Shopping au naturale

A Tesco-Lotus 'no plastic bag' campaign is a step in the right direction for Thailand's environment

When Tesco Lotus prepared to launch its first two "no plastic bag" stores in Koh Samui and Phuket last December, store clerks were instructed to exercise utmost patience and prepare to take earfuls of complaints.

Plastic bags have become a huge environmental problem in Thailand. The average Thai uses three plastic bags per day. Annually, 73 billion bags are used across the country. In Bangkok, it costs 1.78 million baht a day to collect and dispose of plastic bags.

Thais take plastic bags seriously, way beyond necessity.

Customers expect to receive plastic shopping bags even when they buy only a few items, or when they can use shopping carts to unload goods into their cars.

But the reactions of Tesco Lotus Express customers were surprising at the Baan Sai Yuan branch in Phuket and the Talad Laem Din branch in Koh Samui.

"Customers were confused when told that stores will not give them plastic bags. They were frustrated during the first two or three days. Afterwards, they returned to stores with cloth bags in their hands," said Charkrit Direkwattanachai, head of public affairs for Tesco Lotus.

The campaign earned praise from environmental activists.

"I think it is a combination of prevailing environmental awareness among the public and good communication.

"People always want to save the environment and they just need an enabling factor. So our stores have to make sure our consumers are being informed in advance," Charkrit said.

Information about the "no plastic bag" campaign was provided to customers two weeks in advance. Reusable plastic bags and cardboard boxes are provided free to shoppers. High-endurance shopping bags made of recycled plastic are available at 25 baht each.

The results were more than satisfactory. Since launching the campaign on Dec 4, the two stores have reduced use of plastic bags by 10,000. The British-based retailer become the first in Thailand to introduce plastic bag-free supermarkets.

Charkrit admitted the campaign has its limitations.

The campaign, he said, is most practical for small-sized retailers, like Tesco Lotus Express stores, where customers usually purchase small portions of goods.

"Yet the campaign is proof that customer behaviour can be changed," he said. Tesco Lotus this year plans to expand the no plastic bag campaign to another eight branches in tourist towns including Pattaya and Chiang Mai.

"These tourist towns need good environmental management to maintain a good environment. When we told local administrations and civic groups in Phuket and Samui that the anti-plastic bag campaign will improve the environment, local administration accepted our project and gave us cooperation," Charkrit said.

Behavioural change is essential for preparing consumers to pay for waste and pollution.

Charkrit believes that the government will enforce a packaging tax in the future — a pretext for making consumers pay for waste they generate.

Many European countries, as well as China, India and Bhutan, already have mandatory plastic bag charges or packing tax systems in place, but Thailand does not yet have any measures to charge customers or retailers for waste they produce.

It is not that the Thai government has not acknowledged the problem. The Ministry of Finance over 15 years ago floated a plan to implement a packaging tax, yet the initiative never took off because of resistance from the industrial sector.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) in 2010 launched a voluntary campaign for supermarkets to charge customers for plastic bags. The campaign was unsuccessful and abandoned. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Thais produce 1,800 tonnes of plastic bag waste per day, causing the BMA to spend 650 million baht a year disposing of it. Each Thai "consumes" three plastic bags per day.

Chaiyod Bunyagidj, former vice-president of the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI) and a member of the National Health Assembly, said a packaging tax is not the top priority in the national environmental policy.

Two years ago, the Ministry of Finance rolled out pollution taxes to control air and water pollution, pushing aside packaging and garbage tax.

But it is unfair to accuse the country of lacking a policy to reduce plastic bag use.

The ministry has a policy to promote investment in a bioplastic plant in Thailand. Bioplastic materials are made of plant-based fibre such as corn and tapioca, and are 100% biodegradable. The government's policy to make Thailand a regional hub for bioplastic production, however, does not fare well.

Last year US investors chose Malaysia over Thailand as a regional hub for bioplastic production plants. Additionally, many retailers in Thailand have turned to biodegradable plastic bags. Biodegradable bags, which are made of petrochemical-based materials, disintegrate after 180 days, while regular plastic bags take 420 years.

Tesco Lotus has already launched ‘no plastic bag’ supermarkets in Phuket and Samui and plans to open another eight at small size Tesco Lotus Express locations in tourist areas.

About the author

Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: Editorial pages editor