While Thailand has prioritized measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, environmental concerns have been sidelined. Despite an overall reduction in waste, the amount of plastic and harmful microplastics have skyrocketed in the kingdom, with a weak pre-existing waste sorting and management system.
Millions of face masks disposed of on a daily basis. Food deliveries generating up to 10 pieces of un-recycled garbage per order. Tonnes of infectious waste unable to be eliminated each day. This is what the “new normal” looks like in Thailand amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
With an emphasis placed on containing the spread of the virus, environmental concerns have been sidelined. Despite an overall reduction in waste, due to a stark absence of tourists, the amount of plastic has skyrocketed in the kingdom that has always had a difficult relationship with its sorting and management.
“People right now are finding immediate solutions for the problems, trying to overcome the pandemic. But we're leaving bombs for our children and grandchildren to deal with in the form of an excess in plastic and microplastic waste,” said Dr. Sujitra Vassanadumrongdee, a senior researcher at Chulalongkorn University’s Environmental Research Institute.
To make matters worse, an unprecedented surge of infectious waste coming from hospitals, quarantine facilities and households, is overwhelming the country’s already inadequate waste disposal system. This type of waste is also largely made up of harmful plastic materials, which poses a threat to public health as well as to the environment.
As new problems arise as a result of Thailand’s battle with the pandemic, better infrastructure and regulation is direly needed to dig Thailand out from the mountain of trash it is accumulating.
“We need to figure out how to live with COVID-19 without creating a waste crisis,” said Dr. Sujitra.
More plastic, less recycling
On average, Thailand produces around 27-28 million tonnes of waste a year. Among which, plastic accounts for around 2 million tonnes or about 12 percent.
Since Thailand was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 however, the plastic industry has been booming. In an attempt to avoid contamination, cafes stopped accepting reusable cups. Food courts and restaurants started wrapping their plates and cutlery in plastic. And most problematically, people resorted to the convenience of food delivery applications en masse as they became confined to their homes and several bans were placed on in-restaurant dining.
This propelled these applications to expand rapidly. While food deliveries are estimated to grow by about 10-20 percent annually under normal circumstances, last year it saw a 150 percent growth compared to the same period in 2019. As the country experiences a third wave of the virus, that began in April, orders are estimated to surge by about 26 to 60 percent from earlier this year.
“In one order, you receive about 7-10 pieces of plastic like tissues with plastic coating, straws, forks and spoons — despite the fact that people have utensils at home,” said Dr. Wijarn Simachaya, the President of Thailand Environment Institute Foundation (TEI), the kingdom’s leading green think-tank.
This contributed to a 15 percent increase in plastic waste nationally last year — from 5,500 tonnes to 6,300 tonnes per day. Bangkok, alone, saw a 60 percent upsurge. While the TEI is still working to analyze this year’s numbers, Dr. Wijarn believes plastic waste could increase to reach 20 percent nationally, and 70 percent in Bangkok due to longer work-from-home periods.
Despite the increase however, the number of plastics recycled has plummeted. While Bangkok usually recycles about 27 percent of plastic waste per year, the number has dropped to about 19 percent during the pandemic.
“People are worried about the disease. They're afraid that there's traces of the virus on the plastic. So instead of recycling it, they just throw it away,” noted Dr. Wijarn. Garbage collectors have also become increasingly reluctant to sort waste fearing contamination.
What is more, single use plastics like straws, bags, cups and cutlery have returned with a vengeance. Many smaller vendors, already struggling to make ends meet with the health measures imposed on the food and beverage industry, cannot afford to use the more expensive eco-friendly packaging. The country’s roadmap to phasing out these non-recyclable materials — which started with a ban on plastics bags at the beginning of 2020 — was suddenly stunted.
The country’s recycling problem, however, predates the pandemic. Due to a management system that does not facilitate it and little public awareness of garbage sorting required for recycling, most waste ends up in landfills or oceans. In fact, Thailand is the world's sixth largest contributor of marine plastic pollution. The hike on the volume of plastic waste now being generated is overwhelming what was already a weak infrastructure.
“We need to build a whole system from the beginning, middle and end of the plastic cycle,” said Dr. Wijarn. “Where do we throw the plastic away and when? How and who will collect the waste?” The solutions he suggested include establishing collection schedules for different types of garbage or setting up drop-off spots or recycling centers in local communities.
Infectious Waste from hospitals and hotels
Another major contributor to the pandemic-fueled dilemma is the dramatic spike in biohazardous waste. In hospitals and clinics, the demand for medical equipment like surgical masks, swabs, gloves, and personal protective equipment (PPE), has greatly risen in parallel to the number of cases. Much of the medical waste produced is made up of single-use plastics.
According to data from the Ministry of Public Health, hospitals generate about 2.8 kilograms of COVID-19-related infectious waste, per bed, per day. That number drops to around 1.8 kilograms for field hospitals. This led to a 11-12 tonnes increase of infectious waste daily in Bangkok alone — from around 60 tonnes to 72 tonnes. These numbers, however, don’t reflect other infectious waste like masks that are discarded along with other household garbage.
While Bangkok can efficiently incinerate about 70 tonnes of waste per day, there isn’t a system for this in many areas outside of the capital. In turn, tonnes of infectious waste across the kingdom are left unmanaged everyday.
Trash generated from state quarantine facilities, which are government-accredited accommodation for Thais and foreigners arriving from overseas, are also considered hazardous.
Maple Hotel, an alternative state quarantine (ASQ) facility in Bangkok reported generating 15,251 kilograms of infectious waste in January, their most active month thus far this year. Each room contributes about one kilogram of garbage per day — about 90 percent of which consists of plastic.
“According to government regulations, any tablewares and utensils that have been used by quarantine guests cannot be reused. They can only be used once before being disposed of,” explained Ratthawan Khemwachiraphan, Maple Hotel’s Sales, Marketing and COVID-19 manager. In a meal, guests generally receive a container for food and another one for fruits, a cup with drinks, utensils, napkins and seasoning packets — all of which consist of plastic.
All trash generated from the rooms are bagged and tied up before being placed into red bins designated for infectious waste provided by the government. These bins are collected by district officers every morning.
“Violating these regulations will not only result in our ASQ status being stripped, it will also put our employees at risk of catching the virus,” she said. To ensure these policies are strictly followed, state officials regularly show up unannounced at the hotel to conduct random inspections.
Governed by the 1992 Public Health Act and the 2002 Ministerial Regulations Concerning Infectious Waste Disposal, there are specific ways these types of waste need to be collected, disinfected and disposed of. They need to be burned by effective incinerators to kill the germs. Incorrect management of infectious waste can lead to transmission of the virus.
A microplastic pandemic
The type of infectious waste that has seen the highest surge during the pandemic are disposable masks, not only from hospitals and quarantine facilities but from households as well. Since the outbreak, its usage has become unavoidable, especially after wearing masks in public became mandatory in Thailand at the end of April.
TEI’s Dr. Wijarn estimates that 23-25 million masks are used a day nationwide. About 20-30 percent of which are discarded on a daily basis.
Despite the heavy usage, there is little public understanding regarding how to safely dispose of them. While in the capital, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has placed about 1,000 red bins designated for hazardous waste in various locations including in city hall, district offices and medical centers, most citizens are unaware of this initiative or cannot access them due to being isolated in their homes. Consequently, most masks are improperly discarded along with other waste.
“If citizens don’t separate how they discard their masks, local governments cannot sort them,” said Chulalongkorn Environmental Research Institute's Dr. Sujitra. As a result, large amounts wind up in the environment, instead of going to infectious waste incinerators. In fact, the United Nations (UN) estimates that around 75 percent of used masked and other COVID-19-related waste ends up in landfills or in the ocean.
Disposable masks are mainly made up of polypropylene plastic, which could persist in the environment for decades or even centuries. Over time, they break down to microplastics and eventually nanoplastics, which are small plastic fragments that are less than five millimeters and one micrometer in length, respectively. When they are in the ocean, the sealife that we consume eat these plastic materials. In turn, microplastic and nanoplastic end up contaminating our food chain.
“We may not die from COVID-19, but we may get cancer in the future from microplastics,” said Dr. Sujitra.
To make matters worse, open burning or uncontrolled incineration of polypropylene can release toxic and harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde and acetone, into the environment.
With the amount of infectious waste that is rapidly piling up, the country’s overwhelmed management system cannot dispose of it all. The problem is exasperated in smaller towns and communities that lack the infrastructure to eliminate such waste.
“The government must increase the number of ways to dispose of it in the kingdom while also decreasing the amount of waste at the source,” said Dr. Sujitra. “They must encourage the private sector to invest in more incinerators for infectious waste so that it could be more widespread in the country.”
A solution, environmentalists have suggested is using cement kilns as temporary disposal facilities. These are high temperature incinerators that can efficiently treat infectious waste. Citizens, meanwhile, are encouraged to opt for reusable cloth masks. If this is not possible, disposable masks must be separated from other waste. They can, then, be disposed of in designated red bins or labeled properly as “used masks” or “infectious waste” before being discarded along with other municipal waste.
The way out
In order to establish long-term solutions, environmentalists believe clearly allocated state funds and new laws are needed to address Thailand’s poor waste management infrastructure and recycling system.
“We don't think the existing laws and systems can sustainably solve the issue,” said Dr. Sujitra “In other countries, there are laws that state that it is the citizens' responsibility to reduce and sort their waste.”
Shanghai, for instance, implemented a law in 2019 that requires households to separate waste into four types: food, hazardous, recyclable, and residual waste. Failure to do so can result in a hefty fine. Thailand, however, grants waste management power to local governments, which has regulations to collect, transport and dispose of waste but lacks any measures to sort out trash.
As a global plastic manufacturing hub, Thailand also needs policies to promote waste reduction at the source.
“Since the producer already made it, they must sell it. They do all sorts of marketing to encourage people to use it. Thai people also love comfort and convenience,” said Dr. Sujitra.
Especially now that local governments cannot handle the increasing amount of plastic resulting from the pandemic, environmentalists are pushing for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR.) It is a policy, backed up by a legal framework, that puts the responsibility of the treatment and disposal of used products back on manufacturers. The aim is to promote take-back systems by producers as well eco-designs of products that enable recycling and reusing. For example in Germany, where the strategy has been applied for over 30 years, companies that create the products and profit from it bear the costs of collecting, sorting and recycling of waste.
As well, they believe the government should work with the private sector to draft a framework and laws to promote a circular economy, an economic system that aims to eliminate waste and enable continual use of resources.
Investments need to be made in waste separation systems, such as in sorting centers, as well as in campaigns to raise public awareness about the importance of sorting and recycling.
“It isn’t enough if consumers aren't aware and don't change their behavior. The government, producers and consumers have to work hand in hand,” she said.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung