Last year, a pilot whale was washed up on the shore of Songkhla province. It spat out some plastic and died. In its stomach were 80 or more plastic bags and other plastic items weighing more than eight kilogrammes.
The culprit is clear, yet the tragedies continue.
Earlier this year, a group of rare turtles were found dead on the beaches, their stomachs cluttered with plastic trash and styrofoam.
Last month, the cute baby dugong orphan “Marium”, who stole Thai people’s hearts faced the same fate. The plastics found in her intestines re-ignited the public outcry over poor state policy to curb the marine debris problem. And rightly so.
Thailand is now among the world’s biggest contributors of ocean plastic waste. The plastic waste is destroying marine life, the ocean’s ecosystems, and the country’s food security. It is also destroying the beaches and seriously affecting the tourism industry, now the country’s main income earner.
The government can no longer brush aside marine plastic pollution. It must be a national agenda to draw efforts from all parties to end this problem.
According to a study by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) on marine pollution in Thailand, the waste dumped into the seas comes mainly from communities and shops along the rivers, in tourism destinations, along the coasts as well as from poorly managed garbage dump sites. The trash also comes from trawlers, cargo ships, and what neighbouring countries routinely dump into the sea.
Although the plastic pollution scares have led to some attempts to cut down the use of plastic bags and other single-use plastics, they are largely left to an individual’s choice. The challenge is how to turn this individual environmental awareness into a sustainable, collective movement and state policies that can systematically tackle plastic pollution at all levels.
From our TDRI research, reducing single-use plastics is the most efficient and cost-effective measure to curb plastic pollution. This is possible through a combination of carrot-and-stick measures.
Many countries are implementing such policies by issuing strict laws and regulations to change consumer behaviour. New Zealand, for example, has already banned single-use plastics. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, imposes levies for disposable plastic bags. Other countries are experimenting with deposit-return schemes for single-use plastic packaging.
For effective control on plastic use, the government should start using the “stick” by imposing a fee for the use of disposable plastic bags. The fee should be between 1.5-2 baht per bag, at least.
Respondents to a survey conducted by the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion did not mind paying a fee of 1-1.5 baht for each plastic bag. The fee should, therefore, be higher than the rate that people are willing to pay. The revenue from the fees should be used to improve garbage management and support eco-friendly packaging.
As for a deposit-refund scheme, the government should make the producers of plastic bottles collect deposits from consumers as part of the product prices. Companies would then have to send these deposits to the government to support the waste management system. Consumers would get the deposits back when they return plastic bottles for recycling.
However, the government should continue the current public campaigns — the carrot — to wean consumers off of plastic addiction. An example of such tactics are the no-plastic bag campaigns in department stores and supermarkets once a month, and their policies to give extra points as an incentive for consumers to stop using plastic bags.
Since plastic use is still prevalent, the government must put in place a long-overdue waste separation system for recycling nationwide. One of the measures is to set up “waste banks” so collect recyclable garbage from the public.
Apart from a more efficient waste management system, it’s also crucial to use waste as an alternative source of energy.
These carrot-and-stick policy solutions are necessary. However, the government doesn’t need to enforce them across the entire country at one time. It can start with some pilot areas to test the efficacy of each measure to reduce plastic use, then expand what works across the country.
If the country fails to curb plastic addiction and pollution, it’s not only the sea and marine life that will suffer. Next in line are ourselves and our children.
Kannika Thampanishvong, PhD is a Senior Research Fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Wichsinee Wibulpolprasert, PhD is a research fellow and Pramon Karnchanapimonkul is a researcher. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the ‘Bangkok Post’ on alternate Wednesdays.