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Can Thailand be Plastic Free?

A candid view on the mounting plastic seen on Thailand's most beautiful, and important asset...the beaches. 

Lauren Baxter speaks up, stating that a plastic free Thailand is not a choice. It is a commitment. To life….

Imagine.

It is 2050.

There is a nuclear holocaust and all that is left on planet earth is a family of tenacious cockroaches, a warehouse of Twinkies and blizzards of polystyrene, the most durable of modern materials.

Okay, wake up.

2022. It’s monsoon season in Thailand and tons of plastic waste are strewn on Phuket’s pine-lined coastline: fishing nets, TV-sized polystyrene boxes covered with barnacles, toothbrushes, rubber flip-flops, plastic straws and hundreds of lighters. Each square yard of sand is peppered with intrusive plastic particles, thousands of polystyrene balls the size of fish roe scattered amidst microscopic, yet razor sharp shards of plastic. Curious hermit crabs scuttle innocently around the debris.

On a recent beach clean, as I combed through a patch of sand, I glanced up and over the beach to the stretch of coastline sullied with trash and felt an overwhelming sense of despair. To sift through the entire beach would take days, weeks, years, and each night the tides regurgitate more fresh waste, spitting back what humans have discarded. A frothy statement against humanity.

Sustainable Mai Khao was founded in 2020. The organisation aims to educate schools and the local community about the importance of caring for their local environment. Organising beach cleans on a regular basis, the project educates young people about how to separate materials, how the recycling process works and which materials can’t be recycled. Their objective is to encourage the community to join forces and tackle the plastic waste issue, cleaning local beaches and recycling plastics to reinforce the message about the crisis.

The educational centre sensitively and effectively transmits the message that plastic waste is “our responsibility” and whilst I felt it necessary to instil a sense of pride and environmental awareness within the community – especially with young people – it is clear to me the crisis can’t be solved simply with a beach clean and transforming a dozen plastic bags into a quaint fish-shaped coaster. Once it’s here, it’s here to stay. And even though one well-meaning individual might refuse a plastic straw (and change does happen with millions of micro-behaviours which shift cultural norms) the rejected straw will still gather dust somewhere on the planet, its fate destined to landfill or ocean, even if it were never used. Quite simply, it should never have been made.

In March 2022, a groundbreaking UN resolution was passed which aims to “end plastic pollution” and forge an internationally-binding agreement by 2024. Inger Anderson, Executive Director of the UNEP stated: “Today marks a triumph by planet Earth over single-use plastics.

Steady on, Inger. The victory rhetoric isn’t quite appropriate yet, as I look around the island and see single-use plastics (and even polystyrene) being used everywhere. The battle to clean our beaches is futile, unless there is a commitment from large organisations and companies to drastically reduce the amount of plastic being produced. The well-intentioned UN “landmark resolution” from March 2022 outlines numerous steps to tackle the problem, which range from education to working groups. But with an estimated 12.6 tons of plastic being produced every second, there is no sign the industry plans to slow down.

What we really need is to pressurise large plastic corporations to drastically reduce the volume of plastic being manufactured. Governments need to stop subsidising fossil fuel industries. And we need to invest in finding alternative materials which are biodegradable and plant-based. Certainly, we do have consumer power, but as well as refusing the plastic wrapping offered by a local food vendor, we need to put pressure on large companies and organisations to refuse plastic, calling upon large chain businesses in the tourist, retail and education sectors. Recognised names need to support the community in refusing plastic, especially single-use and non-recyclable items.

And, our island community could come together to make Phuket plastic-free and lead Thailand on rejecting plastic consumerism. But how do we do it?

How To Make Thailand Plastic Free

Hotels

We need big hotel names to advertise themselves proudly as being single-use plastic free. As Phuket begins to attract more eco-aware tourists, hotels have the potential to drive ethical tourism by adopting sustainable practices. Environmental activism is gaining momentum around the world through documentaries such as Seaspiracy and A Plastic Ocean and the public are choosing to refuse plastics. Hotels need to be intuitive to this. I am calling on Phuket’s big name hotels to be plastic free and lead the way in ethical tourism.

Schools

There is a stark irony in sending children on beach cleans, only to return to school where they drink from a plastic straw. As we educate children, we must also model good practice. It is imperative that schools match words with action and set a strong example to young people. All schools on the island should be plastic-free.

Beaches

Why not make beaches single-use plastic free zones? We could start with beach bars and businesses who use the beach. Alternatives could be bamboo or paper straws. We need to set the standards for tourists and visitors and show Phuket does not tolerate single-use plastic on our beaches. Advice and support on how to choose economically-viable, plastic free options could be provided for local businesses, and we should celebrate businesses who choose plastic-free, opting to visit these establishments to spend our money and our time.

Local Education

We need to educate the local community about cheap, plastic-free alternatives and the dangers of burning plastics. Local schools must also be involved in making their schools plastic-free zones and charities and organisations could reach out to local schools to educate children about the longevity of plastic and the impact it has on our Environment. Links could be made between the affluent international school network and the local government schools to bring ideas together regarding sustainability issues in Phuket.

The situation is at crisis-point. Whilst the world is figuring out how to balance the scales of Big Business and Environment, I believe local areas should pressurise their big company names to resist buying single-use plastics. It is only then we can come together as a community and actually make progress in dramatically reducing the volume of plastics making their way onto Thailand’s pristine beaches, (and Planet Earth’s) sublime seas.

For more information: Check out ‘Seaspiracy’ and ‘A Plastic Ocean’ available on Netflix

*Lauren Baxter has lived in South East Asia for twelve years and is currently based in Phuket with her six year old daughter. An intrepid traveler and adventurer, Lauren writes about her experiences, the environment and how to get the most out of living in Asia. In her spare time, Lauren can be found sampling obscure noodle dishes in the many ‘hidden gem’ restaurants or relaxing on beaches watching the sun sink into the sea.