When the carrot works more than the stick

When the carrot works more than the stick

If Marium, the famous eight-month-old orphaned dugong, was able to speak, she might ask what she had done to deserve being fed all that plastic.

Thailand's beloved dugong died earlier this month following severe sepsis. An autopsy found not one but eight pieces of plastic had clogged her colon, resulting in the accumulation of stomach gas and a serious infection. Resuscitation efforts failed to revive her.

The death of Marium was a source of shock and pain for many Thais. It is also served as a loud wake-up call for Thai plastic users -- much louder than previous data and statistics -- about how much the synthetic material is being used in the country.

A Bangkok citizen was reported to have used eight plastic bags per day -- 80 million bags each day in the capital alone. Thailand uses a total of around 45 billion plastic bags every year. For quite some time, the country is labelled the world's sixth biggest contributor to ocean waste.

Speaking of Thailand's marine litter by type, 22% is plastic bags, according to figures from the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, followed by glass bottles (10%), straws (9%) and food bags/wraps (9%). The ocean also sees Styrofoam containers, ropes, plastic bottle caps and plastic bottles, among other types of waste.

Such figures are worrying but perhaps not enough for consumers and other stakeholders to make concrete changes. Yet after the death of Marium, many plans have been announced. A meeting was called recently by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to discuss the "national dugong master plan". The minister ordered that Marium's carcass be preserved for further scientific studies and that ocean waste must be managed urgently.

Do these movements and other plastic management initiatives sound promising? Perhaps yes, to many. But will they work?

This is the one question all Thais have to ask themselves. To find out, let's start buy counting how many plastic bags people could end up using on a daily basis.

For those who don't cook and always rely on ready-to-eat meals, the attempt to cut plastic bags can be hard to achieve. At least one or two bags are used for breakfast. Even when we buy iced coffee from stalls or 24-hour convenience stores, we are asked if we want a plastic bag for the coffee cup. And many times we say yes.

Then lunch. A few more plastic bags are used for, say, the rice, the side dish and perhaps the sauce. Fruit? Yes, after-lunch fruit is available widely from fruit carts. Yet again, the fruit is served in a plastic bag.

Dinner could mean a few more plastic bags. Grocery stuff comes in those bags too. Although some supermarkets do charge for plastic bags these days, many are willing to pay those fees in exchange for their own convenience.

Thai people are soft-hearted. The death of Marium is a strong push for people in the country to feel they want to make amends primarily because we feel sorry for the baby dugong. But do they really feel the need to change from the inside? That remains to be seen.

Following Marium's tragic death, last week Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha expressed his concern over marine animals, saying he felt sad he didn't get a chance to visit Marium when she was sick. Now that she is dead because of the plastic blockage inside her stomach, the prime minister said it is about time we take this issue seriously and that we should stop blaming each other.

Can we take steps to ensure there are no more deaths like Marium's? Plastic trash on land will end up in the ocean and subsequently become food for marine animals. We have seen photos of turtles trapped in plastic bags, the viral image of a seahorse carrying his dirty cotton bud, seals trapped in fishing nets and many more.

Isn't all this enough to transform everyone of us to be a fully awakened self?

Banning plastic bags and other single-use plastic completely will work but only short term if the public is not fully aware of the severity. Campaigns that are initiated from a positive reinforcement idea should be set up and seriously implemented. Reward and give incentives to those who achieve their plastic-free lives instead of punishing those who fail to do so. This way the rest will be positively motivated to follow suit because everyone wants to be applauded and looked upon as a hero.

Marium has gone for good. The living are still here to ensure no more lives will be sacrificed for the sake of people's lack of awareness.

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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