Towards a greener future
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Towards a greener future

Calls grow for legislation and action to fight plastic pollution

Towards a greener future

Plastic pollution has a negative effect on the environment, ecosystems, wildlife and human health. To reduce this scourge, 175 nations agreed to develop a legally binding agreement to address such pollution within the marine environment, known as the Global Plastic Treaty, during the 5th United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. A draft of the treaty is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

To raise awareness and advocate for the treaty, which places human health and environmental protection at the forefront, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Greenpeace Thailand and Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand joined forces to organise a forum titled "End Plastic Pollution: Global Plastic Treaty – How Important Is It To Thai Society?".

The forum opened with a session where Punyathorn Jeungsmarn, a representative from the EJF, urged governments of the 175 participating countries, including the Thai government, to establish key objectives including a reduction in plastic production, eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals throughout the production process, establishing infrastructure to reduce plastic use, mandating the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, establishing global standards for end-of-life plastic management, guarding against false solutions, mandating environmental restoration and improving the quality of life of those impacted by plastic pollution.

Sujitra Vassanadumrongdee, a researcher at the Environmental Research Institute, Chulalongkorn University, explained that before the UN even discussed the Global Plastic Treaty, some organisations had already started environmental projects, but the results were not promising.

"For instance, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Global Commitment project in 2018, which collaborated with over 1,000 brands and retailers to reduce virgin plastic, increase recyclable containers, and change packaging to reusable or compostable. However, despite the project's progress, it has not been able to bring about a large enough change. This is because the project is voluntary, and many companies have not yet adopted its goals. As a result, there is a push for the Global Plastic Treaty, which would create legally binding regulations for plastic production and use," explained Sujitra.

Sujitra explained that plastic waste pollution has become a global concern since 2015. At the time, Jambeck published research ranking countries based on the amount of plastic waste they release into the ocean. Thailand ranked sixth in the world, which prompted the government to announce a roadmap and action plan to ban seven types of plastic. However, the plan failed because it was not supported by legislation.

Most people believe that recycling plastic is a great solution. However, Penchom Saetang, executive director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand, pointed out that recycling is a hazardous process.

"Since 2018, China has banned the import of recyclable waste. This forced many recycling factories in China that did not meet the required standards to relocate to Thailand. These factories recycle toxic materials including plastic and electronic waste. The process is hazardous because it releases pollutants into the soil, water and air," said Penchom.

"If the Thai government wants to successfully solve PM2.5 pollution, it needs to address recycling factories as sources of PM2.5 emissions. Currently, the causes of PM2.5 pollution in Thailand are only attributed to forest fires and burning in agricultural areas. No government has ever included factories as contributors of the problem.

"Air pollution from factories is more hazardous than PM2.5 pollution from the agricultural sector because factories release various chemicals from processing different types of plastic. Some recycling factories are the highest sources of PM2.5 emissions, second only to coal-fired power plants and cement plants."

Additionally, Penchom stated that refuse-derived fuel (RDF), a type of fuel made from various waste materials, is another flawed solution promoted by the Thai government.

"The production of RDF is a huge mistake. Using waste as fuel in power plants causes the release of dioxins -- a group of highly toxic chemical compounds. The government also plans to build more waste-to-energy power plants in the future. The government believes this is a highly effective way to dispose of plastic waste, but in reality, it creates even more severe air pollution."

As mandating the EPR legislation must be one of the key objectives in the Plastic Treaty, Pichmol Rugrod, a team leader at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, explained that producers should be concerned about single-use plastic from the design stage of products.

"Products and packaging must be designed to be environmentally friendly and there must be systems in place to return packaging to the company without burdening the environment or waste bins. In developed countries, a deposit-refund system is used, where consumers receive cash when they return used packaging. This encourages people to reduce waste. However, Thailand does not yet have this."

The fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) will be held from April 23-29 in Ottawa, Canada, while the final session will be held in late November in Busan, South Korea. Most environmentalists hope the draft for the Global Plastic Treaty will stipulate strict measures, however, industrial sectors are likely to want the opposite.

"Powerful industries including energy, fuel, fossil fuel, petrochemical and chemical are likely to oppose the Global Plastic Treaty, making the upcoming INC-4 meeting highly significant," said Penchom.

"Even though the Global Plastic Treaty will eventually be released and Thailand will ratify it, it will be useless if the government does not have any laws or measures to support it. Moreover, the problem in Thailand is that even if there are effective laws in place, enforcement remains an issue," Penchom added.

Even without the treaty, effective infrastructure can encourage people to reduce single use plastic. Salisa Traipipitsiriwat, a project manager with the EJF, said it has teamed up with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to install four water dispensers at Benchakitti Park and the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre to reduce the use of plastic bottles.

"People initially said only four water stations would never make a difference, but in only six months, this project has prevented the use of 200,000 plastic bottles. The EJF is discussing with the BMA to add more water dispensers in Bangkok."

Sujitra suggested that organisations in Thailand could implement regulations to reduce plastic waste.

"Chulalongkorn University has the Chula Zero Waste project, which aims to manage and reduce plastic waste within the university. If other organisations promote similar projects, it could help reduce more single-use plastic."

Pichmol hopes that the Global Plastic Treaty will include measures that effectively reduce waste.

"The treaty should have timeframes, so that countries can establish concrete goals and monitor progress. Additionally, people should consider the treaty's starting point. They should focus on reducing and reusing plastic waste rather than recycling it," Pichmol said.

"After the INC-4 meeting in Canada ends, there will be a meeting between plastic stakeholders from the industry and the public in Thailand. I would like to encourage everyone to participate and share their opinions during that time."

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