Thailand is the world's tenth-biggest dumper of plastic waste into the sea
Ocean plastic pollution is threatening humanity and Thailand cannot escape the blame as one of the world's worst marine polluters. Although the government has pledged to tackle marine pollution, one thing is certain. Success is out of reach if the state authorities fail to engage local communities as equal partners.
According to the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), Thailand is the world's tenth-biggest dumper of plastic waste into the sea (2020). That is not surprising. The country has an average of 1.03 tons of mismanaged waste each year. Nearly half of it (0.41 tons) flows into the sea. Plastics take a long time from 20 up to 500 years to decompose.
Most of the Thai marine waste is plastics led by plastic debris (12%), Styrofoam boxes (10%), food wrappers (8%), plastic bags (8%), glass bottles (7%), plastic bottles (7%), and straws (5%).
Out in the sea, this plastic waste floats across borders, joining other countries' marine debris, clogging the oceans, harming marine lives and ecosystems, prompting global concerns and efforts to combat plastic pollution -- now one of the world's top environmental problems.
World Oceans Day on Tuesday highlighted yet again the crisis the oceans are facing and the urgent need for sustainable ocean management. As the main polluter, Thailand must show commitment to reverse the situation.
But marine pollution is not solely an environmental issue. Ignoring its social roots is one of the main reasons why Thailand's efforts to tackle ocean plastic waste are far from being successful.
The documentary A Plastic Ocean helps sensitise the public about the importance of efficient waste management by local communities to reduce marine pollution. Without proper waste sorting by households and communities, particularly in crowded areas along the coasts, tonnes of rubbish endlessly flow into the sea, gravely affecting the marine ecosystem, sea life, and the food chains, ending up seriously affecting human health.
Marine pollution primarily stems from consumer behaviour and waste mismanagement. According to the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, Thailand produces 27.8 million tonnes of waste a year. About 7.19% or 2 million tonnes of this waste is from local communities, including those along the coasts and by the rivers.
It is crystal clear. An efficient waste sorting system at the local level that is connected to an integrated waste management and recycling network will significantly reduce the country's waste problem and effectively tackle marine plastic waste.
Community waste mismanagement has long been a big problem in marine pollution. Why has it been bypassed all along?
We have three answers.
First, disparity. As a result, communities are left behind. Remote and vulnerable communities are neglected and thus left to struggle with poverty on their own, lacking tools and resources to manage their waste.
Second, the lack of waste-management infrastructures such as garbage bins and garbage trucks to collect the waste.
Third, the government's disregard of the poor and waste mismanagement which eventually forms a hard-to-break community habit of throwing away garbage in the waterways and into the sea.
Of these three factors, the biggest culprit is structural disparity which makes the government overlook local communities along the rivers and the coasts with grave environmental consequences.
The state authorities can no longer treat locals as small, unimportant people to tackle marine plastic pollution. There are thousands of villages along the rivers and the coastlines. They play an important role in reducing marine plastic pollution. The government must recognise their potential and promote their collaboration in parallel with national efforts and international cooperation to save the seas.
The Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in Asean is a step in the right direction to protect marine ecosystems, fisheries and tourism for every member country.
Apart from being an important force behind the Bangkok Declaration, Thailand has also made combating ocean pollution debris a national agenda item to reduce marine debris by 50% by 2027.
The government has issued several measures such as experimenting with plastic bag fees at 1.50-2 baht per piece, giving different groups appropriate waste reduction targets, backing research on marine pollution, creating a marine debris database, and supporting marine debris clean-up efforts by volunteer groups.
Meanwhile, the policy also focuses on reducing waste at the source through a circular economy instead of increasing incinerators and landfills.
For this national agenda item to succeed, the government and agencies concerned should urgently and actively engage coastal communities to minimise waste at the source. Apart from building communal capacity and safe waste segregation, the authorities should ensure local communities have enough garbage bins in communities. They should also provide training on sanitary waste sorting for local communities nationwide. Only with active community participation will Thailand have a chance to cut marine debris by half by 2027 as pledged.
"Don't leave anyone behind" is the government's policy catchphrase. However, this promise of inclusive development will only be fulfilled when the government honours people's participation and heeds local concerns.
Villages along the rivers and the coasts have long been an important part of the social fabric in Thai society. The government should close the disparity gap and empower them by making comprehensive state services available to local communities.
When the doors are open for communities along rivers and coasts to protect their homes and resources, battling marine pollution will no longer remain an elusive goal. If not, Thailand will be stuck for a long time with global shame as a horrible ocean polluter.