Plastic use soaring in pandemic
Each year, around 27.8 million tonnes of solid waste is generated in Thailand. This is equivalent to 1.13 kilogrammes of rubbish per capita per day, of which 12-13% is plastic waste. In Bangkok, plastic waste accounts for approximately 20% of the 10,500 tonnes of trash collected each day -- roughly about 2,000 tonnes.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the amount of municipal waste collected in urban areas, such as Bangkok and other tourist hotspots, has decreased. In the case of Phuket, the amount of waste generated each day went down from 970 to 840 tonnes per day, a 13% reduction. Meanwhile, Pattaya saw a 55% reduction from 850 to 380 tonnes of trash per day. That said, the overall proportion of plastic waste has increased in almost all cities, particularly due to the growth of food delivery services in Thailand.
Waste from food orders
Food delivery services, along with online shopping platforms, have been rapidly growing in recent years -- especially in urban areas like Bangkok, where their growth is fuelled by technological advances, increasing consumer demand and the inadequate state of public transport. Under normal circumstances, these businesses could expect to expand by 10-20% annually. However, the coronavirus pandemic is expected to push demand beyond 100%.
The consequence of this growth is the increase of plastic waste. On average, a food delivery order generates at least five solid wastes, which may include plastic packaging, the food container, seasoning packets, beverage cups, eating utensils -- such as chopsticks, forks, spoons -- as well as tissue paper, which is often wrapped in plastic.
As the growth of food delivery services is mainly driven by customers' demand for convenience, it will be a challenge for these business to reduce waste and adopt greener strategies. That said, food delivery services should nevertheless provide environmentally-friendly ordering options, or enable eco-conscious consumers to forego plastic packaging altogether.
In order to reduce the amount of plastic waste, restaurants, food vendors, as well as delivery service providers and food packaging producers should consider the following:
1) Refrain from using and providing single-use plastics, such as spoons, forks and straws;
2) Choose biodegradable food containers, such as packages made of paper or bagasse;
3) Promote the use of reusable food containers by providing packaging deposit for niche-market customers;
4) Design and use containers which have separate compartments for different types of food, so more items can be packed in a single container;
5) Add ordering options to allow consumers to refuse cutlery they don't need.
Waste from medical masks
Another type of waste which has significantly grown in volume during the pandemic, is infectious waste -- especially used surgical masks. Around 1.5-2 million masks are disposed nationwide each day, especially in Bangkok, where the amount is equivalent to 1.7 tonnes per day.
At present, about 50 tonnes of infectious waste is collected from various medical centres each day. However, only about 43 tonnes is effectively incinerated each day.
According to a report on nationwide waste collection, municipal waste is often contaminated with infectious waste from the inappropriate disposal of used masks. It must be noted that incorrect disposal of such waste can lead to transmission -- and many infected patients do not display symptoms.
In order to prevent contamination:
1) Separate used medical masks from other household waste;
2) Dispose used masks rubbish bins intended for hazardous or infectious waste;
3) Store used masks in a labelled plastic bag or bottle before disposing them with other waste.
These measures will help authorities sort out household waste from infectious waste, which would then be incinerated at temperatures above 1,000ºC, which disinfects the waste.
Waste from home cooking
In addition to plastic waste from food orders and used masks, waste from home cooking has also risen in volume. At present, food waste accounts for over 50% of all waste generated in Thailand.
There are numerous ways to reduce waste from home cooking, which includes:
1) Plan menus ahead and buy fresh produce only as needed;
2) Store produce properly to prolong shelf life;
3) Grow herbs and vegetables in common use, such as sweet basil, holy basil, spring onion, coriander, water spinach and bean sprouts.
4) Choose menus which are preferred by the majority of household members to reduce waste from multiple preparations;
5) Refrigerate leftovers immediately and eat up by the next meal;
6) Separate food waste before disposal;
7) If there is space, organic waste could be composted and used as a bio-extract fertiliser.
Sorting is key
Separating waste is important, both now and after the Covid-19 pandemic, because it enables plastic waste to be collected and recycled -- thus reducing the strain on natural resources, which is also in keeping with the circular economy approach.
To do so, government agencies have to develop a waste management system which helps ensure plastic waste isn't mixed in with other waste and ultimately ending up in landfills.
This could be done by providing recycling bins to all households and setting collection schedules for recyclables. If not, authorities could set up recycling centres in local communities.
The government has to control the use of single-use plastics while providing incentives measures aimed at enabling eco-friendly products and packages to compete with general products.
Solid waste is a major problem which requires a major solution.
It requires us to assess what waste we unnecessarily generate, and set a target from there. If everyone collectively helps, there will be a huge positive change for the country.
Wijarn Simachaya, PhD, is president of Thailand Environment Institute.