Time to get tough with plastic users
Starting last month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has become the poster boy for a campaign to raise public awareness about plastic waste and encourage a switch to bags made of cloth or other reusable materials. By accepting the presenter's role, the prime minister has made a strong case for an eco-friendlier lifestyle.
Gen Prayut, while setting waste management as a national agenda, has been pleading with the Thai public to reduce plastic consumption, especially for one-time use, since 2015.
The effort has hardly paid off. The sight of a shopper carrying goods in several plastic bags has increasingly become common in this country.
Thailand is among the top countries that have mismanaged plastic waste and is ranked after China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, whose combined plastic waste accounts for 60% of plastic pollution in oceans. Experts say much of it is ingested by birds and fish, while fragments of plastic have been found in other organisms at the bottom of the ocean.
Thailand made a pledge at a global forum in New York last month to clean up its act and reduce plastic use. Thai delegates admitted that lack of efficiency in waste management was the major cause of the problem. They also assured the forum that the Prayut government is determined to put an end to this problem, and it has incorporated waste management in the 20-year national strategy.
Under the prime minister's guidance, the Department of Environment Quality Promotion has stepped up its campaign against the use of plastic bags, urging convenience and department stores to stop free distribution of plastic bags every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It said some 16 retailed stores have agreed to join the effort.
The campaign is more intensive than last year when only Wednesdays were the no-plastic-bag days for retail stores. The department of Environment Quality Promotion boasted that the Wednesday campaign helped curtailed the use by some 116 million plastic bags.
The agency seems to believe that the two additional designated days, plus a social media drive, will make a difference.
But it is a long shot given that Thais use 70 billion plastic bags a year.
Some critics have taken a dim view of the campaign, which they regard as too weak and superficial, one which will not get the country anywhere, labelling the concept of three designated days a week as ridiculous.
This is primarily because it's a voluntary campaign. Mostly, the participating stores award bonus points to the shoppers who bring their own cloth or reusable bags. The points can be used to earn discounts on different goods. But the fact is that most, if not all, shops are reluctant -- or refusing -- to say no to customers who demand plastic bags even on the no-plastic designated days. They are afraid of losing business by charging customers who want a bag or two.
Besides, even if major retail stores agree to the policy, it is the street vendors and those in fresh markets who give away the most number of free plastic bags. It's likely these vendors don't pay any heed to the campaign, while their customers love to stick to their old lifestyle without any regard for its long-term environmental impact.
Plastic has become an issue as Thais and others in most of Asian countries have become used to Western-style conveniences over the past few decades. But while the West has implemented strict measures to discourage the one-time plastic use, it's business as usual in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.
The Department of Environment Quality Promotion and other related state agencies should seriously learn from the countries who have successfully imposed charges for plastic bags by levying taxes. There are quite a few examples to follow. According to the UK-based bigfatbags website, Denmark in 2003 introduced a tax for retailers who use plastic bags. This sort of compelled the stores to charge their customers who asked for plastic bags. This is believed to have reduced the use of paper and plastic bags up to 66% in the Scandinavian country. In Germany, a similar tariff is called recycling tax. Now several countries in Africa, including South Africa, Uganda and Kenya among others, are following suit.
In short, charges, taxes and bans used in advanced countries are effective antidotes that can do wonders in altering the public attitude towards plastic waste and encourage an eco-friendlier lifestyle. An intensified campaign to educate the people, encouraging them to stick to the reduce-reuse-recycle rule, could be a wise supportive measure.
As long as consumers can enjoy free plastic bags, as they do now, they will not embrace the change, even if it means a better world in the longer run.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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