This time, it's serious
Thailand's road map on plastic waste management has never been clearer. Two weeks ago, government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat announced that the cabinet had approved the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment's campaign to end the handing out of single-use plastic bags.
By the end of this year, she said, the country will ban three types of plastic: microbeads, cap seals and oxo-degradable plastics. Four other types -- lightweight plastic bags less than 36 microns thick, styrofoam food containers, plastic cups and plastic straws -- will be prohibited by 2022.
The key part in the country's plastic management initiative is perhaps the cabinet's approval for ceasing all distribution of single-use plastic bags to consumers at department and convenience stores, starting next year. This is part of Thailand's Road Map on Plastic Waste Management 2018-30.
Environmental concerns relating to single-use plastics are nothing new in Thailand. What is new is that this is the first time the country has announced a serious deadline for introducing a ban.
The average Bangkok citizen reportedly uses eight plastic bags per day -- that's 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 has been the world's sixth biggest contributor to ocean waste. This is clearly a serious environmental concern that needs an urgent solution.
Other countries have already taken huge steps forward. Take the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, for example. In 2016, single-use plastic bags were totally banned on the islands, making it the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to do this. Colombia soon followed suit by introducing its own ban on small-sized plastic bags and issuing a tax for larger plastic bags, including grocery bags.
South Korea leads other nations in East Asia by banning most plastic bags, starting from January 2019. The South Korean government has warned retailers that they could face steep fines if they failed to comply. Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban thin plastic bags in 2002 after they were held responsible for clogging drainage systems which led to devastating floods in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Kenya has the world's strictest plastic bag ban, with punishment of up to four years in prison or a fine in the amount of US$38,000 (1.15 million baht) for anyone found using, producing or selling plastic bags.
Thailand isn't going to go that far, at least not yet. And given the country's notoriety for poor law enforcement, many are doubtful that the current road map will be properly implemented. But the decision to ban single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and department stores does at least represent a small but significant step towards a single-use plastic-free society.
Reuters recently reported that Thailand -- along with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- contributed to more than half of the land-based plastic waste that leaks into the world's oceans. Last week, the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) said in its report that to tackle the plastic waste crisis, Southeast Asia -- home to 641 million people across 10 countries -- needs to introduce regionwide policies to regulate plastic packaging as well as tougher regulations for plastic packaging to curb leakage.
Thailand is moving in the right direction. The government claims that their policies will save 45 billion single-use plastic bags per year, or 225,000 tonnes, from incineration or landfill.
But it is paramount that these policies are properly implemented. Several supermarkets have already introduced campaigns to stop giving out grocery bags on designated days. Is this a constructive effort to make the world cleaner? Yes. But how effective is it really? If customers still insist they want the bags, they can still get them. They just have to pay a bit more. Is it really justified to hold customers accountable for a movement that requires mutual responsibility? Probably not.
To alleviate the plastic crisis, every party involved should be on the same page. Everyone should be holding themselves responsible for an environmental problem that they have all contributed to over the years, rather than point fingers at others. From the industries, manufacturers, distributors and retailers all the way down to the consumers, everyone is a culprit when it comes to clogging up the oceans with plastic.
But while the plastic issue is being addressed, other serious environmental concerns must not be overlooked. Air and water pollution. Deforestation. Carbon footprints. The list could go on. Again, everyone is responsible.
Arusa Pisuthipan is the editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Deputy editor of the Life section
Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.