Surge in Plastic Waste during COVID-19 and the Challenges beyond

Thailand has come up with the policy and road map to address the issue of plastic waste over the past few years, but whether these policy and roadmap can keep up with the shift of consumption behaviors that produce more of plastics during the Covid-19 outbreak and beyond is still a question as much as a new challenge

300% was the growth of the food delivery business following the refinement and lockdown measures imposed during the COVID-19 outbreak here, prompting the surge of plastic waste. The city of Bangkok alone saw the increase up to 62% or around 1,320 tons a day, resulting in plastic waste accounting for 37% of the waste collected each day in April, or 3,440 tons out of 9,370 tons, according to the country’s leading green think-tank, Thailand Environment Institute.

As President at the TEI, and former Permanent Secretary to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry in charge of the issue, Dr. Wijarn Simachaya, has realized well how much the new burden it has caused to the current waste management system of the country. In contrast to the surge, the institute has found that the city’s recycling capacity declined over the same period from around 27% to 19%.

At the recent Dialogue Forum 5: Surge in Plastic Waste during COVID-19 and the roadmap towards sustainable plastic waste management, organized by Bangkok Tribune and partners with the support of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Thailand Office), Dr. Wijarn shared his views and insights about the issue along with other speakers to the audience.

According to Dr. Wijarn, waste management, especially for plastic one, has been increasingly challenging especially following the COVID-19, which has suggested a new trend of people’s lifestyle that would soon shift the trend of the country’s waste_for worse.

Dr. Wijarn said Thailand produces around 27 to 28 million tons of waste a year, and only half of this amount is properly disposed of. Among this amount is plastic waste which is accounted for around 2 million tons or around 12 % of the whole waste.

Of 2 million tons, the country has the capacity to recycle only 25% of it or 500,000 tons. The rest, he said, has gone to landfills, the environment, and the seas_ the destinations which prompted Thailand to have been ranked among the world’s top ten countries, which disposed of plastic waste the most over some past years.

It is estimated that the country discharged plastic waste into the seas around one million tons a year, according to Dr. Wijarn.

Credit: TEI

According to Germany based Helmholtz Research Centre, China is on top of the rank, being number one for marine debris contributor with 8.2 million tons discharged into the seas, followed by Indonesia (3.22 million tons), the Philippines (1.88 million tons), Vietnam (1.83 million tons), Sri Lanka (1.59 million tons), and Thailand (1.03 million tons).

Credit: Plastic Atlas 2019
Credit: Greenpeace Thailand/ Chanklang Kanthong

The plastic waste management roadmap

Realising such the facts, the country by the ministry came up with an initiative to develop a roadmap to tackle the problem. That was a few years ago when he was in charge of the panel assigned to address the problem and solutions.

But it was not until the death of Marium, a six-month-old orphaned Dugong last year that pushed concerned parties to take action. Marium was found having blood infections, with some plastic pieces found into her stomach, the suspected cause of her infection and death.

Without the authority to enforce anyone, the ministry opted for cooperation with major plastic distributors, and by January this year, it managed to push forward the campaign “Every day Say no to Plastic Bag” joined by major department stores and convenient shops countrywide to stop distributing single-use plastic bags to their consumers, one of the seven targets under the roadmap, according to Dr. Wijarn.

The ministry expected that the campaign would help cut the use of 45 billion single-use plastic bags. However, this was disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak.

“We have found an increasing amount of plastic waste during the outbreak, including a 15% increase of one single-use plastic bags despite our strong campaign. It means we need something stronger than having just cooperation,” said Dr. Wijarn.

The challenge, he said, is waste segregation at home, which needs an effective waste management system to support. The budget of waste management, he added, is around 30 billion baht per year, which is normally allocated by the government. Unfortunately, most of the amount is mostly subject to waste collection and transport to the landfills.

“It is very important to invest in infrastructure for waste management, making it more systematic to deal with the waste from households to the landfill sites. To make this successful, a new law is urgently required for better waste management.

“The whole cycle of plastics and plastic waste management needs to be looked at,” remarked Dr. Wijarn, who retired from the office last year before being able to see it taking shape.

Credit: DEQP

The efforts

Wanich Sawayo, director of Waste Minimization Sub-division, the Department of Pollution Control is among the law drafters now. She said the issue of plastic waste was at its peak following the death of Marium, but what followed under the roadmap was still much about cooperation.

It was not until this year that the department and the panel Dr. Wijarn ever chaired started to work on the content of the new law. They have also been working on the action plan to materialize the roadmap, Ms. Wanich said.

Under the roadmap running from 2008-2018, two prime targets are set. But first and foremost, Ms. Wanich said, plastics are not viewed as evil. While single-use plastics may have to be reduced or banned as they become waste so promptly after the first uses, some are still in need, she said, adding there are 7 types of single-use plastic products listed for the ban with certain timeframes set.

For those still in need, reusing and recycling are the options for them, and this directive follows the Circular Economy principle with 100% recycling targeted in the next ten years, or 2030, Ms. Wanich noted.

Since last year, the country has met with the success on bans of cap seals for drinking water plastic bottles and of microbeads in cosmetics. It has planned to abolish uses of plastic bags with less than 36 microns, plastic foams for food packages, plastic glasses and straws by the year of 2022.

“The fact is we don’t have any laws to support the roadmap yet. So, we push the roadmap through cooperation. On the other hand, the issue essentially needs a thorough consideration of the plastic waste life cycle,” said Ms. Wanich, adding this all concerns producers, consumers, and the waste management system.

To materialize the roadmap in an absence of the law, the Cabinet had the resolution to develop the action plan to back the roadmap up. It is being drafted and will soon be tabled for the Cabinet for approval so concerned agencies will be obliged to what guided in the plan, according to Ms. Wanich.

To achieve the roadmap and the plan, concerned parties agree now that there should be a law in place, Ms. Wanich said, and the PCD is going to draft the country’s first-ever plastic waste management law with a core concept centered around the circular economy, under which most of the waste is expected to be recycled and circulated to maximise economic returns.

Ms. Wanich said the department has reached the basic content that the law will include approaches to terminate single-use plastics, concrete and compulsory measures to implement 3Rs, a concept of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The law will also focus on the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principle, through which plastic manufacturers must take responsibilities to manage the waste caused by their products.

The public hearings on the law drafting framework have been held in all regions. The PCD’s legal team will go through the content of the hearings and work closely with the panel. The draft law will then be forwarded to the National Board on Environment for consideration, before being proceeded for law enactment, Ms. Wanich said.

“But as we all know, enacting a law is time-consuming,” remarked Ms. Wanich.

Credit: Greenpeace Thailand/ Baramee Temboonkiat

Policy interventions

Chula Zero Waste’s manager and a senior researcher of the Environmental Research Institute Dr. Sujira Vassanadumrongdee said plastic waste management in the country still much relies on cooperation as there is still no clear directive from the state.

Dr. Sujitra said if people view that the issue is a crisis now, it’s the time for all concerned to help develop a new basic law and put it in place as a basis for waste management and regulation to help manage waste here, including the plastic one.

Plastic waste, she said, should be the responsibility of the whole society.

Dr. Sujitra said the problem with the existing laws that deal with the waste is that they give authority to local organisations to take care of the issue, and at the moment the enforcing authority focuses only on waste disposal, not the management of the whole life cycle of the waste.

Meanwhile, there is an underlining fact that while the Circular Economy concept is an attempt to turn our production and consumption which are quite linear into a circular pattern, under which production, consumption, and waste are circulated, it’s not just about recycling as understood.

Waste management, she said, needs a paradigm shift, covering upstream down to downstream, and an eco-design is crucially a key for upstream processes. This, she added, cannot happen suddenly but needs some interventions, from both the state and consumers.

“Interventions that I have mentioned, I mean legal, economic, and social ones,” said Dr. Sujitra.

Credit: Plastic Atlas 2019
Credit: Plastic Atlas 2019

Worldwide, she said, fundamental ideas behind some waste disposal acts have evolved, first basing on the impacts on the environment and then expanding into the concept of reusable or recycled resources. Thailand, she pointed, is at the very beginning, which is about proper waste collection by local organisations, the process which she views as still being much problematic.

“We have not yet even started how to include all concerned sectors to help manage our waste. To do so, we need all legal, economic, and social interventions, but here we have mainly relied on social interventions, while hardly touched upon legal and economic interventions. Even economic interventions need a law to back them up,” remarked Dr. Sujitra. “…And to develop the new law, we should think about the whole cycle of plastic waste management, which covers upstream down to downstream.”

Dr. Sujitra shared other countries’ experiences with advanced waste management. In many countries including Canada, they have developed and introduced instrument mixes to handle the waste problem, including law and financial incentives such as the deposit refund system or the so-called EPR, or the Extended Producer Responsibility (which has been applied in Germany for over 30 years), she said, remarking that their roadmaps are generally backed up by laws.

Some countries have stepped up their plastic waste management with the ban on the surging single-use plastic waste. For instance, Taiwan has recently declared that it would ban single-use plastics by 2030. To do so, economic interventions have been introduced such as fees or tax collection on products such as straws to reflect the true cost of plastics.

In a case of Japan, it has put in place the basic law that demands responsibilities from all sectors, followed by a number of secondary laws to help regulate different types of plastic waste.

The EU, on the other hand, has recently introduced a new directive, which aims to ban 10 prime single-use plastics which have replacements in place. Those without replacements yet would be required reduction on use, alongside the application of a waste take-back process by producers under the EPR concept. Products with recycled contents, meanwhile, are required by law to promote the Circular Economy, Dr. Sujitra added.

For Thailand, Dr. Sujitra said, it should start with the introduction of the basic law, which reflects key principles that mentioned. It should address responsibilities of all concerned as well as other key management areas from reduction on plastic use to recycling, the EPR and Circular Economy, as well as prioritising of industries with heavy production and uses of plastics.

The law, she said, needs to specially balance responsibilities especially under the EPR concept as plastic producers would not want to shoulder the increasing production costs. So, it should be promotive rather than regulatory.

“I do hope that the new law will also help enhance industries and business entrepreneurs to create and develop innovative business models, which are widely done in many countries such as refill businesses and more,” she said, giving an example of Japan’s Muji Shop, which has no longer sold drinking water plastic bottles, but set up free-water drinking machines to its 400 branches countrywide instead.

Credit: Greenpeace Thailand/ Chanklang Kanthong


Pichmol Rugrod, a plastic project leader of Greenpeace Thailand agreed. She said, if the issue is a crisis now, the parties concerned may have to “run” or do more to keep up with the problem.

Ms. Pichmol said Greenpeace wishes to see the roadmap turn into the new law as soon as possible.

“We cannot rely only on cooperation, as we never know to what extent we will get it from people and whether it is enough to deal with the problem,” said Ms. Pichmol.

Ms. Pichmol said Greenpeace focuses on upstream or plastic production in a particular as it views that plastic producers have a critical role in this challenge. Other sectors, both the state and consumers have made a move, although they are still sluggish, and plastic producers should have a role in this, in helping tackle this critical pollution, she stressed.

The EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) as has been mentioned by other speakers, she pointed, is agreed, and Greenpeace wants the producers to be aware that their products and responsibilities should not end at the shelves in stores. The state, in the meantime, should be supportive of materializing the EPR principle and the new law to help regulate our plastic waste problem, she added.

According to Greenpeace’s recent brand audit in Chiang Mai, 40% of plastic waste was from the packaging. The similar result was also found in the audit in Songkhla province.

“Companies or international brands should pay attention to the principle of reusing. They must take responsibilities for the environment, and apply more of a promotion of the reused packaging of products. Importantly, they must set up a monitoring system to monitor packaging of their products in the environment,” she said.

Credit: Greenpeace Thailand/ Chanklang Kanthong