Plastic food packaging in SE Asia

Yeseong writes*

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.

Eight kilograms of plastic were recovered from the dead whale

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 :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

One thought on “Plastic food packaging in SE Asia”

  1. Hey Yeseong,
    First of all, ver interesting topic !!! Plastic bags are a big issue worldwide that needs to be addressed seriously by all governments, and only few are actually doing something concrete about it. I have a couple of clarifying questions to ask: You said that the Dutch government put a price tag on plastic bags, which lead to shops to get paid in order to sell these. But whereas I understand the profit coming from shops, and the incentive for consumers to maybe bring a bag from home, how did this effectively managed to reduce the consumption of plastic bags overall ? If I was a shop owner and I know that I can gain a lot of money by selling plastic bags, then I’ll try to sell more in order to get a source of gain from somewhere else. And regarding consumers being more inclined to bring their own bag, is this (in your opinion) only due to the fact that now we have to pay for bags or is it also a mix between saving money and increased awareness of the toxicity of plastic bags for the environment? I can give you the example of myself in this case. I try to always bring my own bag when I do groceries, but It happened (quite often sadly) that I forgot it at home. Obviously then I had to buy a plastic bag from the store, and the fact that it was only 20 cents, brought me to think that the price is so low that it doesn’t really matter if I buy the bag every time I go shopping, my wallet will not be affected by it that much. But on the other hand, my self-conscious tells me to not do it because I know how bad it is for the environment.
    Also don’t you think it would be much more effective to just introduce a law that forces shops to sell biodegradable bags instead of plastic ones?
    I would really love to hear your opinion on this 🙂

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