Despite the government's bravado about the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) being the country's economic powerhouse, one important question still gets an elusive answer: Has the EEC fulfilled its promise of protecting the environment?
The environmental concern is valid. Take the Eastern Seaboard, for example -- the location of heavy industry as well as the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate. It ranks as the country's oldest and largest petrochemical refinery hub yet it has witnessed a number of serious environmental concerns, such as air pollution, industrial waste and untreated wastewater.
The same mistakes must not be allowed to be repeated at the EEC.
To be fair, the EEC has brought many positive changes to the provinces that fall within its jurisdiction: Rayong, Chon Buri and Chachoengsao. Their local economies have expanded, providing more jobs and growth. Moreover, people's quality of life is likely to develop for the better thanks to the expansion of public health, education and transportation infrastructure.
However, such intensive industrial development has created an enormous waste problem that still lacks effective solutions. If not addressed in time, the long-term adverse effects on public health and the environment will become evident and might exceed the EEC's economic gains.
According to the Eastern Region Sustainable Development Report 2021, a collaboration between the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (Gistda), the Snoh Unakul Foundation and the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), the three provinces in the EEC are now facing serious municipal solid waste and industrial waste problems, in addition to ongoing air and water pollution.
Focusing on the EEC's performance on waste management, the report urges the government to tackle the rapid escalation of waste from industrial development, an increased population and rapid urbanisation.
After scrutinising the EEC's waste management system, the research team found that, despite some successful efforts, many obstacles remain.
A successful system to manage municipal solid waste must start with community awareness and their active participation to reduce and segregate waste at the source for recycling and safe disposal. Yet this is not happening. There is little public understanding in the EEC areas of waste segregation and recycling due to the government's failed campaign.
Furthermore, the buying prices of recyclable plastic and other forms of waste are still not attractive. Waste transporters must also shoulder the high transportation costs of traveling to recycling centres or junk shops themselves. The communities and businesses on the islands off the eastern coast do not bother to segregate their waste and go to the mainland to sell them.
Without waste separation, a recycling opportunity for the circular economy is lost. It also increases the government's financial burden to dispose of municipal solid waste. Due to the contamination of organic waste, producing refuse-derived fuel (RDF) from wet solid waste is more expensive because it uses more heat or energy to dry the waste first.
The next problem is the local administrative organisations' lack of sufficient budget to manage municipal solid waste or get the necessary machines, equipment and personnel.
Landfills also face many problems. Landfill pollution causes grave environmental problems, particularly for nearby communities, such as contamination of groundwater and the emission of greenhouse gases.
Strict rules and regulations must be put in place and there should be effective enforcement to protect the environment and local communities.
EEC facing many hurdles
Despite the growing number of industrial waste treatment factories, they cannot keep up with the rapid increase of waste generated by industries in the EEC. Also, many waste disposal and recycling factories have limited capacity and technology to treat toxic waste.
Sending industrial waste to treatment factories is costly; thus, some industrial operators cut corners by dumping it on public land.
To protect the environment and local communities, the focus should be on the economic benefits, environmental health and people's quality of life.
The Eastern Region Sustainable Development Report 2021 has made several policy recommendations to improve waste management in the EEC for sustainable development.
To tackle the municipal solid waste problem and boost the recycling rate, public awareness and people's participation must be increased to reduce and separate waste correctly. But it must not stop there, says the report.
The local governments' human resources in waste management should be strengthened and incentives must be provided to residents to separate waste at the source. Behavioural change to reduce waste must be a policy emphasis, particularly for areas with no land for landfills, such as in island communities.
In addition, recycling should be made easy and convenient for the public. Local authorities should increase the availability of recycling bins and collection points in easily accessible public areas. Using digital platforms to connect households with recycling businesses can significantly boost the recycling rate. The authorities must also give more concrete support to the recycling industry to turn recyclable materials into new products as part of the circular economy.
Inter-agency coordination is also crucial for effective waste management in the EEC. Different organisations there should formalise their collaboration through memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to exchange data for mutual waste management planning.
Waste collection fees must also cover the costs of waste transport and waste disposal. Moreover, waste collection stations and waste treatment facilities must comply with proper land use policy and not create adverse effects on the environment.
Similarly, for industrial waste, the government must create incentives for the factories in the EEC to manage this at the source. Any outdated rules and laws, such as the law governing transfers of toxic waste, should also be amended to support cost-effective waste management.
The circular economy should be the main concept in industrial waste management and disposal. The technology to recycle and reuse toxic industrial waste through industrial symbiosis should be promoted by supporting the use of industrial waste or the by-products of one industry to be a resource for another industry.
Importantly, the waste management and disposal system must not exceed the local carrying capacity. The industrial waste treatment facilities must be located in areas safe for locals and the environment. The treatment of hazardous waste must be professional under strict rules and regulations to prevent environmental pollution.
Since the industrial waste treatment industry requires a very high cost of investment, which impedes newcomers and limits competition, the government must offer investment support measures to bring new players with new technology into the picture.
If the government expects the EEC to be a model for its future economic zone in other regions, it must seriously address the obstacles to waste management there. The state authorities must display their commitment to preventing and managing the adverse effects of industrialisation efficiently and professionally.
Economic growth is of crucial importance, but not at the cost of the health of the Thai people or the environment.
The failure to protect both will further intensify local resistance to future industrial development mega projects.
Short of a real commitment to protecting the environment, the government has only itself to blame for the environmental time bomb the EEC represents.
Kannika Thampanishvong, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow, and Promphat Bhumiwat is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.