BANGKOK: Most retailers strive to make shopping easy for customers. But Papawee Pongthanavaranon is determined to make it less convenient.
Her clients must come prepared with empty containers and shopping bags - a practice still largely uncommon in Thailand - and pay for a range of environmentally sourced merchandise at her self-service bulk store Refill Station in the capital.
A bulk store is an emerging type of eco-conscious retailer. Products are priced according to quantity and sold with zero or low-plastic packaging. Unlike traditional shops, they require customers to bring their own containers or borrow and return them on their next purchase.
The businesses are common in many developed countries which have greater awareness of environmental issues. In Thailand, however, it is a new and unusual concept.
“We’re an ‘inconvenient store’. While others go with concepts like ‘ready-to-eat’, ‘ready-to-cook’ and ‘ready-to-use’, we have nothing ‘ready’. All the products here make life more inconvenient but our customers are ready to change,” Papawee told CNA.
The 30-year-old architecture graduate opened the bulk store two years ago with like-minded people, in one of Bangkok’s busy alleyways. They are passionate environmentalists who hope to spread more green concepts in the city where they live and help build a sustainable low-waste community.
Each day, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration collects an estimated 10,000 tonnes of waste, including 80 million plastic bags. Its data showed an average Bangkok resident uses eight plastic bags per day and often throws them away after a single use. The longevity of plastic products, whose original form can last 400 years, results in most of them going to landfills. The process costs authorities THB700 (US$23) per tonne of plastic waste.
Nationwide, the plastic use shows no signs of falling. Thailand’s Pollution Control Department reported last year the country uses 45 billion plastic bags annually, 6.8 billion styrofoam food containers and 9.8 billion single-use plastic cups.
About 18 billion plastic bags are handed out at fresh markets and stalls, while the rest - 27 billion bags - come from retailers, malls and convenience stores, according to the department’s data.
The magnitude of plastic waste in Thailand has made many residents more eco-conscious. In big cities, it is increasingly common to see people carrying cloth shopping bags, reusable water bottles, food containers and stainless straws. But a few years ago, Papawee said, the practice would have been strange for many people she knows.
Back then, environmentalists in Thailand wouldn’t dare express themselves. People thought we were weird. They’d ask: ‘Why do you have to carry a water bottle?’. But these days, it’s quite normal to do so and the question now would be: ‘Why don’t you do it?’.
DROWNING IN PLASTIC
In Bangkok, bulk stores have begun to emerge as demands for eco-friendly products and services grow in Thailand.
The country is facing a serious environmental challenge caused by millions of tonnes of plastic. In fact, it is the fifth biggest contributor in the world to ocean waste. A 2015 report by Washington DC-based environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy showed more than half of plastic waste in the ocean originated from five rapidly growing economies - China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
Growth in GDP and improved quality of life in these countries has resulted in “exploding demand” for consumer goods, which exceeded their waste-management infrastructure, the report added.
Unless steps are taken to manage this waste properly, by 2025 the ocean could contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of finfish - an unthinkable outcome.
Each year, Thailand produces about 1.03 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste. More than 3 per cent finds its way into the ocean, according to Ocean Conservancy’s report. It also added that more than 80 per cent of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources - a result of uncollected waste and poor waste-management systems.
In Thailand, the problem of unmanaged plastic waste has prompted its environment minister to convince 43 major shopping malls and convenience stores to stop handing out plastic bags to customers from Jan 1 next year.
“After a long time of campaigning against plastic waste, it’s now time to take real action,” Minister of Environment Varawut Silpa-archa said in August.
“Let’s get used to carrying cloth shopping bags today. Cut down on the convenience a little to let the world and the environment stay with humans for a long time.”
The move came shortly after the death of a well-loved baby dugong, Mariam, who died in August after months of intensive care. The autopsy linked the animal’s death to several pieces of plastic blocking its intestinal tract.
“The inflammation that ensued had caused gas build-up in her digestive system and blood infection,” veterinarian Nantarika Chansue from Chulalongkorn University wrote on her Facebook page last month.
While Thais have grieved for their beloved dugong, many of them were not surprised by the news.
It has become increasingly frequent for people in the country to hear reports about rare and threatened marine species found dead with plastic waste in their stomach. Last year, a short-finned pilot whale died in the coastal province of Songkhla after throwing up five plastic bags. An autopsy revealed 80 more weighing 8kg in its stomach.
The pilot whale and the baby dugong are among an estimated 300 rare marine animals in Thailand that have died from ingesting waste and parts of fishing tools every year. According to the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, 60 per cent of them are dolphins and whales, and the rest are turtles.
THAILAND’S PLASTIC ADDICTION
A zero-waste or low-plastic lifestyle remains limited to a small network of people in Thailand largely because life can be cheap and easy with plastic.
Pichmol Rugrod from Greenpeace Thailand said Thais’ plastic addiction has stemmed from its convenience, availability and low cost. Affordable take-away services such as Grab Food, she added, have also increased plastic consumption in the country with single-use plastic for packaging, cutlery and cups.
“Just a few months ago, Grab celebrated figures showing its food delivery service had racked up 4 million orders in the first four months of 2019. And you don’t need to be a genius to work out just how much plastic waste would have been left behind,” she told CNA, citing a lack of strong regulations and a sustainable plan for reducing plastic junk.
Thailand is in the grip of a growing plastic waste crisis.
To cut down on their plastic addiction, people in Thailand have to pay more for eco-friendly products. They also have to put maximum effort in sorting and recycling waste due to a lack of waste management options in the country.
According to Pichmol, only a quarter of plastic waste - mainly plastic bottles - was recycled last year. “Among the rest was around 1.2 million tonnes of plastic bags, a major contributor to plastic pollution in Thailand,” she added.
Still, many people believe their country can still overcome the plastic crisis. Its grim situation has not discouraged the likes of Papawee, who has noticed small but gradual change in consumer behaviour over the past two years.
Refill Station now welcomes more customers than before. The variety of its products has also grown from shower gel, shampoo and dish-washing liquid to bamboo toothbrushes, reusable sanitary pads and plastic-free toothpaste tablets.
“These provide alternatives for whoever wants to start reducing plastic use; they can start with anything. We’re also in the process of setting up a food refill station,” Papawee said.
“We have hope and we work based on that,” she added. “We believe little things make great change.”