The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was patented in 1907 by Belgian chemist, Leo Baekeland. Bakelite was used in a variety of iconic products in the first half of the 20th century, but the overall use of plastic was then inconsequential in comparison to what followed.
Total global plastic production was estimated to be around 2 million tonnes back in 1950. That may sound like a lot, but the annual amount increased to 381 million tonnes by 2015 -- an increase of nearly 19,000%. Over the intervening years, plastics became ubiquitous, with over 8 billion tonnes produced by 2017.
Increasing plastic volumes created challenges. Of the 5.8 billion tonnes of plastic waste generated, less than 10% was recycled, while nearly 80% ended up in landfills or nature. The rest was incinerated.
Plastics that are disposed of on land often enter waterways and eventually end up in the ocean. One study estimated the amount of plastic entering the ocean by country. China led the list, while several Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, were near the top.
Part of the reason for Asia's concentration of leading plastic waste countries was not due to local plastic use. Instead, significant volumes came from wealthy countries as they exported their problem to developing nations. China took the lion's share for many years, but in 2018, the country's leaders banned plastic waste imports.
China's move left many exporters scrambling for other places to send their waste. Through that, the plastic challenge was amplified in many countries, including Thailand.
In Thailand, plastic is a double-edged sword. It offers many benefits, but systems to deal with it at the end of life are limited and underdeveloped. Much of the related work is performed by informal workers whose only wages are the compensation they receive for the material they collect.
Two recent research programmes worked to gain a better understanding of Thailand's plastic waste challenge. The first was led by Istvan Rado at Thammasat University's School of Global Studies, with a grant from the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT). The project studies the plastic waste flows and interactions in Thaklong municipality, near the Thammasat University Rangsit campus. The study conducted surveys with residents from over 400 households in Krisana House and Phoenix Park to learn about local attitudes and beliefs around waste management. They also held interviews with informal waste collectors, community leaders, and government agents. The insights gained from the effort led to the community-managed waste separation scheme in the Krisana House neighbourhood.
The second project was led by Diane Archer, a Senior Research Fellow with Stockholm Environment Institute Asia. The study aims to improve waste systems and promote the circular economy while including the informal workers who are critical to its current functioning. The team studied the regulatory, technical, economic, and physical environment, along with behavioural elements in urban Thailand that affected waste systems. Plastic waste was a primary focus of the study, as the team looked to reduce its overall use while also increasing recycling. They also developed policy options aimed at improving outcomes as they worked to "reconceive the urban waste sector with the goal of integrating informal workers as partners". The long-term goal is to foster cities that are just, inclusive, and sustainable. According to the study, such informal workers lack the basic protections that come with formal jobs, and they earned an average of 20% less than the Thai minimum wage.
The World Bank recently produced two reports that assessed plastic waste in Thailand. One report reviewed existing systems and mapped the flows of plastic waste materials. The other study looked at risks and opportunities.
The report on plastic waste flows found that 88.8% of municipal solid waste is collected, a relatively high figure, but that the nation still ended up with "an estimated 428 ktonnes/year of mismanaged plastic waste".
The same study found that 70% of the plastic waste that was at risk of entering the marine environment was generated in rural areas. Bangkok contributed 18% of that waste due to the city's large waste volume. A portion of that waste is disposed of directly into the Chao Phraya River, and 9.3 ktonnes of plastic waste end up in the marine environment via four high-priority catchments. This equated to 0.4 kilogrammes (kg) of plastic per capita.
The second World Bank report, aimed at uncovering relevant risks and opportunities in Thailand, found that only 17.6% of key plastic resins were recycled in 2018. It also found that around US$3.6 billion in value is lost each year with the disposal of 2.9 million tonnes of plastics.
Significant causes cited for those losses include the lack of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programme for plastic producers and importers of plastic packaging, limited demand in Thailand for recycled plastics, systems designed for waste collection rather than recycling, and incompatible financial incentives between the recycling and virgin plastics industries.
The report also cited the restriction against importing high-quality, recyclable scrap plastics as another challenge. The Covid-19 pandemic was a compounding factor due to the introduction of new products and shifts in usage.
Interestingly, the circumstances have changed. The report noted Thai government recently published new food packaging standards that allow for recycled content under certain circumstances. It also called out the threat of oil price drops to the recycling industry. That was the case from mid-2018 to early 2020, but they've since jumped significantly, thereby making recycled content significantly more attractive.
The Thai government is leading the way with the nation's Roadmap on Plastic Waste Management. It sets the vision of using the circular economy to move towards sustainable plastic management. That effort has two primary goals, to reduce the use of single-use plastic by replacing it with environmentally friendly products and to reutilise or recycle 100% plastics by 2027.
Specific product types were banned as part of the roadmap. These included microbeads, cap seals, and Oxo products in 2019. In 2022 thin plastic bags (<36 microns), foam food containers, thin plastic cups (<100 microns), and plastic straws were added to the list.
Whether and how those bans played on in deterring plastic use is an interesting question. Some likely had meaningful impacts, but grocery bags were widely used for waste disposal in Thailand before the ban. Since the ban went into effect, those bags have been replaced by trash bags in many households.
In another effort, Thailand's Creative Economy Agency (CEA) and the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) partnered on a programme that brought design professionals together with community members to collaborate on beneficial change. These programmes employed design thinking to improve waste collection and separation with the aims of increasing recycling and improving efficiency at energy-producing incineration plants.
Beyond research, funding will also be needed for testing new possibilities, as well as to support those which show promise. Along with government programmes, supporting such early-stage efforts might be an opportunity for plastic industry players, as well as philanthropies.
Whatever the source, we need to find ways to support change efforts and help fit solutions to local contexts, and find ways to do so that do not leave out the informal workers who depend on the system for their livelihood.
Chris Oestereich is a lecturer at Thammasat University's School of Global Studies and the founder of Morph Bags, an upcycling firm that transforms waste into useful products. Diane Archer is a senior research fellow with SEI Asia working on urban health and well-being. Istvan Rado is an Assistant Professor in Social Innovation at the School of Global Studies, Thammasat University.