Campus zero waste programs are a popular way to raise awareness about environmental issues and lifestyle choices with university students. At one campus in Thailand, former student Nicha Wachpanich digs deeper to show how students, staff and the university have different stakes in the waste problem.
When I was asked to write an article about Chula Zero Waste, I was hesitant because it wasn’t the best part of my memories at university. In my final year of studies, I was helping out on the plastic waste campaign but it didn’t come out as I expected – or perhaps how many people expected.
Chula Zero Waste is a campus zero waste program that focuses on reducing urban household and electronic waste from the beginning. It aims to cut down more than 30% of waste at Chulalongkorn University, a well-known university in the city center of Bangkok.
It has put the 3R golden rules of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ in action. All the stores on campus have stopped giving out free plastic bags, all plastic cups have been replaced with degradable paper cups, and the staff and students are equipped with water bottles and accessible water dispensers. On the last R of recycling, there are proper bins for waste segregation everywhere and various campaigns to raise awareness.
The first-phase goal was set for 5 years from 2017–2021 and just recently ended. The program has cut down approximately 40% of waste, exceeding its set target. Not to mention the fact that it has also inspired many other urban and educational institutions on waste management.
Chulalongkorn University is not the only academic institution trying to tackle plastic waste. There are up to 36 members in the Sustainable University Network of Thailand (SUN Thailand), founded in 2016 to exchange key learnings and develop policies aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
When I look back, I realize that Thailand’s waste management has come very far. However, success doesn’t come easily or even prettily. Chula Zero Waste has learned much from its failures.
“I feel that they don’t want students to be involved”
Mr Tanyatorn Rojmahamongkol, or Kiki (as he is known by his Thai nickname), doesn’t attend university only to study law but he also wants to participate in extra activities with friends. This year he was elected as the head of social development and community service affairs of the Student Council of Chulalongkorn University.
His team supervises student activities. They have tried to integrate the Zero Waste concept with all the activities they do year-round, such as freshman welcoming camps when they avoid single-use lunchboxes. For the Loy Krathong festival when Thais celebrate and give thanks to the water goddess, they tried to reduce the single-use foam or banana leaf krathong (‘floating rafts’) by only allowing krathong made from candle wax to recycle. These types of activities with environmental awareness didn’t exist at Chulalongkorn five years ago, however Kiki still isn’t pleased.
“We have raised a lot of zero waste awareness among students, but I feel like we haven’t done enough. The zero waste program is initiated by the university and I feel that they don’t want students to be involved.”
Kiki explained that the reasons behind this unsettling feeling was because talking about zero waste programs could easily be portrayed as a student-led initiative. Even so, there are things that the students can manage and things that are more structural that the university has to take into account, such as some malfunctioning segregated waste bins they found.
He pointed out that the zero waste expectations and responsibilities are not properly discussed and shared between the students and the university staff. “Students are here for only 4 years and we have the main responsibility to study. The university is readier to implement the tasks as they have more resources and responsibilities,” the young student said.
Kiki is keen to have more conversation and cooperation between the university and the students. One of his ongoing projects is Waste 360, providing information on standard zero waste guidelines and connecting students who want to carry out activities with agencies like Chula Zero Waste for waste-free tips and advice. The idea is new and he hopes to do more in the upcoming semester.
A rough path to the right balance on waste
The first time the university charged money for plastic bags, the campaign faced a handful of resistance as seen by a viral Facebook post written by a student criticizing the program as ecofascist. But as time passed, the resistance has lessened, thanks to the campaigning and the fact that people just got used to the new norm.
“It’s all about building a new norm and that’s not easy in the university,” Mr Korb Limsuwan, a current Chula Zero Waste supervisor, said. As a Chulalongkorn University graduate himself, he enjoys working across generations with the students and is more than willing to avoid ‘top-down’ waste management.
It has become harder now as COVID-19 hit and most students study from home. He agrees with Kiki’s comment that there is still a big gap or a ‘missing portal’ to let the students know that the university is there and ready to discuss any idea or need with them. “Here on campus, there are people of different ages from senior staff to young students. Each of them has a different character and a different way to communicate.”
More importantly, he pointed out that forming a zero waste culture is mainly about communication. Now they have decided to extend the 5-year program to phase two, as the waste operation has become well-organized but the culture still has a long journey ahead.
It’s not easy for a 40-year old like Korb to convince 18-year-old students to bear the burden of carrying their own water bottle, but their friends might be able to. “Our young communication staff showed me the campaign Let’s boost RAM for the final exam. Bring your own cup for free coffee!” He said laughingly. “I was puzzled. Did they spell the word wrong from rang [‘energy’ in Thai]? But they insisted that this is how the young people say it nowadays.”
Ms Pawitra Chamnanrot (known as Mimi) is part of the young communication staff at Chulalongkorn University. Also a graduate, majoring in applied art with a passion in environmental issues, she dedicated her thesis exhibition to talk about plastic waste. At that time, zero waste was not on campus and even though she wanted to actively participate in a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, she couldn’t find a segregated bin or water dispenser available.
Now she has fully joined Chula Zero Waste with many creative ideas. One of them is connecting the current students with all the seniors who work in the environmental field in order to broaden their understanding, so they don’t have to spend years searching for the right career path like her, she explained.
From student idea to first job: an innovative refill service
Four years on campus are very short. This is especially true in the case of the campus' zero waste program. It’s hard to deny the fact that students are like passengers who spend only a few years in the community and culture needs more time to grow and cultivate. But after I talked with recently-graduated engineer Mr Rhach Roongnirandon, also known as Po, I believe that zero waste culture might not just expire abruptly with the student’s status.
Termtem (‘full term’ in Thai), a refill delivery service with stations, is Po’s and his friend’s start-up project when they were students. It began as an idea to win a college business entrepreneurship competition but has expanded to become a real service.
They believe that zero waste can be a convenient lifestyle as well by delivering heavy-weighted refilled shampoo to the door. Not only do refill services help reduce plastic waste, but the price is also very attractive. First, their targets were the younger generation so they chose online campaigning in social media like Instagram and TikTok, but found out later that older generations also wanted to use the service as well.
How can a small refill service beat the big corporates? Po and his team seized the opportunity of being university students. They opened up service inside campus and the neighborhood communities with support from Chula Zero Waste in terms of location and advice. Other big brands would need to undergo a long process if they wanted to open up one refill station here.
Having graduated this year, Po and his friends have went on to pursue different career paths to learn new things. The refill delivery service has shrunk to only one station under the university’s dormitory to suit their situation and still keep awareness on the zero waste issue.
“The project has opened up my understanding on environmental issues and I met friends from other faculties that have similar passions, but we agreed to go learn other different skills. But we keep catching up in our free time,” he outlined. “This is the nature of a start-up, to be ‘lean’ – small but resilient. We have nothing much to lose and so much more to explore.”
Getting a chance to catch up with all these people, I realized that Chula Zero Waste or other campus zero waste campaigns might not turn out as many might have expected. They don’t have their own student-led core team or a straightforward smooth path, but it has played a very important role in incubating many passionate young people.
Who said the zero-waste path ends after you leave the campus gate?
Nicha Wachpanich is a journalist at Green News, an Environmental online-news outlet in Thailand. She has been a full-time journalist since 2019 and cover news of Environment, Climate Change in Thailand. She is also member of Thai Society of Environmental Journalists and Thai Journalists Association. She has Bachelor of Arts major in Spanish and minor in Philosophy from Chulalongkorn University.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.