Today is plastic bag free day in Thailand. While this initiative is a good start, much more must be done. Last month, a dead whale was found in Indonesia with six kilogrammes of plastic in its stomach. In June, about 80 plastic bags were found inside the stomach of a dead whale in southern Thailand. Their deaths are stark reminders of a growing problem: marine plastic pollution.
Annually, over 9 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the world's oceans. This is a major transboundary social and environmental problem. Marine animals, such as turtles, fish, whales, and sea birds, have ingested or become entangled in plastic debris. When humans consume these animals, they also consume the plastic, which contributes to cancer and infertility.
According to a recent report by Ocean Conservancy, five countries are responsible for 60% of this waste: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. How did Thailand become one of the five worst global culprits?
Thailand's large-scale consumption of plastic is a contemporary problem. In the past, banana leaves, bamboo, pots, and tin cans were used as packaging. But as Thailand's consumption of plastic grew in the 1970s, its petrochemical industry began to boom. By 1996, the country had achieved the full integration of plastic production. Overall, Thailand's petrochemical sector is Southeast Asia's second largest and ranks 16th globally.
The growth of the plastic industry has fed into the country's growing domestic consumption and plastic usage has grown 12% annually. On average, Thais use eight bags each per day, which equates to almost 200 billion bags per year.
Though Japan consumes a high amount of plastic, because of its excellent waste management system, the country is not a significant contributor to marine plastic debris. Thus, the second reason for Thailand's marine plastic pollution is its poor waste management. Almost 80% of the country's marine plastic comes from land-based waste that flows from rivers into the ocean.
At both household and company levels, Thais litter. Although illegal, many households and companies dispose their waste outdoors, or into waterways. When Thais do dispose of waste, only a few sort out the plastics from general waste. Condominiums rarely provide sub-bins for different items, further contributing to the country's low rate of recycling.
A recent survey of Maha Sarakham Municipality revealed that 65% of household trash bins are merely uncovered baskets. Small or overflowing litter bins or plastic bags full of waste are then placed outside for collection. During heavy rains or floods, litter spills out from the bags and enters the waterways.
Further, conditions are poor at many of the country's dump sites. Paradorn Chulajata, head of the Thai Plastic Industry Club, estimated that of the country's approximately 3,000 dump sites, only 700 are in good condition. In many sites, waste water leaks into waterways and onto beaches.
In response, the government enacted several measures to help reduce marine plastic pollution. Cigarette smoking is banned on popular beaches and plastic bags and Styrofoam containers are banned in national marine parks. The government is also working with retailers to eliminate plastic covers on bottle caps.
However, instead of mandating comprehensive changes, measures are aimed at promoting voluntary change. For example, the government initiated a programme directing government agencies to reduce plastic usage and encouraging market vendors to use less plastic. Due to the lack of new regulations, the measure has shown limited success. Many experts believe that bans and voluntary measures will only show limited success, and they call for the country to tax plastic consumption. A tax would reduce usage and finance sweeping improvements on the country's waste management system.
A few countries, such as Kenya and France, have banned single-use plastic bags while others have taxed them. Though a full-out ban might not be practical, a tax to discourage usage is feasible. In the UK, such tax has proven successful: after a levy of five pence (2 baht) per bag was introduced in 2015, plastic bags in nearby seas were significantly reduced. A poll of 2,000 Thais conducted by Nida revealed that 60% of those surveyed were willing to pay such a tax. Based on this poll, researchers proposed that the government should charge consumers 2-3 baht per bag.
Despite these findings, the military government has yet to do so. One reason is the government's close ties to the private sector, including the powerful plastic industry. The government may be reticent to pass a tax which would hurt the industry's interests.
The institutional structure of waste management also make reforms difficult. Neither the Thai government nor the private sector encourage households to separate their waste. Furthermore, unlike in some countries, municipalities do not earn money from recycling. Instead, they allow scavengers to gather and then sell high-value waste, leaving behind low-value and contaminated items, such as plastic bags and straws.
The private sector has not undertaken meaningful changes to reduce overall plastic consumption, or to improve waste management. Retailers have not decided to charge customers for plastic bags. Only Makro does not give out plastic bags. A few other companies have made small changes to reduce plastic consumption, such as giving discounts to consumers who bring their own bags or containers, but these changes have made little impact. Plastic producers have yet to adhere to the principles of extended responsibility, under which they would be responsible for the entire lifecycle of the plastic they produce. Nor have they spent any resources to educate the public to improve their waste practices.
Examples of success in other countries exist, but there is already a successful model in Thailand. In 2016, Chulalongkorn University initiated its Zero Waste Programme. Students are taught about the need to reduce plastic consumption and to separate and recycle waste. The university started charging 2 baht per plastic bag in all campus retail stores. It also charges students 3 baht to use a bioplastic cup or box, which replaces Styrofoam. Clean water stations were installed where students can refill water bottles. In less than a year, the use of plastic bags dropped by 90%, from 132,000 to 13,000.
In nearby countries, there are other examples of successful projects and policies. In Surabaya, Indonesia, the municipal government initiated a scheme where people can drop off plastic items, such as cups and bottles, in exchange for free bus rides. In Baguio City, Philippines, the municipality has decreed that only bioplastic bags can be used.
Chulalongkorn's Zero Waste Programme, reforms in nearby countries, and Japan's successful waste management show the way forward. A new law which would either tax or ban single-use plastic items, particularly bags, is recommended.
Additionally, a reform of the country's waste management is needed. This would include the creation of a national waste management authority, as well as schemes to promote recycling and improve the country's waste management. Greater education on the impact of using single-use plastic and improper waste management should also be promoted.
Changes such as these would enable Thailand to improve its global ranking on marine plastic pollution, and improve both human and animal health.
Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies of City University of Hong Kong.