More than 20 million tourists visited the nation's 154 national parks in 2019, generating some 2.2 billion baht in revenue, according to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP). Besides providing a much-needed cash influx, human carelessness or perhaps ironically a lack of care for the environment also meant that these visitors brought with them rubbish -- and lots of it -- in the form of plastic, styrofoam, glass, metal and more.
It is known that it takes a single piece of plastic 20 years to biodegrade and a styrofoam container requires a millennium. When left to the elements, some of this rubbish is eventually consumed by wildlife, to deadly effect. Litter is also detrimental for the environment as it not only destroys its aesthetic beauty but also poses a fire hazard.
Although the National Park Office was supposed to enforce a ban on plastic across all national parks to "beat pollution" starting August 2018, perpetrators have been largely free to flout the law. Yet the DNP has lauded the success of this campaign touting a vague figure of "three million items" -- the amount of plastic waste this policy supposedly reduced in its first year of operation.
Plastic waste is clearly still piling up but hopefully that will no longer be the case if Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa gets his way. Last Tuesday, he announced via Facebook that Khao Yai National Park, the nation's oldest, would return rubbish to its respective owners through the post. He went on to warn that future offenders would be registered with the local police and possibly face five years in prison and/or a fine of 500,000 baht.
Over the years, the DNP has asked for the cooperation of visitors to not litter and/or to dispose of their rubbish at pre-determined locations, going as far as distributing disposable bags upon entrance. Yet such measures have largely failed to hit the mark.
The DNP cannot afford to be lenient. Last October, a young male deer died a gruesome death in a national park in Nan. The autopsy found seven kilogrammes of plastic bags in his stomach. Incidents like this must not be allowed to happen.
So, how effective will this name and shame strategy actually be in changing long-term behaviour?
It's important to note that knee-jerk reactions have a favourable short-term effect only. Unless pressure is maintained on those who litter, waste will keep piling up in national parks. To prevent that from happening, a national campaign to educate people about the ills of leaving rubbish behind and a push for change in their attitudes is necessary.
Such campaigns have been employed in several other countries with noticeable effect. In 1953, the Keep America Beautiful organisation was formed and began airing anti-littering messages, altering the psyche of Americans. In particular, its 1971 "Crying Indian" advertisement -- viewed 14 billion times to date -- labelled individual consumers as "litterbugs" and made them responsible for their trash instead of manufacturers. Regardless of the controversial approach, the tactic worked and visitors to national parks in the US today largely follow and respect the "leave no trace behind" principle.
Besides changing people's attitudes, the DNP must also reduce people's reliance on plastic within their jurisdiction. Even today, eateries within national parks supply food to willing customers in the normal way; by over-using plastic packaging. However, there are alternatives such as eco-friendly bento boxes and tiffin boxes which make transporting food easy. Why not encourage or financially incentivise restaurants in national parks to offer such a service? To encourage visitors to return the containers, a refundable deposit can be charged upon purchase. If there is widespread adoption of such practices, it would eliminate a major source of how waste is left behind.
Last but not least, national parks must look at their own waste management practices. Are there enough rubbish disposal facilities for guests? Are they located conveniently next to campsites or hiking trails? Moreover, are the bins animal-proof or can wildlife easily access rubbish and spread it around the park? The DNP must take a long, hard look at its facilities and determine if they are adequate enough to accommodate today's footfall and not when the parks first became operational. If not, it must devise solutions using proper scientific and effective waste disposal systems.
What is clear is that the nation's tourism industry is still reeling from the effects of Covid-19, which means national parks are operating at less than full capacity. This is a rare opportunity for the DNP to test pilot projects and adopt successful waste disposal practices so that when tourism does resume at full capacity, the environment does not fall prey to human interference. Otherwise, park closures which have been promised to last a few months every year may end up becoming longer.