Cleaning up the Oceans – the Thailand case

Once a year the ‘Clean Up the World Weekend’ takes place, including in Bangkok. The 2017 edition, enjoying strong Nordic participation and engagement, gathered many representatives from businesses, foreign missions, students and volunteers for a clean-up effort on and along Chao Phraya River on 16 September. Also concerning the global dimension of this crisis with alarmingly increasing plastic pollution of the oceans the Nordic involvement is strong. And the plastic problem connects strongly to Thailand, as one of the top contributors to the waste in the oceans.

When one takes a closer look, and asks why plastic is possibly a “problem”–as most people in countries like Indonesia and Thailand might do–one finds that all numbers are staggering, and the magnitude of the marine pollution problem as such shocking.

Recent scientific reports have revealed the amount of 6-12 million tons of plastics escaped into the world’s oceans annually.

What is at the core of this issue is that society’s increasing desire for plastic products has resulted in plastic becoming ubiquitous in the marine environment, where it persists for decades, even hundreds of years. That has severe impact on the ecosystems.

Case in point: Henderson Island is a remote, uninhabited island in the southern Pacific Ocean more than 5,000 kilometres from the closest major population centre. And yet scientists, when documenting the amount of debris and rate of accumulation there, found that the density of debris was the highest reported anywhere in the world (published in April 2017 in the prestigious ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America’ journal). An estimated 37.7 million debris items weighing a total of 17.6 tons are currently present on Henderson, with up to 26.8 new items/m accumulating daily!

Closer to home: visit any Thai beach in monsoon season and a huge amount of garbage usually “decorates” the shoreline.

Standing at any of the piers along Chao Phraya River in Bangkok and looking down at the brown water a steady stream of floating objects, mainly energy drinks bottles, polystyrene and various other plastics are floating by on its way towards the Gulf of Siam.

How much garbage would be caught in say 24 hours if one were to stretch a net in the water across this river? No one has done that but the catch from the Clean Up Bangkok River At Chao Phraya River action in September gives an idea: 2000+ plastic bags, 700+ plastic bottles, 600+ plastic cups/cartons, 900+ glass bottles, 1300+ styrofoam, 150+ clothing-related, 1500+ small plastic pieces–in total 132 kg of solid waste–were collected from the river and nearby streets in just one hour by around 400 participants (conducted along a 6km stretch of the river).

The annual clean-up is and effort by private and government organisations connected to Clean Up the World – one of the world’s largest community-based environmental campaign (mobilises an estimated 35 million volunteers from 130 countries annually) that inspires and empowers communities from every corner of the globe to clean up, fix up and conserve their environment.

Bangkok River Partners joined the campaign in Bangkok with their partner hotels and venues working with Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), Eco-Capital Forum (comprised of foreign embassies in Bangkok), local businesses, community groups, and their neighbours to remove rubbish.

And this year, in collaboration with Mahidol University and ‘The Sustainable Self’, categorized and counted items in the waste found was recorded to establish a baseline to which data from subsequent years can be compared with. Such hard data will be insightful and lead to future high impact solutions and measureable goals.

This would also assist discussions with partner hotels to improve waste management, stated the organiser.

Swedish hotelier’s engagement
The representatives from the Danish, Finnish and Swedish embassies back in September gathered along with students and other volunteers at Hotel Royal Bangkok, hosted by its Swedish General Manager Nicklas Moberg.

Nicklas told ScandAsia about his hotel’s involvement: “We thought this was worthwhile partake in to be able to show our engagement to the local stores and restaurants here that one can take strong steps to address the issue around waste management. So we offered to be a meeting point for those wanting to partake and perform the clean-up from this part of the river.”

The GM also told about the hotel’s effort to put its own house in order. “During one year we have been trying to address how we handle our garbage at our hotel. What I find difficult to understand is where the garbage actually goes. We are told to separate recyclable garbage but it is all then collected by the same garbage collector.”

“We have been pushing this a bit and have now been given brand new garbage bins, containers and more information. And we have more from info BMA that they are starting to control this better and to be more visible and supportive, which has become an advantage for us as we are trying to be supportive in this. Wee weigh and document our garbage so we can see how much we generate and where we may have surplus and where we could limit it further – so that we start at the right end. Because it is somehow there it all starts.”

Hotel Royal Bangkok is trying to minimise overall consumption and choose not to use plastic bags and plastic bottles and plastic plates and polystyrene food boxes.

Hotel Royal Bangkok received from BMA the waste bins: green for food, yellow for recyclable, red for hazardous and blue for general waste, which are now in use for the hotel’s waste. However, outside at Yaowaraj road BMA uses garbage bins in transparent plastic bags, because then, they claim, the public can see in which plastic bag to throw what kind of waste…

“We serve drinking water in glass bottles now. We have eliminated plastic bottles and are trying to show more clearly for the guests in the rooms that especially there it should be glass bottles, because the guest otherwise takes the plastic bottles with them and go out and then, with our logo on them, these would end up on the streets and in the river, which is certainly not something we’d want to see.”

Concerning the marine pollution Nicklas has seen it first-hand when he previously used to work at a hotel on Jomtien beach.

“Every morning, one had to clean up the beach. And it did not strike me then where the garbage was coming from. But I noticed that it was not so much from the fishing boats, as there were diapers etc. ending up on the beach. And when we identified that the plastic bottles had Thai text one started to see that the problem was coming from Thailand itself polluting the sea and having it floating up on the beaches somewhere.”

Nicklas prompted the authorities to act pointing to the pollution as negative for Thailand’s tourism image. Not much changed, however.

For the next clean-up event in 2018 Nicklas said he is aiming at gathering more strength in terms of participants, including companies such as Tetra Pak who also do not wish their packaging to end up in the sea and on the beaches.

Death By Plastic
Based on the same experience Bangkok-based Norwegian photographer Ben Zander, best known locally for his work within fashion, has decided to do his bit to increase consumer awareness in Thailand.

“The plastic waste is clearly visible. Plastic waste floating around the shorelines has meant that the country’s beautiful beaches have sadly become harder to enjoy. Thailand’s plastic waste also poses a serious threat to global marine life and public health,” states Ben.

His clever ‘Death By Plastic’ campaign to promote change by using famous friends to influence the individual consumer in Thailand was presented at Hotel Royal Bangkok. In this social media campaign he is using popular figures in Thailand to pose in front of garbage sites.

One million seabirds and 100.000 mammals die a slow death every year from oceanic plastic waste that they have mistaken for food and eaten. It is called ‘Death by Plastic’. Today, the majority of the world’s oceanic plastic waste comes from just five countries, and Thailand is one of them, he explained.

Ben uses his popular celebrity friends that people do listen to in order to give the problem a voice.

He showed the three mini documentaries and photo shoots done up to now. Everyone in this campaign works for free but Ben is seeking further donations with the goal to produce ten mini movies in total.

One photograph one from each trip/location will be used for an exhibition and sold for the project’s benefits to tour with the exhibition and build further awareness.

It is mostly about a lack of awareness that causes Thailand’s wasteful and destructive consumer culture, I also believe there is potential for making a real change by raising awareness,” he stated.

“The idea of photographing high profile individuals in relevant locations, with plastic bags taped over their heads fits perfectly not only visually but also symbolically. Our current relationship with plastic is self-destructive.”

Denmark’s engagement
Speaking on behalf of the Embassy of Denmark to those who had gathered in Chinatown was also Deputy Head of Mission, Anders Lønstrup Graugaard.

“In general, we prioritise to involve ourselves in topics concerning the environment as well as sustainable energy etc. As one among 21 diplomatic missions, the Danish Embassy partnered with Hotel Royal Bangkok and coordinated the Scandinavian group of volunteers,” Anders explained to ScandAsia. “We will also participate in tree planting in the near future. “It’s also about marking that we believe this is important work – we use our resources to bring awareness on this issue,” he added.

To those gathered Anders presented some facts, such as that 150 million tons of waste has already been dumped into our oceans, with this figure growing fast.

“We now produce 20 times more plastic than we did in 1964, a vast rubbish-scape of bottles and wrapping and hard plastic lids that are expected to double in size in the next 20 years – and almost quadruple in size by 2050.”

These findings are from of the highly relevant 2016 report by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation: ‘The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics’, which has analysed the flow of materials around the world. The prediction is that, given the projected growth in production, by 2050 oceans could contain more plastics than fish.

“In Asia this is a big problem. On a global scale, Asia is a dull leader. 80 per cent of the plastic waste in the oceans originates from land and only four countries account for more than half of the source of pollution. China is the leader but the world’s fourth most populous nation, Indonesia, occupies second place, sharply followed by the Philippines and Vietnam. In fact, five member countries of the Southeast Asian cooperation organization ASEAN are found among the eight worst plastic detectors. Thailand is unfortunately among those.”

Anders also presented the Danish Embassy’s view on what can be done. “We can do more, we have alternatives. We come from a country where 95% of waste is either recycled or incinerated.”

The Danish Embassy sees waste-to-energy as a necessity to “stop the bleeding” and to solve the problem of both the cities’ mountains of waste as well as the waste scattered everywhere else.

“There is broad understanding in Denmark of global environment protection as an international issue and it is an area where civil society is very actively putting pressure on politicians.”

The key takeaway, Anders said, is that this is a global problem that needs a global solution.

In Thailand Denmark no longer runs development aid. Previously though, Denmark took a lead role in establishing Phuket Marine Biological Center, a centre that today success contributes with knowledge on these matters.

“But we are in dialogue with Thai authorities on these challenges. Also, we try to bring awareness to relevant Danish companies who have skills and techniques that can be used to mitigate some of the challenges.”

“Thailand is aware of the challenge, and clearly a lot of work needs to be done,” he continued and brought to the attention Thailand’s recent efforts in making an effort to protect marine environment from marine debris and land-based pollution.

Thailand’s Plans of action
Its Department of Marine and Coastal Resources presented these at the Ocean Conference, held in June and arranged by Sweden (!) and Fiji islands.

“The general situation regarding marine debris holds true for most coastal states, including Thailand. Total amount of garbage, uncollected and/or disposed improperly, from coastal provinces of Thailand was estimated at 2.83 million tons in the year 2016, of which 12% was plastic,” writes the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Thailand has emphasized the need to address marine plastic debris by declaring comprehensive and integrated actions both in terms of policy and practice, with full participatory of all concerned stakeholders.

And the country expresses its full intention to actively participate and cooperate with countries in the region including international and intergovernmental organizations to reduce plastic debris in the ocean.

For proper protection of marine environment Thailand has established several plans and has implemented immediate actions in coastal areas.

Among those the Plastic Debris Management Plan comprises several approaches, such as developing a fiscal and financial tool for plastic debris management; promoting and encouraging eco-packaging design and eco-friendly substitute for plastic materials; developing a material flow of plastic containers and packaging inventory; implementing 3Rs (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle) strategy for plastic debris management; and promoting education for relevant stakeholders in field of plastic material and its substitute.

ScandAsia has tried to gauge the scope these plans in Thailand in terms of action plans. A spokesperson for the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, said that all the plans are being implemented and has campaigned to eliminate the use of plastic capsules.

In particular there are many activities in connection to World Oceans Day (8 June) and beach cleaning takes place in all Thailand’s coastal areas twice a year.

In Thailand total amount of garbage, uncollected and/or disposed improperly, from coastal provinces of was estimated at 2.83 million tons in the year 2016, of which 12% was plastic.

New Plastics Economy
What can trigger some hope to counteract a glooming scenario for the future is the aforementioned report ‘The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics’. It shows that, in the current plastics economy, after a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. Shifting to a circular model could generate a $706 billion economic opportunity, of which a significant proportion is attributable to packaging – so there we have a strong financial incentive.

The New Plastics Economy has identified a practical approach to enabling this shift, with the ambition to deliver better system-wide economic and environmental outcomes by creating an effective after-use plastics economy, drastically reducing the leakage of plastics into natural systems. Increase the economic attractiveness of keeping materials in the system. This is the cornerstone of the report’s proposal and this new economy’s first priority.

The investigation into plastic packaging showed a particular theme with plastics “leaking” (escaping) from after-use collection systems and the resulting degradation of natural systems, particularly the ocean.

A Global Plastics Protocol should be developed to set direction on the re-design and convergence of materials, formats, and after-use systems to substantially improve collection, sorting and reprocessing yields, quality and economics, while allowing for regional differences and continued innovation.

As an immediate action after-use collection, storage and reprocessing infrastructure in high-leakage countries must improved.

But existing improvement initiatives would need to be complemented and guided by a concerted, global, systemic and collaborative initiative for the transition to the New Plastics Economy to become reality.

Meanwhile, here on planet earth the pollution continues, where mankind has already caused “the presence of hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastics in the ocean, whether as microscopic particles or surviving in a recognizable form for hundreds of years, which will have profoundly negative effects on marine ecosystems and the economic activities that depend on them”.


About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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