The time to combat plastic is now

The time to combat plastic is now

It comes as no surprise that Thailand is among five Asian countries -- together with China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines -- that are responsible for more than half of the 8 million tonnes of plastic waste dumped into the world's oceans every year, according to a 2015 Ocean Conservancy Report. The people of Thailand use over 70 billion plastic bags a year.

Sadly, humans are not even the ones directly harmed by polluting the ocean (although we are, in many fundamental ways, hugely affected by it indirectly). Hundreds of turtles, dolphins and whales, stranded every year on Thailand's beaches after plastic impeded their mobility or clogged their insides, are the ones paying the highest price. The most recent case was a pilot whale that was discovered in a canal in the southern province of Songkhla, barely alive with over 8kg of plastic in its stomach. Veterinarians and volunteers tried to save it for five days before it eventually succumbed to the more than 80 plastic bags inside it.

Renowned marine biologist and Kasetsart lecturer Thon Thamrongnawasawat explained, as reported by AFP, that the plastic bags had made it impossible for the animal to eat any nutritional food. "If you have 80 plastic bags in your stomach, you die," he said.

After the death of the large marine mammal made international headlines, Thai people started to realise (once again) the importance of reducing plastic waste. With tomorrow being the International Plastic Bag Free Day, the contemplation should now be deeper than ever.

The Department of Medical Services under the Ministry of Public Health, for example, is at the forefront of the fight against plastic. The department has announced that it will be completely phasing out the usage of plastic bags in its 30 hospitals and medical institutes by October this year. According to department data, those 30 hospitals used over 9 million plastic bags in 2017.

Jiffy, the convenience store company, has meanwhile climbed on the bandwagon, launching an initiative to reward customers with additional membership points if they opt for no plastic bags. It expects to be able to cut over 24 million plastic bags a year in its 150 branches across the country.

The Thai government has also put waste management on the national agenda. 20 state agencies have pledged their support to reducing the use of foam and plastic bags and containers. This scheme is, in part, a response to last month's World Environment Day under the theme ''Beat Plastic Pollution: If You Can't Reuse It, Refuse It''.

The Ministry of National Resources and Environment has estimated that during the past decade, Thailand produced an average of 2 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, only half a tonne of which were reused. And 2016 was even worse with a total of 3.2 tonnes of plastic waste.

Data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) revealed that over 500 billion plastic bags are used around the world every year. And unfortunately, 50% of plastic used in the world is single-use or disposable, such as in plastic spoons, forks and water cups.

A plastic grocery bag takes 10-50 years to decompose. A plastic straw takes about 250 years while a bottle may stay on this planet for up 450 years. But the world does not have that time. We cannot waste any more of it failing to realise that awareness campaigns alone are not enough. It is high time to take how we treat the environment (and how it, in turn, impacts our lives as well as flora and fauna) extremely seriously and tackle pollution in a more concrete manner.

If we are unsure of how to fight the battle against plastic, we need look no further for an example than Kenya, where, since August last year under the world's harshest plastic bag ban, anyone found using, producing or selling a plastic bag is subject to a jail sentence or a severe fine. Or France, whose 2016 total ban on plastic bags has made it a European pioneer in plastic reduction.

Taiwan has taken a more timid approach, as it announced in February that it will aim to have phased out single-use plastic bags, straws, utensils and cups by 2030. In Australia, major supermarkets have announced they would eliminate single-use plastic bags by mid-2018. The United Kingdom has set up a protocol to reduce plastic waste by first eliminating plastic microbeads used in cosmetics and personal care products. The country also followed the rest of Western Europe in imposing a tax on plastic bags in 2015, which has resulted in 9 billion fewer plastic bags in circulation. Even Queen Elizabeth has declared a "war on plastic", banning plastic straws and bottles from the Royal estates as reported by many international media agencies earlier this year.

Thailand could draw inspiration from these policies: a plastic bag levy, a heavy fine, a jail term or a combination of them. Whatever the measure is, its implementation has to be decisive. It has to be carried out with no exception and it has to be now.

Plastic is indeed a very serious global crisis. If we get to work now, maybe that poor pilot whale will not have died in vain.

Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Arusa Pisuthipan

Deputy editor of the Life section

Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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