Drowning in a sea of plastic
After years of environmental activism, the government and some private companies are improving waste management
Thailand is more aware than ever of the threat posed by plastic waste to the ecosystem and environment, especially trash in the oceans. As seen on the news, marine life is ingesting plastic waste and suffering immeasurably.
Other countries are also hurting from the deluge of plastic waste. Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit group, reports that 150 million tonnes of plastic waste is circulating in oceans, seas and other water sources, having built up since the 1950s.
The amount of plastic waste is likely to increase, due to ineffective management of waste and low levels of plastic recycling, especially in developing countries.
According to Siam Commercial Bank's Economic Intelligence Center, Thailand ranks sixth in the list of the world's worst offenders for dumping plastic waste into the sea, behind China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
Leading Thailand's plastic waste in the sea are bags (13%), straws (10%) and food containers (8%).
While the crisis has been looming for over a decade, all stakeholders -- authorities, companies and individuals in Thailand -- are being forced to take action as the huge volume of plastic rubbish awaiting disposal grows exponentially.
Each stakeholder has to take responsibility and not depend on volunteers, activists or social responsibility projects from companies in order to preserve the environment and actively use higher-quality biodegradable plastic products.
Volunteers kayak to collect waste in the Chao Phraya River before it floats into the Gulf of Thailand. Pongpat Wongyala
All on alert
Several hundreds of plastic moulders in Thailand are expected to revamp their production processes and product categories in line with new measures to wipe out single-use plastic within three years.
Thailand is a global plastic production hub because of a strong supply chain, upstream, midstream and downstream, fuelled by demand across Asia.
By 2019, Thailand will be free from three types of plastic -- microbeads, cap seals and oxo-degradable plastics -- and from four other types of single-use plastics to be banned by 2022, according to a government plan approved by the cabinet on April 16.
Four single-use plastics to be rid of by 2022 are lightweight plastic bags less than 36 microns thick, styrofoam food containers for takeaway, plastic cups and plastic straws.
Col Athisit Chainuwat, an assistant government spokesman, said the new action plan from the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is expected to be revealed to the public this year.
The plan targets plastic waste management and aims to use 100% recycled plastic by 2027 through the application of various methods, including turning waste into energy.
Col Athisit said the cabinet instructed related agencies to create various mechanisms to advance the plan, such as promoting understanding among staff and officials and implementing PR campaigns on social media to achieve the set goals.
On June 4, the cabinet approved measures to promote biodegradable plastic packaging in order to reduce the state's burden of reducing and managing plastic waste.
Companies will be allowed to claim deductions of up to 1.25 times for expenses if they buy biodegradable plastic packaging during 2019-21.
The tax measures are expected to attract 10% of existing plastics entrepreneurs to switch to bioplastics production. The government expects the measure to cost some 1.3 billion baht a year in forgone revenue.
Somsak Borrisuttanakul, chief executive of TPBI, said his company plans to transition from single-use plastic bags to reusable and biodegradable plastic ones in line with the global trend.
"The trend came about three years ago, so 60% of our total revenue from plastic bags must be shifted to biodegradable products," he said.
TPBI acquired British-based Intelipac last October in a deal worth 547 million baht, expecting to enhance its product portfolio to include both paper and reusable plastic packaging products.
"The new business means attracting new customers, retaining existing customers and increasing revenue by 1 billion baht per year," Mr Somsak said.
Paper tableware will be the company's new segment, expecting to represent 30% of the company's revenue.
The other 70% will come from reusable plastic bags, which are thicker than traditional plastic ones.
Mr Somsak, also an adviser to the Thai Bioplastics Industry Association, said plastic moulders are unavoidable for future changes, so they have to shift to thicker plastic bags with woven materials.
The trend will not require huge spending, since many companies are worried about shifting to reusable plastic products.
"Given the plastic waste management landscape, it will be a challenge for the new government to outline and achieve its goals," Mr Somsak said.
Weerachat Kittirattanapaiboon, managing director of Biodegradable Packaging for Environment (BPE), said the action from authorities is encouraging mobilisation from all stakeholders in the country after years of environmental advocates calling for changes.
"Under the plan, oxo-plastic bags will be banned because they are not degradable, but many shopping malls and department stores are claiming that they are degradable," he said. "The oxo-plastic type will decay to tiny pieces and easily pollute land and marine ecosystems. More importantly, this plastic type is very harmful for marine and land ecosystems."
Mr Weerachat said BPE has the Gracz brand, positioned to supply biodegradable packages that have received a positive response from many companies, academic institutions and convenience stores.
"We have made agreements with others and our production of the Gracz brand has increased from 800,000 pieces per day in 2016 to 2 million pieces per day," he said. "The brand offers plates, bowls and food boxes, all made from sugar-cane fibre."
Supattanapong Punmeechaow, president and chief executive of PTT Global Chemical Plc (PTTGC), said the company aims to terminate the production of single-use plastic resin at its petrochemical complex within five years, from 150,000 tonnes a year used at present, mostly to produce bottles, straws and plastic bags.
"Plastic resin will be designed for high-grade plastic moulding such as building materials, home and decoration, textiles and garments, and auto parts instead of plastic bags," Mr Supattanapong said.
The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is campaigning to reduce plastic bag use at supermarkets and shopping malls. Tawatchai Kemgumnerd
Surasak Leungaramsri, vice-chairman of the plastics industry club at the Federation of Thai Industries, said Thai plastic moulders number roughly 3,000 companies. The club is confident that they have been aware of the declining trend in plastic use for several years because they export plastic products to many countries where single-use plastics have been banned.
PTTGC, IRPC, Indorama and SCG Chemicals are major plastic moulding makers.
"The government's action plan should provide a sufficient grace period for small and medium-sized companies to adjust their production," Mr Surasak said.
Kriengsak Wongpromrat, president of the Plastics Institute of Thailand, said the production capacity of plastic beads in Thailand will be flat, staying at 8 million tonnes from 2018 to 2019, because the government's policy is promoting lower use of some plastic products and outright banning others.
Demand at home and abroad is declining. Thailand's plastics market has a value of 500-600 billion baht a year and supplies roughly 4-5 million tonnes to the manufacturing sector.
Mr Kriengsak said 2 million tonnes of plastic beads for manufacturing is allocated to the packaging industry, which is driven by e-commerce and the food and drink sector.
Thailand exports plastic beads at roughly 2-3 million tonnes a year.
"In the past, the plastics sector expanded 1-2% annually, but this trend is expected to become a contraction in the future," Mr Kriengsak said.
Thailand is also a plastics production hub for Southeast Asia, with the bulk of manufacturers located at Map Ta Phut in Rayong province.
The Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate houses the plastics cluster for polypropylene, polyethylene and high-density polyethylene to supply both domestic and foreign users.
Mr Kriengsak said other countries are also facing pressure to reduce plastic use as environmental concerns gain traction.
"Plastic waste cannot be destroyed easily, so all authorities have to issue new policies to resolve the overwhelming waste problem," he said.
The public and private sectors are teaming up with the common goal of full plastic recycling by 2030.
The government is discussing best practices in the framework of reduction, reuse and recycling, and Thailand must work diligently to increase recycling capacity.
Many actors in the private sector are building recycling plants for plastic waste, including PTTGC and Alpla Packaging (of Austria) in Rayong and Suez (of France) in Samut Prakan.