Greenpeace country director Tara Buakamsri holds a banana sold in a plastic bag by 7-Eleven, which he said was an example of the excessive use of plastic in Thai society. Photo: Rajat Sethi

The Thai government needs to take more drastic action to reduce the country’s popular acceptance of plastic bags, top environmental group Greenpeace says. It believes a tax must be put on single-use plastic bags to people from just taking them when they shop.

Thailand generates more than three million tonnes of plastic waste a year, according to the National Resources and Environment Ministry. The government wants to halve the plastic and foam waste it generates over the next five years. It has also given a commitment to tackle plastic waste at sea.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has reportedly ordered state agencies to help phase out use of plastic, while officials at 50-60 national parks are expected to ban both plastic and foam.

Meanwhile, Finance Ministry officials are said to be working on moves to discourage use of plastic, while state lawyers also look at a legal framework to coerce the private sector to cut plastic consumption.

Voluntary action ‘not working’

But many of these things have yet to materialize. And voluntary action by citizens is not working, one local writer has noted.

The launch of a government campaign on Saturday to try to reduce single-use plastic bags got off to a dismal start because shoppers in the capital ignored the campaign. People prefer the convenience of plastic bags, the columnist said, adding “only a lame-duck government allows its people to make a lame excuse for an irresponsible lifestyle.”

Street vendors in Bangkok are big users of plastic, so any levy on bags or foam could have an impact on their lives. Photo: Rajat Sethi

Greenpeace, which has been closely watching the government’s efforts to counter a range of waste problems, says that while officials are keen to reduce the vast amount of plastic piling up in dumps and choking adjacent seas and waterways, state responses to the problem have so far been ineffective.

A price tax on single-use bags may be the best way to curb Thais’ excessive use of plastic said Thailand’s country director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia Tara Buakamsri.

A mandatory levy of just two baht (6 US cents) on every bag given out by shopping outlets and convenience stores may be enough to change people’s behavior, he said.

Among worst polluters of seas

Thailand is one of the world’s worst polluters of the seas, ranking sixth on a 2015 survey of waste in the oceans, the Greenpeace spokesman said in a recent interview.

He noted the Ocean Conservancy report, which listed the world’s top 10 marine polluters as, in order: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

And a proportion of the plastic waste generated in Thailand is ending up as marine debris, Tara said.

Countries in Africa have implemented bans and heavy fines for people who use plastic bags. Last August, Kenya imposed the world’s toughest penalties – fines of up to $40,000 or up to four years in jail for anyone producing, selling, or even carrying a plastic bag.

The Kenyan move has drastically cut plastic pollution, but it also had serious economic repercussions with 100,000 people allegedly laid off because the outlawing of plastic bags was broadly interpreted to include almost all packaging and thus affected food exporters and other sectors, The Guardian reported.

Thailand, however, is unlikely to go that far.

Tara said Greenpeace had been “testing how we can change Thai people’s behavior. Psychologically, charging one or two baht for bags worked well in a pilot program.

“They should not do it on all plastic, but just try it on plastic bags first. If 7-Eleven [which has over 10,000 convenience stores] did that, I wouldn’t get a plastic bag from them. But it would have to be mandatory.”

The environmentalist said the military government should avoid using Section 44, a controversial law brought in by the junta after it took power in May 2014 that overrides all other laws – to cut red tape and to yield a quick solution to longstanding or tricky problems.

“Using Section 44 would not get the public onside,” he said. “Whatever they do, it has to have a legal framework and a public consultation process, plus a mechanism to change people’s behavior.

“We need to cut the waste generated by every household. The 55 districts in Bangkok could have a competition to reduce household waste – so they can measure the average household and per head amounts.”

Meanwhile, the Thai Customs Department plans to redirect 600 containers filled with 12,000 tonnes of plastic scrap and electronic waste after the importers did not perform customs clearance within 45 days. And many more could be returned as a further 1,500 containers have been found loaded with plastic and electronic waste, the Bangkok Post reported.

The move comes amid fears that Thailand is becoming a new dumping ground for plastic scrap and e-waste after China banned imports of such refuse at the end of last year. Thailand allows some recycling firms to import electronic waste, but some is shipped in without permission over licensed firms’ quotas.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.