When it comes to policy on waste management and recycling, the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration is generally deemed to be progressive. The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry in 2018 made a landmark decision to slap a ban on the importation of plastics and electronic waste which is to take effect on Jan 1 next year. Previously, the ministry jump-started a voluntary campaign to ban single-use plastic bags in department stores and retailers nationwide. Within one month of the restriction beginning, over 3.7 billion less one-time use plastic bag were used nationally.
Furthermore, the ministry announced it aims to have plastic waste in Thailand recycled 100% by 2027. That is an ambitious plan given the country's current recycling capacity is only 25% at most.
Yet the goal of 100% recycling may be elusive due to resistance from the plastics industry.
Early this month, the Department of Industrial Works (DIW) under the Industry Ministry asked the government to allow the importation of another 650,000 tonnes of plastic waste next year, despite the official ban becoming effective on Jan 1. The national committee on imported plastic and electronic waste discussed the matter yesterday with inconclusive results. Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa reportedly asked the DIW to determine whether there is a real demand for it.
The DIW explained the imports are still necessary as manufacturers cannot rely on plastic waste in the country as it is not properly sorted and most is tainted and unfit to be used as raw materials.
While the impurity of local plastic waste is an issue, the government should not postpone the ban. Indeed, the government has already given them two years to prepare, with an approved quota of imported plastic waste materials amounting to 110,000 tonnes during 2018-2020. It should be noted also that amounts imported exceeded the quota. Last year alone, imported plastic waste amounted to around 320,000 tonnes and hit more than 96,000 tonnes in the first half of this year, according to the Customs Department.
Greenpeace, in its 2019 report, said the total amount of imported plastic waste between 2016 and 2018 rose from 836,529 tonnes to 2,265,962 tonnes. That catapulted Thailand into the unenviable position of being a new disposal outlet for foreign rubbish. Even worse, weak law enforcement has seen shipments of illegal toxic and electronic waste arriving on Thai shores.
But what is more damaging in the long term is the impact on the recycling business in Thailand. Each year, Thailand generates almost two million tonnes of plastic waste. So, there is already plenty of plastic waste waiting to be recycled. The country has a supply chain known as the saleng -- 1.5 million rubbish scavengers and 30,000 registered shops that buy recycled waste from them. Yet imported plastic waste would undermine the local recycling industry by affecting the supply and therefore the market price.
What the government needs to do is to improve its refuse recycling system nationwide. Local administration agencies such as the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration need to lay the groundwork for a better recycling system, adding bins as well as drop-off points so plastic waste can be sorted properly and channelled for use as a raw material in industrial manufacturing. A strong campaign to raise awareness of the need to separate different types of rubbish would also be helpful too.
However, no ideal recycling system will happen easily or quickly enough if the government continues to postpone the ban and grants another reprieve for factories to import foreign waste into the country.