Trash Mountain, a story of severe waste mismanagement

An overcast sky looms over Beung District in Sri Racha, Chonburi Province. Birds swoop over a landscape of green – green patches of land, green ponds. But there is something not quite right about the colour. The dark green ponds are flecked with foam. The bluish-green earth is specked with black and grey plastic. As the camera pans closer, you see the green form itself into a landmass, a mountain.  

This is Chonburi’s ‘Trash Mountain.’ Its pervasive presence makes it a captivating main character in Buried Dead Mountain, a recently released documentary film by director Primrin Puarat and producer Pom Bunsermvicha about Thailand’s trash crisis.

Made up of 3 million tonnes of waste – the same weight as ten Empire State Buildings – Trash Mountain looms large over the locals of Beung District.

“Before, it wasn’t this big. But now if you open your door and look at it, you could mistake it for Khao Kheow (Green Mountain in Sri Racha). It’s very tall. It’s also…very smelly,” says a nearby villager, looking over the landmass from his balcony.

“We chose the Chonburi Trash Mountain as a symbol,” says director Primrin, “because it represents many facets of the waste management problem that is rampant throughout Thailand.”

For producer Pom, “the mismanaged landfill is the last step before it all explodes. But so much has to happen for it to lead up to this point, so it is unpacking and understanding what led up to this mountain.”

Trash Mountain, a colloquial name for the Beung District dumpsite, is one of Thailand’s 2,500 dumpsites, only 20 per cent of which are managed correctly, by the generous estimation of Thailand’s Pollution Control Department (PCD). With the recent plastic bag ban, which went into effect this year, the government has steered the conversation on trash towards Thai citizens’ addiction to plastic.

But the idea that municipal waste is the main culprit of Thailand’s trash problem is a fallacy.

While the Beung District dumpsite is home to municipal waste from Laem Chabang and its neighbouring communities, it is also a dumpsite for illegal industrial waste.

Illegal industrial waste

“If you dig into the deeper layers of the Beung District dumpsite,” says Somnuck Jongmeewasin, independent researcher and former lecturer at Silpakorn University, “you will find toxic industrial waste. And it’s been there for a long time, because this is a site for smuggling industrial waste from industrial estates in the surrounding areas.”

With a grant from the Thai National Health Foundation, Somnuck began researching the illegal disposal of industrial and toxic waste in 15 of Thailand’s eastern provinces and has worked on this topic since 2011.

“Every morning they bring municipal waste to cover it up. But at night, there is a different kind of garbage truck that comes to throw away ‘other’ waste.”

Scenes from the film signal this – as a shadowy blue dusk falls on Trash Mountain, an ominous new set of garbage trucks arrive on the scene.

According to a report by the Thai PCD, there were 22 million tonnes of industrial waste managed within the system in 2018.

Yet according to Somnuck’s research, data from 2014 shows 53.64 million tonnes of industrial waste in Thailand.

“How is it possible,” he asks incredulously, “that from 2014 to 2018 Thailand reduced its industrial waste by 30 million tonnes?”

He believes that industrial waste is now going unaccounted for.

PCD documents from 2000 – 2014 consistently cite 60 – 75 per cent of industrial hazardous waste as improperly managed outside the system – lending credibility to Somnuck’s figure.

Of that illegally dumped waste, some percentage is highly toxic.

At minimum 1.8 million tonnes of toxic waste is processed outside the system – either dumped in municipal landfills like in Beung District, or burned in the open air, according to multiple sources, including a report by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).

The community impact of industrial waste mismanagement is severe – from contaminating key water sources, to air pollution, to spreading infectious diseases. The massive air pollution caused by the Phraeksa dumpsite fire in 2014 – an eight-day fire kept alive by flammable industrial chemicals – is only one sensational example of the environmental consequences.

A lot of money in trash

The problem is that there is a lot of money in industrial waste.

“People are accepting money at every point in the waste management supply chain – from the person who finds the land, to the local and regional officials, to the relevant regulators, directly and indirectly,” says Somnuck.

According to the TDRI, the cost of industrial waste disposal – particularly for hazardous waste – can go as high as 150,000 baht per tonne. This has spawned a waste management industry in Thailand that goes into the tens of billions of baht, where on average companies pay 30,000 baht per tonne – excluding delivery costs – to outsource their waste management. Thailand’s waste management market has one of the highest growth rates in the world, prompting recent investment from major global waste players like Suez SA.

Adjacent to this industry is a robust market for trash smugglers willing to undercut prices further – offering to dispose of industrial waste for as low as 5,000 baht per tonne. But at the price of 5,000 baht per tonne, smugglers do little more than cart the trash away for dumping in municipal landfills, paying bribes to law enforcement and community members to turn a blind eye.

The involvement of politics

Much of this business has been protected by political interests.

Multiple dumpsites and waste management facilities are linked to businesspersons with political connections, or to politicians themselves.

The industrial waste management complex has buried these deep-rooted political connections, but the recent crackdowns on electronic waste recycling plants across the country have brought them to the surface.

The involvement of political interests has also made waste activism a life or death issue. In 2013, Nong Nae Sub-District village elder Prajob Naowaopas was fatally shot four times in broad daylight, after having spent a year campaigning against illegal industrial and toxic waste disposal in the area.

In an interview with The Guardian, a Human Rights Watch representative declaimed the police investigation’s “unwillingness to tackle questions of collusion between political influences and interests.”

In Somnuck’s words, “the business of trash is a very scary one.”

Jorn Naowaopas, Prajob’s brother, is not discouraged.

“My work fighting for the rights of these communities has not been discouraged by the death of my brother – in fact, it has intensified.”

Mountain as metaphor

For filmmakers Pom and Primrin, the mountain doesn’t just serve to highlight critical issues like illegal waste dumping – it serves as a metaphor for deeper problems.

Trash Mountain is a visual testament to what they call the “silent threats” that penetrate the lives of communities. As the film unfolds slowly, we can see the complex ecosystem that the mountain now sustains – the flies, the scavenging dogs, the birds that pick at the trash.

“The mountain has a life of its own,” says Primrin, “trash comes in every day, releasing this smell every day, growing every day, slowly spreading its poison in water sources…eating up the people around it slowly.”

The gradual tension of the film reflects the “silence” that surrounds discussion about the mountain.

“Journalists and people don’t write or talk about it because it has accumulated over time; it’s not like an explosion,” says Pom, “…until it is set on fire, people won’t pay attention.”

It is also a metaphor for Thai government inaction.

“The only thing the district has done is spray deodorisers and cover up the trash with more soil,” Primrin says.

For locals, the mountain is a warning to the rest of the country. Whereas it can address underlying causes, the Thai government chooses to address the problems at a surface level – in the same way it chooses to deploy water-spraying drones to reduce Thailand’s smog problem – while attempting to cover up the root causes.

As with all cover ups, it is insufficient – the mountain grows, taking on a life of its own, as with other problems in Thailand. The people who have to live with the stench are those who cannot afford to move. At Trash Mountain, as in the rest of the country, the cost of government inaction is borne by the poor.

[Buried Dead Mountain was screened in Chiang Mai this year by Thai PBS.]
[Photo Credit: Primrin Puarat and Pom Bunsermvicha]

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