In 2016, the World Economic Forum foretold that without effective intervention, the amount of plastic waste would exceed fish in our oceans by 2050. The writing on the wall was clear -- act now or lose an ecosystem that generates half the oxygen we breathe. Thailand, ranked the sixth-worst ocean polluter, moved quickly to adopt the ambitious "Plastic Waste Road Map 2018-2030", a plan which promised to phase out consumer dependency on single-use plastics through specific targets with the ultimate goal of ensuring all plastic waste by 2027 is recyclable.
Earlier this year, the plan sprang into life when 75 retailers nationwide agreed to stop providing single-use plastic bags to their customers -- spurred by criticism of baby dugong Marium's death. However, an initial consumer backlash soon gave way to general acceptance as shoppers adapted to carrying their own biodegradable bags. A survey by the National Institute of Development Administration in January found 58% were in favour of the ban. The "war" on plastic had begun and a milestone was set -- to reduce by 30% the use of 45 billion plastic bags every year.
Yet the fight had only just begun when the coronavirus pandemic hit and shifted public perception back in favour of single-use plastics, undoing years of hard work and campaigns. An online poll by the Institute of Public Policy and Development in April found that 62% now viewed single-use plastics as necessary. People are now reluctant to bring their own containers for takeout and rubbish collectors are afraid to sort through waste, fearful of contamination and infection.
Moreover, lifestyles have changed over the past few months as many are now turning to food deliveries or online shopping to avoid going out. As a result, the amount of plastic waste generated every day has increased by 15%, from 5,500 tonnes to 6,300 tonnes a day, according to the Pollution Control Department.
Amid these pressing times, the government has a responsibility to not abandon its timeline. While Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa acknowledged Covid-19 has dealt a setback, he believes the problem could be put on hold until the virus crisis subsides. "Don't fight many battles at a time," he said.
If not now, then when? Surely, Mother Nature will not simply allow us to place the problem on pause. Once a tipping point is reached, it will be too late to apply the proverbial band-aid and hope the detrimental effects subside.
While it's difficult to control consumer behaviour, the government should not compound the problem by generating plastic waste in activities under its control. Last Sunday, a post by Henry Tan -- a Thai artist who had returned to Thailand from Japan and spent 14 days in state quarantine -- on Facebook went viral as it showed how much waste was generated over two weeks at the facility. Images showed a pile of at least a hundred containers and water bottles as the facilities served meals in plastic containers.
The government is taking a step in the right direction with its Song Plastic Klap Ban (Send plastic back home) campaign to encourage people to separate infectious waste from recyclables and set up drop-off locations for people to drop off plastic for upcycling. We may need more such initiatives if people are to once again embrace the idea of tackling plastic waste.