Informal solutions key to plastics
Plastic is now almost impossible to escape in our daily life. Yet, it is causing untold destruction of our natural environment. Recent studies show that all water bodies are contaminated by micro-plastics, from the UK to China. Moreover, the effects of plastic pollution are felt most by ocean life as was the case when it was found that a dead whale found in the Philippines had ingested 40 kilogrammes of plastic.
According to Thailand's Pollution Control Department (PCD), around 11,534 tonnes per day of solid waste was generated in Bangkok in 2016 -- the same weight as over 700 Bangkok tour buses. But only 10,130 tonnes per day was collected. What happens to the missing 1,404 tonnes daily, and how much of the overall waste gets recycled? Without adequate waste management systems in place to ensure consistent recycling of materials with secondary value, plastics can easily leak into the natural environment, endangering marine life.
The solid waste collected by the BMA is almost 50% organic, which could be diverted to produce compost, biogas or animal feed. Another 20% of the collected waste is non-recycled plastic -- that could either be avoided, by reducing unnecessary plastic consumption or recycled. Either way, there are significant opportunities for increasing recycling rates. The ability to recover and convert waste into resources provides significant opportunities for Bangkok and other Asian cities to develop circular economies, to minimise resource use, and keep resources in productive use for as long as possible, reducing demand for raw materials and limiting environmental degradation.
In Bangkok, there is no formal household recycling process. Our household waste gets collected by municipal waste collectors, a service for which we pay a nominal fee -- but there is no obligation to segregate our waste beforehand into recyclable materials (such as paper, cans, glass bottles and plastics). Any segregation which happens is done either by the municipal waste workers seeking to earn some extra cash by selling recyclables, or by informal waste pickers, who make their living by collecting materials with a resale value, which they sell on to waste dealers. Some informal waste workers work at landfill sites, sorting through the dumped rubbish for items of value.
These informal processes have emerged to fill gaps in formal waste management systems, with a large workforce dependent on incomes generated through collecting, sorting, recycling and selling valuable materials recovered from waste. In most cases, informal waste collection is carried out by poor, disadvantaged, vulnerable and/or marginalised social groups, who contribute to the practical application of a circular economy.
Conservative estimates calculated using secondary data on the number of informal waste actors in Bangkok suggest that they are helping to ensure that large quantities of plastic waste are recycled rather than incinerated or going to landfills.
In a case study of Sai Mai District produced under the Closing the Loop initiative of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), we estimated the total amount of plastic waste collected from all sources (including from within the Sai Mai transfer station) amounts to around 39.6 tonnes per day, or 14,454 tonnes per year. Not only is this plastic that doesn't leak into the environment, but it also represents avoided greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 21,681 tonnes of CO², which is similar to removing over 4,000 cars from the roads. These informal activities are estimated to save the BMA an estimated 10 million baht annually in waste management costs, in Sai Mai alone.
The same situation occurs in many Asian cities: in developing countries, the informal economy dominates waste sorting and recycling, and yet their efforts towards minimising unnecessary landfill and waste leakage remain unrecognised. Their livelihoods are precarious -- lacking adequate facilities for storage of collected materials, they are often forced to sell recyclables daily, whatever the price. Many operate without protective equipment, exposed to hazardous contaminants.
However, it is possible to integrate informal waste workers into formal waste management systems, for more effective outcomes. In Pune, India, informal waste workers have formed a cooperative, and are contracted by the municipality to provide waste services. Informal workers now collect 50% of the municipality's total waste and have secure incomes. They remove enough plastic waste from Pune municipality to account for 50,000 tonnes of avoided CO² annually, equivalent to 10,600 cars driven for one year. The recognition and support that the waste pickers have from the municipality is vital for their livelihoods -- and puts them in a better position as waste management technologies evolve.
However, there still remains a need to address the problem of plastic waste with no secondary value -- such as plastic wrappers and straws, which easily leak out of the waste stream. Eliminating them entirely, as the PCD has successfully done with major water bottle producers in Thailand to stop putting plastic wraps around bottle tops, is one concrete way forward. Behavioural change, to minimise single-use, low-value plastic items, is required. But to achieve Thailand's laudable commitment of 100% recycling by 2030, systematic segregation and recycling of waste are needed -- and integrating the country's informal waste workers will be essential to ensure efficient and effective waste management at the scale required.
Diane Archer is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute Asia. Curt Garrigan is the Chief of the Sustainable Urban Development Section, UNESCAP.