How plas­tic bags are drown­ing Bangkok

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

ALINE of prison­ers emerges from Bangkok’s sew­ers cov­ered in a thick film of slime and haul­ing buck­ets of sludge – front-line troops in the bat­tle against a ris­ing tide of plas­tic waste. Lo­cated just 50 cen­time­tres above sea level and criss-crossed with canals, Thai­land’s throb­bing cap­i­tal has long had to fight off floods and an en­croach­ing sea.

But the city’s in­sa­tiable ap­petite for plas­tic bags, com­bined with a poor track record of re­cy­cling, is se­verely ham­per­ing those ef­forts, es­pe­cially dur­ing the mon­soon months.

Plas­tic has be­come a ma­jor scourge for the city’s net­work of pump­ing sta­tions, clog­ging vi­tal ma­chin­ery dur­ing the sea­sonal down­pours and reg­u­larly turn­ing ma­jor thor­ough­fares into muddy rivers.

Ev­ery day city work­ers de­scend into Bangkok’s bow­els to try and clear some of the de­bris, sup­ported by con­victs who earn time off their jail sen­tences by vol­un­teer­ing for the task.

On a side street some 30 prison­ers dressed in waders and match­ing blue T-shirts be­gin their work.

They lift a large con­crete slab lead­ing to the drainage chan­nel be­low, scat­ter­ing an army of cock­roaches.

Slid­ing into the filthy wa­ter, the group uses metal buck­ets to scrape away at the slime-cov­ered de­bris block­ing the drainage pipes.

“The work is not too dif­fi­cult,” said one pris­oner who puts in six days a week on vol­un­teer duty. “And it al­lows me to go home more quickly.”

Each day the prison­ers work is a day lifted from their sen­tence. Thai­land’s corrections au­thor­i­ties asked AFP not to iden­tify any prison­ers in re­turn for access to their work pro­gram.

Through­out his long reign, Thai­land’s ail­ing but revered King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, 88, preached a con­cept he dubbed the “suf­fi­ciency econ­omy” – a phi­los­o­phy that es­poused sus­tain­abil­ity, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and mak­ing do with what one has.

But there are times when Bangkok – home to a huge chunk of the coun­try’s mon­eyed elite and mid­dle classes – seems like it has gone in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

All across the sprawl­ing city of some 12 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, vast shop­ping malls and condo blocks with swim­ming pools suck up huge amounts of elec­tric­ity while an ever-grow­ing num­ber of SUVs hog the streets.

Thai­land is widely con­sid­ered to be one of the world’s largest con­sumers of plas­tic bags.

The govern­ment’s own fig­ures sug­gest the av­er­age Thai uses eight plas­tic bags a day – in con­trast, the av­er­age per­son in France uses around 80 a year.

The na­tion has a thriv­ing street food cul­ture with mil­lions eat­ing or buy­ing their meals on the pave­ment each day. There once was a time when most of these dishes would be served wrapped in biodegrad­able ba­nana leaves. But no longer.

It is a shift fa­mil­iar across the re­gion, with dev­as­tat­ing re­sults for the world’s oceans.

In a re­cent re­port, an Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tion group Ocean Con­ser­vancy es­ti­mated that just five coun­tries – China, In­done­sia, Philip­pines, Viet­nam and Thai­land – were re­spon­si­ble for as much as 60 per­cent of plas­tic waste dumped into the ocean.

Narong Ruengsri, head of Bangkok city author­ity’s drainage depart­ment, said re­mov­ing so much plas­tic from the canals and drainage sys­tem is a con­stant bat­tle.

“Ev­ery day we go fish out around 2000 tonnes of waste from the drainage chan­nels,” he told AFP.

Un­less there is a ma­jor change in con­sumer habits, or a con­certed govern­ment cam­paign to re­duce bag use, the waste will con­tinue to pile up.

Of­fi­cial fig­ures show the 11,500 tonnes of garbage Bangkok pro­duces each day – at least 1 tonne of which is plas­tic – is grow­ing by 10pc a year.

Of­fi­cially only 16pc is re­cy­cled – although non­govern­ment ar­ti­san re­cy­clers would slightly boost that fig­ure.

Wi­jarn Si­machaya, di­rec­tor of pol­lu­tion con­trol at the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment, con­ceded Thais needed to change their habits.

“We are one of the worst per­form­ers in the world in terms of marine de­bris,” he said.

But lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Srisuwan Janya said the govern­ment needed to take a stronger lead.

“In Thai­land com­pa­nies have done more in this area than the state has,” he said.

Gaffes by Bangkok’s gover­nor Sukhumb­hand Pari­b­a­tra have not helped per­cep­tions that Thai of­fi­cials could do more.

Last year, af­ter a par­tic­u­larly bad bout of mon­soon flood­ing, he sparked up­roar by sug­gest­ing res­i­dents who wanted to avoid in­un­da­tions should “live on a hill”. –

Pho­tos: AFP

A vol­un­teer­ing pris­oner hauls a metal bucket through a drain to dredge up sewage and plas­tic waste in the out­skirts of Bangkok.

It is es­ti­mated that China, In­done­sia, Philip­pines, Viet­nam and Thai­land ac­count for 60 per­cent of plas­tic waste dumped into the ocean.

The pro­gram fishes around 2000 tonnes of waste from drainage chan­nels ev­ery day. Work­ing to­gether, the vol­un­teers haul tubs of sewage and plas­tic waste into the back of a truck.

One pris­oner carries ropes used to haul sewage and plas­tic waste from drains in the out­skirts of Bangkok.

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