Plastic is precious

The government’s ban on plastic is a positive step in the right direction. Before the ban, Thailand was using over 70 billion plastic bags every single year. But can we do more? Of course we can, and there are many people on social and traditional media saying that the ban does not go far enough, that it doesn’t address enough of the issues to make a difference. But this is a positive step and let’s not take away from it.

After all, if our collective vision is long-term and far-reaching enough then this is a stepping stone towards the end goal. It is a necessary step and one that cannot come too soon, even if it is flawed.  

Just by the numbers, 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year. Every minute of every day, over 1 million plastic bottles are bought; that’s 20,000 bottles every second. Only 9 per cent of these are likely to ever be recycled.

Plastic waste creation in Thailand is growing at 12 per cent or 2 million tonnes per year, meaning that garbage – if mismanaged – can easily leak into the natural environment.

It is a serious problem. 

Wrong mind-set

Yet we, as a country, could be smarter in how we approach our plastic problem. If you have ever joined Trash Hero or Precious Plastic Bangkok for one of their cleanups or found yourself next to a landfill, you would quickly realise that certain materials are stripped away long before they are ever dumped or burned. 

Glass, aluminium, and other metals are taken away by garbage collectors and local communities because they know that these items have monetary value and can be sold to recyclers or remade into household objects. 

The same mind-set needs to be applied to plastic. 

If we instil into everyday people the mind-set that plastic has value and can be recycled and recreated, the economics will take care of itself and the plastic problem we face will be less severe. 

That is what we are trying to do at Precious Plastic. Through our recycling machines, which are open-source and free to the public, we are able to create moulds, roofing, flooring, and even everyday-use items like cups, pans, and plates from recycled plastic pellets. 

We hope to eventually install these prototype-recycling machines in low-income communities in Bangkok and around the country to not only provide a secondary income to villagers, but also raise awareness that discarded plastic can have utility. 

Community action 

Of course, the plans we have are only part of larger and gradual changes that need to happen. 

Consumers must also be aware of the types of plastics they buy or use. Single-use plastic can become hard to recycle if mixed in with other forms of waste. If mismanaged, plastic waste can also end up in rivers, and by extension the ocean – affecting coastal communities and killing wildlife. 

We must start by creating a dialogue with plastic producers and with retailers about the types of plastic that can be recycled, or to find alternative packaging that is renewable or can genuinely decompose or biodegrade. Plastic producers must accept that they bear at least some, if not most, of the responsibility for the consumption and proper disposal or reuse of plastic goods. This is something known as ‘extended producer responsibility’.

The government can also go a step further and create standardised waste disposal systems across Thailand and encourage municipalities to inform the public about how to properly sort garbage for recycling or dumping. 

Government incentives could also be given to companies that use 100 per cent recycled materials in their products as a way of spurring innovation and recycling rates. Another consequence of this would be that companies would quickly begin to design ‘better’ products that could be easily broken down, recycled, and fed back into the loop – meaning that less and less waste would get dumped.

There is no one party that can solve this problem. A collective will and effort is necessary if we want to make a change. 

(Photo Credit: Noppol Maiypuang)

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