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Four words for a cleaner future

Bangkok residents throw away 1,800 tonnes of plastic bags per day, according to 2010 figures.

Bangkok residents throw away 1,800 tonnes of plastic bags per day, according to 2010 figures.

As a South Korean student majoring in the Thai language, I have a deep appreciation for "amazing" Thailand. Each visit has brought me heart-warming experiences and deepened my respect for Thai values of optimism, kindness and openness to others. But the friendly streets are also amazing for another reason: the incredible number of plastic bags.

Why does a Korean student care about plastic bag usage in Thailand? I care because I would like to work there in the future, which is why I am studying the Thai language enthusiastically. My aim is to live in Thailand, discover the country and one day feel proud to call it my second home.

However, my future home seems addicted to plastic totes. Whatever you buy and wherever you buy it, you will find it is bagged up in plastic. Shopping in Thailand's convenience stores or buying fruit on the street makes me feel guilty over all the unnecessary bags I take home. Vendors even routinely place fruit in a bag and then put that bag in another one.

The problem was flagged up in 2010 by then-deputy governor of Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) Porntep Techapaibul: "Among Bangkok's daily 10,000 tonnes of trash, about 1,800 tonnes are plastic bags, a number projected to increase by about 20 per cent each year." Each bag takes 450 years to decompose.

Porntep was responding to BMA figures showing that more than 600,000 plastic bags were used daily in this city of nine million people.

We can see the truth behind these figures simply by taking a walk through Bangkok - plastic totes rule the streets. Four years later things are no better.

Thailand's recycling system is not as organised or efficient as its counterparts in other countries. A 2009 study presented by leading recycling expert Wuthichai Wongthatsanekorn showed that the recovery rate of plastic waste in Thailand in 2000 was only 23 per cent.

That low rate is being fuelled by Thais' generous distribution of plastic bags, which tend to be casually discarded after single use rather than recycled. I found the best way to get rid of all the plastic bags I accumulated in Thailand was to use them as bin liners. The irony was that I ended up trashing plastic bags in plastic bags.

In 2010, the BMA launched its "No Bag, No Baht" campaign. For 45 days, shops offered a Bt1 discount on every Bt100 of goods purchased for customers who provided their own cloth totes. It's good to know that Thailand is aware of the overuse and is trying to tackle it with campaigns, but a saving of Bt1 per Bt100 is not enough to wean Thais from their addiction to plastic bags. Instead, all supermarket chains should sell cheap reusable bags right in front of the check-out tills so that customers can see they have an alternative option. This is what we do in South Korea.

According to the National News Bureau, each Thai consumes an average of eight plastic bags per day. That's over 240 plastic totes per month that could be saved by each person if they carried their own reusable bags.

Big supermarkets are criticised for giving out too many plastic bags, but I would like to suggest a simple phrase that Thais rarely say but perhaps should use more often: "Mai sai tung, krub/ka" (Don't put it in a bag, thanks). Armed with nothing more than a reusable cloth bag and those simple four words, we can join the battle to clean up the streets and conserve Thailand's environment.

Koo Ji Min is majoring in the Thai language at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul.


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