Bangkok’s Bad Habit: Plastic Bags

“Mai toung ka/khap.” 

If it’s not already in your vocabulary, add it. “No bag, please,” is a phrase not often heard at supermarket checkouts or in street vendor transactions. But it should be, given the amount of roadside fruit that’s double-bagged, or the number of iced coffees that come with a plastic handle, or the orange soda served on ice out of a plastic bag. Or that pack of gum the 7-Eleven cashier won’t hesitate to bag.

Bangkok’s plastic bag habit is nothing new. Bloggers have joked about the addiction. Could it be an unwritten rule that everything must be capable of being carried by one finger? Or is it because the capital city has a simple fetish for plastic bags?

Indeed, the “I’d like a bag for my bag, please” habit is a humorous one. But the growing, detrimental environmental implications of it are serious. 

Does awareness breed concern?

Thailand’s Department of Environmental Quality Promotion (DEQP) recently annnounced a campaign to reduce the number of plastic bags used by one bag per person, per day. DEQP chief Jatuporn Buruspa cited a study that said plastics account for 20 percent of all garbage, which amounts to about 16 million tons. The survey said Thais use an average of eight bags per person a day. If successful, the cumulative effort would reduce the total number of bags used by a total of 67 million a day.

Customers are asked to decline plastic bags if buying fewer than two items. The campaign also encourages minimizing overall consumption of plastic bags in daily use. It’s a partnership between the DEQP and CP All Co. Ltd., the company that operates Thailand’s 7-Eleven convenience stores.

And it’s not the first time Bangkok has tried to reduce its dependence on plastic bags. Several years ago the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration began the “No Bag, No Baht” educational campaign, in which consumers were given a one baht discount for every 100 baht purchase if they used their own recyclable bags, and charged one baht for each plastic bag used. While encouraging citizens to reduce their use of plastic bags and offering incentives to do so are positive efforts, they likely aren’t going to solve the problem – a problem that ranges from the plastic bag stuck in a sewer grate, to the tiny plastic particles floating in the ocean.

Global Consequences

Over a trillion plastic bags are used annually worldwide. Most of those bags are destined for a landfill, where it will take a single plastic bag 1,000 years to decompose. That’s a lot of plastic bags, degrading very, very slowly. According to the Five Gyres Institute, a non-profit that conducts research on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, the problem is that a lot of those bags don’t end up in a landfill, but rather, litter sidewalks and streets before making their way to the water. A significant amount of that plastic finds its way through drains before ending up in the ocean, where currents distribute the waste globally, damaging marine ecosystems along the way.

Ever heard of that giant Texas-sized landfill floating around somewhere in the Pacific Ocean? It’s called the “Great Pacific Garden Patch,” and it’s a gyre, or ocean current system, of accumulated garbage. It’s like a plastic vortex, since the patch holds high concentrations of plastic, along with debris and sludge. Plastics swirl around and are broken down by sunlight and wave currents for years until they’re sucked into and concentrated in this spinning circular sinkhole. Since the plastics have disintegrated into small, nearly invisible particles, you can’t really see all the debris, and it doesn’t really look like a Texas-shaped landfill floating in the Pacific. Nonetheless, the marine debris from the Great Pacific Garden Patch, and the five other plastic debris patches found in gyres globally, is only projected to grow.

Sounds like something we don’t need to worry about right now. The naked eye can’t see it. Marine researchers still don’t know the full extent to which plastics are polluting the oceans. Relax, wait and see, right?

Our sinking, flooding city

Remember the 2011 floods? They were destructive, to say the least. And the outlook for floods in Bangkok isn’t promising. The city is sinking at a rate faster than previously expected, predicts Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA). For a city made up of a complex system of khlongs, dykes and underground drainage tunnels, all connected to pumping stations that keep the rainy season at bay, we can’t really take a wait-and-see approach.

What does a flooded Bangkok have to do with your favorite fruit vendor on Soi 38’s penchant for double-bagging fruits? 

Plastic bags exacerbate the effects of floods, choking drains and causing buildup. As heavy rains push bags into Bangkok’s water system, sewers become blocked and drainage systems can’t work properly. When the water finally subsides and life goes on as normal, those plastic bags have now made their way to our waterways.

In 1988 and 1998, Bangladesh experienced some of the worst floods the country had seen. High monsoon rains, melt water from the Himalayas, and low-lying geography forced water to pool and flood, causing massive devastation to more than 75% of the country. After the water subsided, Bangladeshi authorities discovered that among other man-made causes, plastic bags were the main culprit. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags.

Bag bans worldwide 

Because plastic bags not only aggravate flooding but wreck the environment, cities and countries around the world have introduced similar plastic bag regulations – from complete bans to softer restrictions and taxes.

In 2008, China joined Bangladesh in passing a complete ban on bags. Multiple cities in India have enacted similar legislation. In fact, Delhi, India, has some of the toughest legislation on the books, sentencing plastic bag producers and those caught using them to jail time. Italy has become the first country in Europe to issue a nationwide ban on the bags, with other countries levying taxes on plastic bag use. Across the United States, cities have taken it upon themselves to enact legislation limiting or banning plastic bag use. San Francisco was the first of more than 200 communities to pass some variation of a plastic ban regulation. And in Africa, considered to be the leading continent on the plastic bag crackdown, several countries make it a criminal offense to produce and use the bags. The Rolling Stone reports that worldwide, 25 percent of the world’s population now lives in areas with bans or taxes on plastic bags.

And to what end? Have these bag bans and taxes found greater success than Bangkok’s own awareness-raising campaigns?  

Ireland reduced plastic bag usage by 90% when they introduced a 15 cent fee on plastic bags between 2001 and 2011. China’s plastic bag ban cut demand by 40 billion bags, reducing its plastic bag usage by two-thirds, reports the environmental think tank Worldwatch Institute.

What’s next for Bangkok?

While countries are banning bags worldwide, Bangkok is simply introducing annual awareness-raising campaigns. How effective are they? Consider the case in Phuket, when supermarket giant Tesco Lotus introduced an express lane at the checkout counter for those using plastic bags. Only 10-20 shoppers a day took advantage of the perk.

Awareness and education campaigns fail to track any real hard data, so the effectiveness of Bangkok’s “one less bag a day” campaign this year will be hard to measure. Neither the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration nor the DEQP were available to comment on the efficacy of the campaigns. 

Sitting back, resting on our laurels and hoping simple encouragement discontinues use, however, likely won’t reduce consumption. While the Great Pacific Garden Patch is growing, plastic bags are now cheaper than ever. Tougher restrictions on plastic bag usage, whether through a ban or a tax, is needed before the environmental situation worsens – and that goes for both Bangkok’s gutters, and our global garbage-patch gyres.

Photos: Coconuts Bangkok

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