What is going on in Asia?
The stomach-churning photo of god-knows-how-many plastic bags is actually a photo taken after the autopsy of a dead short-finned pilot whale was done in Southern Thailand. 8kg of plastic came out of the whale’s stomach. This has yet again attracted considerable attention to the fact that Asia is home to five of the world’s top marine plastic polluters and it is currently the largest source of plastic pollution in the ocean. In fact, five of the leading Asian countries create more than half of the world’s plastic waste: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.
One of the biggest plastic use in Southeast Asia is closely related to their food culture: incessant pad thai take-outs, late night 7-eleven snacks and ice-cold bubble teas. Before that, they were using bamboo, pots, banana leaves, and tin cans for the same purposes. This is an evolving culture that started around the 1970s and fully developed by 1996, one that unfortunately involves polluting our oceans and killing the marine animals.
What are the possible solutions?
There are more than a dozen successful examples of the attempts to reduce plastic consumption and ocean pollution. One that has turned out to be highly effective is the example of the Netherlands; they have successfully put a price tag on the use of plastic bags at stores and turned the situation to a win-win—the shops now get paid to sell the plastic bags and there is now more than 70 percent reduction in the use of these bags. Southeast Asian countries like Thailand are only getting started in their efforts to reduce the amount of plastic used. However, the complications in solving the issue are substantial. In Thailand, the biggest plastic users are not the industry nor the government; they are the citizens. Without changing their behavior or their incentives to use less, having any real outcome is not viable.
What Thailand has implemented looks similar to what others have been doing. First of all, they have decided to ban all imports of foreign plastic scrap in 2021 this amount has grown exponentially since China decided that they are not importing the West’s garbage anymore. They have also declared war on single-use plastic bags from shops, banning all single-use plastic glasses, very thin plastic bags and plastic straws in 2022. They are also hoping to reduce the amount of thicker plastic bags by 70% over the next 20 years.
Bottom Line: Thailand, one of the world’s worst polluters of plastic going into the ocean, has decided to wage war against everyday plastic use, but I don’t see how they are going to change people’s deep-rooted behavior by using extreme measures (banning everything) rather than a structured plan.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).