Bangkokians rarely sort trash, often leaving soup-splashed, rotting, toxic messes on the street for garbage collectors and scavengers, who are only able to resell a fraction to be recycled. The environmentally-conscious who do sort their waste must send specific types of material to volunteer initiatives out of their own pocket. Some of these initiatives have diverted plastic into recyclable items, including PPE suits for frontline health workers, even as the capital drowns in COVID-19 and plastic.
Bangkok’s plastic waste usage jumped 62 percent since the pandemic began, surging from 2,120 tons per day in 2019 to 3,440 tons per day in 2020, according to the Thailand Environment Institute. As residents hunker down in lockdown after lockdown, food deliveries and online shopping packages which generate multiple pieces of plastic per order have become a necessary evil that has overwhelmed local garbage disposal infrastructure.
Tenuous Trash System
Unlike developed countries, Thailand does not have a centralized recycling system and instead relies on garbage resellers or private volunteer initiatives to prevent waste from going directly to landfills.
Tara Buakamsri, Greenpeace country director of Thailand explained that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration hires private garbage collectors to collect trash from around the city’s curbs. The collectors will bring the day’s load to a trash sorting checkpoint where garbage resellers (called saleng after the motorized wagons that they ride) may sort through the trash for sellable items such as plastic bottles, glass, and aluminium cans before the rest goes to the landfill.
“If the garbage collector remembers that this specific house always sorts their trash, then on the truck they’ll set it aside when pouring all the trash together, so it’s easier for resellers later,” Tara said. “The rest is put in the landfills, and since all the landfills in Bangkok are already full, they just get sent to get buried in other provinces.”
However, most Thais will have low trust in this overburdened system, believing that any sorted trash will be mixed together and picked apart only for items that can be resold. Households pay 40 baht a month in “trash tax” – no matter how much or little, how sorted or dirty their trash is, giving little incentive for individual households to sort paper from plastic, and so on.
“If you put trash on the side of the road, rats and cockroaches could infest it and it will be more of a burden to garbage sorters,” Pattarin Chitagon, who runs the Normal Shop: Zero Waste Community, a refill shop who sorts all of her trash and sends them to recycling programs said. “So I choose not to contribute to that at all.”
To make matters worse, Thailand has imported trash of about 600,000 tons per year over the past few years. The garbage, mostly from Japan, the US, and UK has disrupted this already tenuous waste disposal system. Garbage resellers find that sorting the imported trash is easier than picking through local trash, driving the price of scavenged trash down.
Out of Our Own Pockets
Amidst the flood of trash and plastic, a handful of initiatives are trying to divert plastic from going to overwhelmed garbage collectors and landfills. However, these recycling groups in Thailand are quite scattered – each initiative might only accept certain specific materials and have a limited way of collecting the waste. Environmentally-conscious residents must send specific types of trash to specific charities at their own expense.
“That means people have to memorize where to donate aluminium cans, where to send milk packets, where to send plastic bottles. A lot of people donate by mail as well, which has a carbon footprint,” Metha Senthong, the network coordinator at Less Plastic said.
Less Plastic and other plastic donation groups often advertise their initiatives online, especially via Facebook pages. Popular posts are reshared widely on the platform by other donation groups as well as green-minded users.
Still, for many it’s a more comforting option than leaving bags on the side of the road in hopes that a saleng comes by.
“Once you send it to these organizations, you know what’s being done with it, you can follow-up with them. If you leave it on the side of the road, you have no way of knowing, except for the fact that unsellable garbage will go to the landfill for sure,” Pattarin said.
Pattarin Chitagon, 43, runs the Normal Shop: Zero Waste Community on Nang Linchi Road in Bangkok. Refill shops like hers allow people to fill their own containers with liquid shampoos, soaps, floor cleaners, and other products that offer an alternative to buying items with plastic packaging.
Normal Shop continues to stay open even though many such shops have closed down during Bangkok’s COVID-19 wave. Initially, many of the shop’s regulars were expats, but now the customer base is a solid 50/50 with Thais. The shop usually allows people to drop off plastic and other trash for recycling initiatives, but had to pause donations out of surface contamination, even as plastic use skyrockets.
People who want to send trash to these recycling initiatives have to do so via registered mail or an expensive courier. As the economic downturn worsens due to subsequent lockdowns and unemployment from the tourism industry is rife, promoting people to clean, sort, and transport plastic waste out of their own pocket is a hard sell.
“On the individual or small business level, costs of recycling are climbing because we have to send the trash ourselves,” Pattarin said. “And what’s more, there’s still a large amount of Thai people living hand to mouth, barely making money to survive. It’s very hard to expect that they will sort and clean all of their trash at their own expense too.”
Where to Send Your Plastic
Despite the strong disincentives in recycling plastic in Bangkok, two homegrown plastic recycling initiatives set up by Thais during the pandemic have shown that locals have a strong desire to go green – even at their own cost.
Less Plastic Thailand turns PET plastic, such as from green tea and mineral water bottles, into desperately-needed medical PPE suits for frontline health workers.
The group launched their “Separate Bottles to Help Doctors” project with the initial aim of making 5,000 suits during the first, milder wave in 2020.
But with the recent surge of infections that has crippled the entire healthcare system with around 20,000 infections and 200 deaths per day, Less Plastic continued to work and as of August 2021 has churned out more than 20,000 suits sent to public hospitals in 29 provinces.
“Thai people love doing charity and donating. This campaign showed me that Thais actually want to sort their trash and help out others, even though there’s no ecosystem for it,” he said. “I hope I can help Thais recognize PET bottles, and create that ecosystem.”
Volunteers collect plastic bottles at drop-off spots across Bangkok, cut them into strips, weave them into cloth, and then tailor them into PPE suits. It costs around 400 to 450 baht to make a suit, which is usable up to 20 times – putting the cost at 50 baht per use including washing fees, as opposed to 170 baht for a one-time-use plastic PPE suit.
“Healthcare workers have told me that they like wearing these because they are more comfortable. Disposable PPE suits are basically like wearing a raincoat that is also an uncomfortable plastic sauna,” Metha, a Less Plastic coordinator said. “Our suits are waterproof and protect against COVID, but since it’s cloth, the workers say they feel less stressed wearing one.”
To drop off your PET bottles, check for the closest location here.
The reusable suits also decrease use of plastic PPE suits, which are classified as hazardous waste and must be incinerated. Incinerating centers for Bangkok waste are overwhelmed – Metha says a major one in Nonthaburi currently has 500 tons of hazardous waste sitting there, waiting to be burned.
One of the most ambitious plastic recycling initiatives is Cirplas, a startup which accepts almost all kinds of plastic trash and turns them into flakes or pellets for corporate use.
The initiative launched in April in the thick of Thailand’s deadliest COVID-19 wave and mandatory lockdowns.
“To get rid of all of your trash, you have to clean them, sort them, send the bottle caps to one recycling initiative, the PET bottles to another. So we thought, why don’t we accept all types of plastic?” Cirplas’ chief marketing officer Ingpat Yuki Pakchairatchakul said.
Cirplas accepts all types of clean plastic except PVC (types 1 to 7, except for 3). Of the donated plastic, almost all of them are sent in by individual consumers and are single-use plastic from food deliveries and online shopping packages.
Cirplas often posts on social media about how certain types of plastics can be recyclable, such as plastic postal packages, which often comes as a surprise to the audience.
“Apparently a lot of people have been told by garbage resellers that only clear plastic bottles, not colored ones like Sprite, can be recycled,” Ingpat said. “The fact is, the resellers get a lower price for selling them than for clear bottles, or can’t sell them at all.”
Habits of sorting greasy plastic takeout boxes, washing them, and storing them to be sent to waste recycling centers like Cirplas are yet to be ingrained by most people, but that’s due to lack of awareness, Ingpat said.
“Although Thai people enjoy convenience and don’t think about plastic use, we can’t just blame the consumer,” she said. “The government doesn’t raise any awareness about plastic recycling, about washing plastic or anything – they just tell people to throw it away.”
Like with Less Plastic, Ingpat has seen a ray of hope. Cirplas has proved to be popular, its repeat users showing that Thais have a desire to see their plastic waste put to good use despite the lack of overarching infrastructure.
Ingpat says she was touched at how Cirplas received a box of plastic waste that cost 126 baht to send (an expensive mail price in Thailand, or USD 3.81). Another parcel of plastic was sent all the way from Pattani, the southernmost province more than 1,000 km away.
“We have a lot of school children who really want to recycle waste from home. There’s this one 13 year old who got their mom to drop them off, and they gave us all the plastic waste their house made.”
Although Cirplas only has one dropoff spot for now, the company plans to expand and produce products with the plastic flakes and pellets or sell them to other companies. Cirplas also plans to launch an app where users can collect points for recycling plastic, and redeem those points for products and services.
Still, due to the high cost and inconvenience of transporting trash to private initiatives, recycling without government incentives and aid remains a niche activity. The majority of COVID-19 era plastic trash is coming from Bangkok, where plastic recycling programs are often located – but a concerning amount of plastic trash is also originating from the other 76 provinces. The pre-pandemic national plastic trash output of 5,500 tons a day increased by a whopping 15 percent to 6,300 tons since the outbreak. To prevent these areas from having fuller and fuller landfills, many residents outside of the capital must pack their trash and mail them to volunteer groups in Bangkok.
Asaree Thaitrakulpanich is a journalist at Khaosod English, writing news articles ranging from hard crime, politics to environment, lifestyle and culture. She graduated from Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Arts; Bachelor of Arts in Language and Culture in 2016 as a gold medalist valedictorian.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.