The Gulf of Thailand as communal trash bin

opinion February 23, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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Merely careless or not caring at all, we toss aside plastic wrappers and create a sea monster that threatens our future

The recent sighting of a kilometres-long tangle of floating trash in the Gulf of Thailand was, to say the least, shocking. We know about the massive garbage “island” being carried around the Pacific Ocean on prevailing currents, but to discover a mess like this in our own backyard is worrying indeed – if not at all surprising. 

Thailand’s 300-tonne version of the swirling Pacific trash monster is believed comprised mainly of litter swept into the sea by this year’s southern floods. But the source matters little compared to the biting fact it represents: Thais are simply creating too much waste.

On a per-capita basis, Thais are among the world’s top users of disposable plastic bags. Thanks to our carelessness, our country has become a major contributor to the garbage that fouls the oceans – one of five nations collectively responsible for 60 per cent of the plastic found at sea, according to a 2015 report by US-based advocacy group Ocean Conservancy. (Sharing in our guilt are China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.)

No one has to go on a cruise around the gulf to understand the problem. Every day we see garbage, especially discarded plastic bags, being blown around streets and tossed into canals and rivers. We have to ask why the local authorities too often allow piles of trash to go uncollected, though the bulk of the blame rests firmly on the shoulders of citizens. We have every purchase wrapped in plastic without ever challenging the practice, and then we toss the bags aside once emptied, heedless of the cumulative damage they cause to the environment. Meanwhile Thailand welcomes many millions of tourists every year and does little or nothing to tackle the huge garbage problem that generates. 

In response to the revelation of the floating mess in the gulf, environmentalists have suggested sustainable solutions that need to start with every individual and extend to government policy and enforcement. Greenpeace Southeast Asia campaign director Tara Buakamsri notes that most of the flotsam came from the land, washed into rivers and thence to the sea. Slow to break down, the plastic poses a grave hazard to marine life, both from toxic components and the potential to choke sea creatures when it’s swallowed. And food fish that eat this junk will pass the toxins on to us.

“We are all generating too much trash every day,” Tara says. “If we want to solve this problem we have to change our behaviour.” We should try and shun single-use plastic. We should be recycling the plastic we do use, along with other types of “waste” that needn’t be waste. Tara believes government restrictions on the use of plastic are needed, possibly including a surcharge for every plastic bag handed out at supermarkets. Households that recycle refuse should be rewarded, he says, suggesting free garbage collection. 

These ideas are common practice in most developed countries, where consumers have come to abhor the overuse of plastic. Shoppers at malls who ask that their goods be placed in plastic bags have to pay extra – a fine of sorts for being environmentally unfriendly. 

It is not too much to expect Thais to gradually become just as intolerant to wastage. We need an integrated approach to tackle the issue. Let’s get serious about recycling and reuse. Let’s kick the plastic habit. Let’s teach our children not to litter, and instead to think about alternative uses for “waste that isn’t waste”. Let’s see more trash bins in public places and effective garbage collection too. And, instead of bickering over coal-derived power, let’s set up emission-controlled incinerators that turn all that refuse into useable energy.