The Land Of The Plastic Bag

When traveling to Thailand, and most of Asia for that matter, one thing becomes quite apparent remarkably quickly.  The power and importance of the plastic bag. Not only is it a tool that you see people using every day and all day, but it’s an item that you see everywhere, even when it seems out of place.  For example hanging in a tree on the side of the road or floating down a river next to a hundred more of its cousins all displaying different sizes and shapes. The little ghosts that drifted down the street carried by a lazy breeze seemed to haunt me wherever I went. IMG_5218_FotorEvery stall and street vendor will try and wrap your freshly bought trinkets in plastic wrap, then a plastic bag and when you motioned for them to stop, gesturing to your own bag as a suitable form of transportation, the merchant will look at you confused, as if the idea of not using the translucent synthetic polymer hadn’t ever crossed his mind.  I reached my limit with the plastic bag culture after I stopped into a seven-eleven on one hot afternoon to grab a bottle of water and was given a small carrier plastic bag for the small plastic bottle, that I was about to drink anyway, as well as a straw wrapped in a plastic sheath that ALSO had its own accompanying pencil like mini plastic bag. It was as if someone had spent a solid month of their life sitting in a small room thinking about every possible form a plastic bag could come in and what its use could be.  I was also amazed, if not a little horrified, to see how blatant littering had become throughout the country. Be it on the streets of Bangkok, the beaches of Koh Phangan, or the rivers and jungles of Chiang Mai, bits of trash, plastic, and the rusting metal carcasus of old motor bikes and farm machinery could be found everywhere. Roaming the streets of Bangkok you’ll be hard pressed to find a trash can, but not trash. The mentality around waste seemed to be more about disposing of it immediately than in an organized or eco-conscious manner.  However, this is quite common for many metropolitan cities and my first thoughts were that it was largely caused by roaming tourists or foreign visitors that didn’t respect the local environment. An ugly mentality for any tourists or traveler to hold but sadly one that is not uncommon. Yet after a week of observing the actions of both tourists and locals around the city I was surprised to find myself noticing that more local Thai people were the cause of the monumental piles of trash heaping up in the city’s darker corners, not the would-be europeans or backpackers that were strolling around the traffic filled streets casually searching for some form of spiritual bliss or self realization.  

This was a pattern I noticed 18 months ago when visiting Cambodia with my family. While taking a river boat tour we passed through a river village where the population lived, slept, worked, and ate on small thrown together houseboats and floating docks.  While their daily lives were centered around this water source where they fished, harvested water plants, bathed, and cleaned their belongings, the river itself was heavily polluted with trash. The most surprising thing of all, the villagers themselves were the ones doing much of the polluting.  I myself witnessed multiple people throw plastic bottles or bits of trash into the river as we floated past. I remember asking the tour guide as we sat on the boat why the villagers would want to use it as a dumping site if they planned to eat and clean themselves in the cool currents. His answer brought up a couple very interesting points.  First he mentioned that the villagers had nowhere else to place waste and neither the ability nor funds to maintain a system that managed and disposed of the waste. Secondly, why would they feel the need. They had been disposing waste, fishing, and bathing themselves in this same river for generations and their grandparents never had an issue with throwing trash into the river so why should they.  It is freakishly easy for us, me in that moment, as modern westernized foreigners to take for granted the knowledge we hold about trash and the effects and tolles it can have and take on our surrounding environment. There was no one nor any system established in that community to educate people on what could and will happen to the villages and its natural resources if the river and local wildlife is ‘trashed’.  There were bigger daily worries than questioning the most sustainable way in which to throw out the lid of a plastic bottle.

Much like in Cambodia and the river village, the Thai government has done very little to maintain a proper recycling program that manages recyclable and green waste across the country.  By Thai law each town and district must manage its own waste management program through their individual municipalities, who must follow a specific waste management protocol that coincides with globally recommended waste management procedures. IMG_5039_FotorThis idea of each-township-for-themselves has left a large degree of mismanaged waste literally floating and flying around the country. While there is a 2000 baht (60$) littering fine throughout the kingdom of Thailand, it is very rarely enforced and often used to target tourists who chuck cigarette butts on the ground.  However this policy has often been thought to be one of Thailand’s oldest scams for tourists and the unlucky traveler who gets caught littering often find that the fine itself is negotiable and no fining slip or ticket accompanies the shouts and harassing of the seemingly angry Thai cop that has just pocketed your 2000 (Probably less) baht.  This fine is the only penalty or legal deterer from littering, other than hopefully your own conscience and respect for the earth, throughout the kingdom of Thailand.

After a week in Bangkok I was ready to leave the bustling polluted concrete jungle for greener and sandier coast lines.  Me and Geeky Greeky boarded a plane early one Monday morning headed for Surat Thani, a port city where one could catch a ferry to the southern Thai island Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao.  The three sister islands, although fairly frequented by tourists, were famous for their relaxing beach bungalows, coral reefs, and yoga retreats. IMG_4898_FotorOur three hour ferry dropped us off at our final destination, Koh Phangan, and off we went to get settled in to our beach side bungalow.  In the back of the taxi truck on the way to JJ’s resort—a small collection of bungalows owned by JJ and\ Englishmen who we found on AirBnB— I noticed again the more than occasional sprinkling of plastic debris left on the side of the road or piled under bridges and dead palm frawns. The piles couldn’t take away from the island’s natural beauty however, and quickly I began to ignore the multi coloured polymer shards that decorated all the street corners and found myself focusing instead on pearly white sands of the beaches and the way the roots of the mangrove trees stood out of the water casting triangular shadows on the lazily breaking waves.  The waters, so calm and warm, reflected the gleaming sunset and light from the rose coloured sun as it set against the darkening horizon. IMG_4925_FotorWe found our bungalow easily and that same night rented a small motorbike so that we’d be ready to explore the island the next day. Our bungalow and the community of bungalows it was situated next to was more then perfect and we instantly felt at home. During the day while sitting on the lanai I found myself thinking how easily I could get used to this life. A lazy breeze played with the back of my hair and stray strands tickled the nape of my neck. Exotic bird calls could be heard echoing around me, a cacophony of singing cicadas and bird song that lulled me into my own breath.  I could feel the rise and fall of my chest as I sat basking in the late afternoon sun. The only man made sound coming in the form of the occasional motor bike that sped by on the main road. It’s easy to be drawn to this calming, turtle like island pace and even easier to see why the average city folk may yearn for this lifestyle of slow swinging hammocks nesting below thick palm fronds. I know I often did when back in the fast pace bustle of any metropolitan area. IMG_4882_FotorIt’s the easygoing energy, the mentality that is held on these sea stranded, jungle sprouting rocks that holds people to them. There’s no strange sense of urgency that comes with the need to complete a task or deal with every issue in that instant. There’s an ever existing sense of peace that wakes you up in the late morning and carries you back to sleep late at night.  That lanai, nailed to the front of that small wooden bungalow was truly, and forever, paradise.

My afternoon musings were then interrupted by dear Geeky Greeky as he came up behind me and shouted, “Pame!” Greek for, “Lets go!”
Dragging me up me off the lanai while ignoring my sharp protests and reproachful comments on how he ruined my perfect moment of peace, breath, and clarity, (the monster!) we jumped on our motorbike and sped off down the road towards the port and Mega City.  (My name for the biggest hub on the island.) IMG_5071_FotorPassing by food markets and stalls selling random trinkets we headed towards the middle of the island, an area known to us as Mystery Jungle. Here the so called main roads shifted into somewhat held together asphalt and dusty dirt with large dips in it big enough to flip the bike on its handle bars.  The jungle loomed around us filled with the wild cries of birds and hum of insects. Huge vines and waxy dinosaur leaves wove their way around the trunks of tall banyan trees. Fields and small shack like houses the only sign that the space was inhabited by anything larger than a lizard (which by the way we find out can sometimes get to be larger than a meter long).  We drove up a little hill and through an extra twisty stretch of steamy sun baked road and BAM. We found ourselves face to face with a literal wall, no FIELD of trash. We had somehow, within only a short amount of time on the island, stumbled across Koh Phangan’s only landfill.

We stopped on the side of the road and headed for the stinking waste land.  A few people could be seen on the tops of the piles, dressed in masks and large floppy hats, rooting around in the waste looking for anything of value. IMG_5050_FotorAs we stood agasp a truck drove up the the site, its bed filled with trash bags and loose debris. Emblazoned on its side was a sign that said, “Full Moon Party Crew”, a very popular beach rave that happens once a month and brings in tourists and ravers from around the globe.  The trucks symbolism was not lost on us in the slightest and that connection between the tourist industry, local mindset, and the very landfill site that we faced was apparent. It was neither party, neither local nor visitor, that was at fault for the ever rising piles of trash that can be found throughout Thailand but the system as a whole.  The lack of direct responsibility that has been given to either a party or an individual to manage the rising amount of waste that is collected on the island of Koh Phangan and in all other districts of the kingdom has led to a hazardous overload of unmanaged and processable waste.

After seeing Koh Phangan’s jungle landfill I became curious about Thailand’s actual waste-management programs and strategies.  I learned that the growing plastic crisis around Thailand had been an issue for many years, and while there has been little attention brought to it, some environmental scientists and groups had been trying to find plausible solutions. IMG_5040_Fotor The first of which is to implement a strict and organized reduce, reuse, and recycle policy that is managed and supervised by an official waste-management bureau. While Thailand technically has a waste-management commision it is reported to be unorganized and greatly underfunded, two points which are quite obvious given the litter filled state of the country.  Another change that many big name environmentalists and waste-management specialists such as Dr. Penchom are trying to effectuate is the discontinuing or cutting back on the waste-to-energy industry in Thailand—an industry that gets a lot of government and private support due to the large amount of private investment, both global and local, that it brings in. Waste-to-energy is a method used to partially dispose of solid waste through combustion, burning at an incredibly high heat, which in turn produces energy that can be used to create low cost electricity for a community. IMG_5035_FotorWhile it may seem like a sensible way in which to reduce a large collection of solid waste, the combusting waste emits toxic chemicals such as nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and dioxin, that harm local communities as well as the atmosphere, and even produce toxic ash and heavy metals that destroy entire ecosystems and local environments. That includes people as well: local communities that live close to these plants experience cancer and birth defect rates higher than any other communities in the country. While the industry still draws a lot of government support Dr. Penchom argues that, “ Waste-to-energy is one of the most polluting methods of waste management and energy generation, because not only will burning garbage emit toxic pollutants, but the leftover ashes are also very hazardous and require very careful disposal in a secure landfill.”  While she admits that waste-to-energy is a legitimate way to dispose and reduce building amounts of solid waste, she believes it should be done on a very small and well managed scale, and only when a large amount of solid waste is present in a particular space and it is necessary for it to be reduced.

Sadly this method of ridding the earth of solid waste has morphed into an industry whose main focus is to generate capital for investors and not simply to help manage the overflowing amount of garbage that is spreading its way across the globe.  These plants are burning through trash faster than the Thai people can produce it, a problem they are solving by importing trash from around the world, specifically what they consider to be higher quality trash and plastics, and bringing it into the country in order to keep their businesses running.  Now there is more trash in Thailand then ever before, only last year the kingdom generated 27.4 million tonnes of household trash and that’s not counting however much was illegally smuggled in. No wonder Thailand’s rivers are choking in plastic.

While the discovery of Koh Phangan’s landfill was quite disturbing my amazing time on the island and the incredible experiences I took away from it will never be tarnished.  On one of our last days on Koh Phangan’s sister island Koh Tao my spirits were somewhat raised when I walked into a seven-eleven and found out that once a month the island refrains from using any plastic bags for a whole day. IMG_5300_FotorThey instead encourage you to bring your own reusable tote to help the country cut down on plastic. Thailand and many other countries around the world are slowly becoming more aware of the huge environmental impact plastic has on our environment.  However it takes us as individuals and citizens of these countries to truly make a change and stop our societies from casually using plastics. Instead we should challenge ourselves to come up with more innovative and eco-conscious ways to package and carry our belongings.    

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