As the issue around plastic pollution is taking over the conversation, a growing number of initiatives have been put in motion to tackle this problem, and many of them in the area of waste management. However, to Dr Sujitra Vassanadumrongdee, focusing heavily on downstream strategies, such as reusing and recycling, would not be enough to create a lasting impact.
‘We need a more wholistic approach throughout the plastic value chain, emphasizing on upstream measures by making sure that we don’t produce any new plastic that won’t be circulated back to our economy,’ she said in a recent interview with the Regional Knowledge Centre for Marine Plastic Debris (RKC-MPD) in Bangkok.
Dr Sujitra is a senior researcher at the Environmental Research Institute of Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, with almost 20 years of experience in the field of environmental economics. She has conducted numerous research and written various articles on waste management, with focus on electronic waste in her early career to solid waste, including plastic, in recent years.
Born and raised in Bangkok, she is actively engaged in promoting zero waste initiatives in her hometown. On her campus, she invites faculties and students to take part in the ‘zero-to-landfill’ movement called Chula Zero Waste by bringing their own cloth bags and tumbler. On community level, she is also involved in a program called ‘Zero Waste Pak Lad’, that works with community leaders and members in promoting waste reduction, segregation, and treatment.
In addition to these grass-roots actions, she has also contributed to the policy-making process for waste management both for Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the National Environmental Board of Thailand.
On a recent morning, our team sat down with her and talked about the situation around plastic pollution in Thailand and how the country is pushing towards plastic circularity to close the waste loop. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
RKC-MPD ERIA: How is the issue of plastic pollution in Thailand?
Dr Sujitra Vassanadumrongdee: When it comes to plastic, we must acknowledge the economic and social importance it holds, especially in our day-to-day activities. However, what most people have ignored is the negative implications that plastic waste brings when it is not properly managed—which is the case in most developing countries, including Thailand.
In 2019, an orphaned dugong named Marium in Southern Thailand died from plastic ingestion that caused infections on her stomach. The news sparked awareness on marine plastic pollution and stimulated changes towards the reduction of single-use-plastics (SUP) among Thais. This shift was evident from how the Thai government and retailers agreed to impose a ban on plastic carrier bags at major stores at the start of the following year.
However, when the pandemic hit, our efforts were undermined perforce because of health concerns. People perceived that plastic packaging can protect them from being infected with coronavirus, and they put off the agenda on plastic reduction.
Now as we’re entering a new phase of ‘new normal’, we start to see that plastic pollution issue is regaining the attention and different stakeholders are kicking off their activities towards plastic waste-free environment. Therefore, we should no longer use COVID-19 as an excuse and start taking stronger and more proactive actions from this point onwards.
Circular economy is now gaining the attention as one of the frameworks to promote sustainability and reduce plastic pollution. How would you explain circular economy in a nutshell? And how can it positively contribute towards reduction in plastic pollution?
There is a common misconception that recycling plastic at its end of life would be sufficient to eliminate plastic leakage to marine environment. When in fact, minimizing the production of virgin plastic in the first place is the key.
This is what the concept of circular economy stems from—reducing the consumption of depleting natural resources by reducing the utilization of virgin materials; designing plastic to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable; and circulating the materials back in the economy without creating pollution.
Does Thailand have a plan to implement circular economy?
Yes, it is now in the drafting process in which I’m involved. Our team is reviewing circular economy frameworks adopted in other countries to learn from their experience and try to configure a framework that would best suit Thailand’s scenario.
Formulating a law for circular economy is a challenge in itself since it would affect the economy and have ripple effects across different ministries and industries. However, this comprehensiveness is also the reason why I’m advocating for circular economy to the politicians and policy makers. Rethinking and reforming the legal structures on how we utilize our natural resources would be beneficial not just to the plastic pollution problem, but also to other environmental sustainability causes.
Speaking of industries, it’s been said that we have to start asking producers (of plastic) to be responsible for post-consumer packaging through the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme. Could you tell us what EPR is?
EPR is a policy approach that make producers responsible for their products and packaging throughout the life cycle. This means that producers need to be responsible for the collection and management of the post-consumer products, either physically or financially.
Applying EPR would improve waste management in Thailand, which currently falls under the full responsibility of local governments. According to the law, local governments are responsible for managing municipal waste only through disposal at open dumping, sanitary landfills, or incinerators. This still leaves open the possibility of plastic leakage to the environment.
Furthermore, EPR can also encourage or incentivize producers to design their packaging to be more recyclable. This would boost the collection and recycling rate of plastics not just of high values, but also of lower values.
Are there any examples of EPR implementation in Thailand?
Yes, there has been several voluntary EPR schemes launched by different stakeholders in provinces such as Bangkok and Chonburi.
In 2018, Thai government, private sectors, and NGOs came together to form Thailand Public Private Partnership for Plastic and Waste Management, or Thailand PPP Plastic. The collaboration initiated the construction of drop-off points and material recovery facilities (MRFs) throughout Bangkok City. These infrastructures work by accepting recyclables from consumers at the designated drop-off points or from the separate collection system, and then transporting it to the MRFs for further processing.
In another project, stakeholders across the plastic value chain including virgin material producers, packaging producers, retailers, waste collectors, and recyclers joined forces to formulate the ‘PackBack Project’, which was implemented in three municipalities in Chonburi Province. Initiated by the Thailand Institute of Packaging and Recycling Management for Sustainable Development (TIPMSE) under Federation of Thai Industries, this pilot project established a storage system, set up drop points for used packaging, and coordinated with the sorting hub to properly recycle the collected materials.
Is there a plan to make EPR mandatory under the law?
Right now, EPR is still voluntary. But the Pollution Control Department (PCD) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has recently legitimized Thailand’s Roadmap on Plastic Waste Management Phase 2. This roadmap includes a plan on the enactment of EPR law on packaging in 2027. The law would cover all types of packaging, not just plastic, to ensure the circularity of all resources.
The drafting of this EPR law has seen supports from the private sectors represented by TIPMSE. They believe that through this law, more companies would join forces in advocating for the establishment of MRFs with the local government which would in turn minimize the transportation cost. By doing so, they hope to achieve the global target for a higher recycling rate and create greater impacts in alleviating marine plastic debris.