to waste pollution, they do not pay much attention to how much waste they throw away in the first place.

Pichmol Rugrod, Plastic Free Future Team Leader at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said people usually think all the trash they throw away will be recycled. However, this is not always the case.

"People have been informed by state agencies and private sectors that recycling is an excellent solution to waste pollution, but they were not informed about the recycling process. The myth that all trash will be recycled leads to the 'throwaway culture'. People do not reduce trash in the first place and are not conscious about throwing away trash appropriately. Also, most of them do not know that they have to clean trash in order to make them more easily recyclable. They do not know that they should sell trash directly to waste pickers, so that trash can go directly to the recycling process," Pichmol said of the issues regarding waste recycling in Thailand.

Downcycling -- the recycling of waste where the recycled material is of lower quality and functionality than the original material -- is another recycling-related conundrum because it lowers the quality of the original materials.

"In some recycling processes, virgin or raw plastic is added to a recycled material in order to enhance the material quality. Thus, more plastic is used during the recycling process," said Pichmol.

Pichmol and Greenpeace believe that recycling should be the final phase of waste management. They suggest consumers apply the 7Rs of waste management that consists of reduce, reuse, refill, return, repair/repurpose, replace and recycle, since this strategy solves the problem at the root cause. Pichmol also believes that consumers alone cannot change the amount of waste.

"Forty percent of manufactured plastic is for packaging purposes. Although some consumers reduce using packaging from the shops or stores where they purchase their items, it does not significantly reduce the amount of waste. Producers and the government are the ones who can solve this problem. The government can implement policies to stipulate consumers to change their throwaway behaviours. Producers should reduce non-recyclable materials in their products or reuse their packages," said Pichmol.

The Thai government has already released the Roadmap On Plastic Waste Management 2018-2030 paper which is divided into three phases. The first phase implemented in 2019 aims to ban plastic cap seals on water bottles, oxo-degradable plastics and plastic microbeads.

Pickers buy household recyclable trash as they roam around the city's streets. (Photo: Patcharaporn Boonyos)

The second phase, expected to be put in practice next year, aims to ban plastic straws, styrofoam food containers, plastic bags of less than 36 micron thickness and single use plastic cups. The third phase aims to convert plastic waste into fuel. Although the state's plastic management roadmap looks like an excellent plan, Greenpeace recently commented that the roadmap may not be fully effective.

Besides the government, some entrepreneurs aim to help the environment by establishing stores that can reduce waste from containers. Pichmol said bulk stores are now available in Thailand. These kinds of stores sell various products without packaging such as shampoo, conditioner, cereals, cookies, sauces, sugar and tea. Consumers have to bring their own containers to purchase the products.

"These stores help to reduce packaging waste, but they are only small entrepreneurs. If high profit margin companies open their own bulk stores around the country, everyone, not only people who are concerned about the environment, can reach these kinds of stores and it can make a huge impact," said Pichmol.

Since there is no concrete waste management system in Thailand, Pichmol suggests anyone who wants to start recycling their trash should contact waste pickers in their neighbourhoods.

"I asked a waste picker in my neighbourhood what kind of trash they accept. Today, Thailand imports trash from other countries, so the price of trash is not stable. Waste pickers do not buy certain items if they have little monetary value. People can also use the app Green2Get which can give general information about the kind of trash each waste picker purchases and their locations. Users can contact waste pickers conveniently via the app," said Pichmol.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of people became increasingly worried about disease transmission and subsequently may not want to follow the aforementioned 7Rs waste management guidelines. In this regard, Pichmol suggests that people should follow the guidance of the Ministry of Public Health for their own safety.

"The main guidance includes maintaining a safe distance from others, wearing a mask and washing or disinfecting your hands often. If people reuse or refill items, they must wash each item and then follow up with washing or disinfecting their hands. Also, items to be recycled must be washed and dried before sending them out," Pichmol said.

A campaign by Less Plastic Thailand asks the public to donate PET bottles which can be recycled and transformed into PPE suits for medical staff. (Photo: Less Plastic Thailand)


GUIDELINES FOR CONSUMERS: 

How to apply the 7Rs of waste management to different types of waste

  • Bubble wrap: Reduce and reuse.
  • Clothes: Reduce and reuse. Clothes can be reused by other people at secondhand markets. But shopping moderately is the best solution.
  • Electronic waste (discarded electrical or electronic devices): Repair.
  • Food waste: Reduce and reuse. Do not over purchase food and do not have leftovers. If there are leftovers, convert them into compost.
  • Glass: Reuse.
  • Paper: Recycle. After reuse and repurpose, paper can be sold to waste pickers, but paper must be cleaned and dried first.
  • Paper boxes: Reuse. Turn the box inside out and reuse it.
  • Plastic bottles: Recycle. The PET To PPE project offers drop-off points for people to drop their used water bottles made of Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET to convert them into reusable PPE suits. Visit facebook.com/lessplasticthailand for drop-off points. If the drop-off points are too far away, people can just sell their water bottles to waste pickers in their neighbourhood.
  • Plastic bags: Reduce and reuse. Pichmol warned that biodegradable plastic bags do not decompose like organic products. It takes a very long time to decompose and can break down into microplastics. Even though some biodegradable plastic bags are made from potatoes or sugar cane, their chemical structures are similar to plastic.
  • Styrofoam: Reduce. Styrofoam food container contains the hazardous chemical styrene that can be detrimental to people's health. This kind of container also cannot be recycled, so it is best to avoid using it.
  • Non-recyclable waste: Some waste is non-recyclable, but if the waste can be cut, torn and burned, it can be turned into renewable fuels to replace fossil fuels. Examples of non-recyclable waste are milk cartons, foam, straws and chopsticks. Schedules and locations to pick up waste can be viewed at facebook.com/n15technology.

Building Sustainable Cities is a 13-part series that explores essential elements & insights on how individuals and businesses can take action to forge a cleaner, greener tomorrow in collaboration with UOB Thailand. You can view the whole series here

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