In Thailand, the war against single-use plastics has finally begun
When a 4.5 metre long pilot whale was found beached on the shore in Thailand’s Songkhla province on May 29th—spitting out the plastic bags it had ingested—veterinarians and volunteers tried for several days to save the poor beast. But it was too late, and an autopsy found another 80 bags and other plastic items, weighing a total of 8 kg, in the whale’s stomach.
The story went viral, both locally and abroad, and although it’s hardly the first incidence of a marine creature killed by ocean plastics, it does seem to be the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”, causing uproar on social media and bringing to the forefront the fact that Thailand remains one of the world’s worst polluters. Government initiatives to convince people to use less plastic have been largely ineffective, while the policing of illegal ocean dumping is about as strictly enforced as motorcycle helmet laws.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 8 million tonnes of plastic, including bottles, packaging, and other waste, are discarded into the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain. And according to Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based non-profit, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined. It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that the respective governments of these nations do not seem to be taking overly seriously, although in Thailand the martyred pilot whale has definitely increased public pressure.
As is almost always the case in situations like these, real change is coming at a grassroots level and, in an odd quirk of fate, the plastic drinking straw has become the unwitting super villain in the epic battle against single-use plastics. In recent months, a huge number of bars and restaurants in Bangkok (and beyond) have begun doing away with plastic straws altogether, replacing them with straws made of glass, metal, paper, bamboo, and even pasta (Bucatini, a thick spaghetti-shaped pasta that is hollow in the center, is perfect for the task).
An informal social media survey revealed some—but by no means all—the Bangkok F&B venues that have eliminated plastic straws. They include: Charley Brown’s Mexicana; Broccoli Revolution; Tacos & Salsa; ERR Urban Rustic Thai; Bo.lan; Pink Flamingo Bar by Prelude; The Missing Burro; Toby’s; Lan Din Café; Plern Plern Café; El Mercado; Cafe Tartine; JUA; Tropic City; Talad Nath; Blue Parrot; Eats Payao; and The 88 on Surawong Rd, who have also done away with paper napkins. In addition, Food Panda delivery service is now giving customers the option of specifying “no plastic cutlery” when ordering their meals.
Hotels are also hopping on the no straw bandwagon—which is good, as they are a major waste contributor—and it was recently announced that Anantara are banning plastic straws at all their hotels, bars, and restaurants. The Sukhothai also announced they now have paper straws “on demand”, which is a small step but a step none-the-less, and the recently launched Akyra TAS Sukhumvit Bangkok will be the first new hotel in Asia to launch without single-use plastic in its rooms or food and beverage outlets. Even the über-luxe out-of-town resorts are joining in, with both the Soneva Kiri in Koh Kood and the Trisara resort in Phuket having switched to biodegradable paper straws.
But why are plastic straws getting all the attention? Dana Garber, co-owner of The Smokin’ Pug restaurant, added her two satang to the online conversation by stating: “I always find this amusing, as we, as a restaurant, use very little plastic, and spend a lot on bamboo for our to-go packaging, and use recycled napkins. We don’t sell water, we give free water in glass bottles. But why all the rage about straws?! I find to-go packaging and plastic cutlery the worst. Am I missing something?”
Well Dana, no you’re not missing anything. Straws may be the cause célèbre, but they are not the only “cause” of plastic pollution. Plastic water bottles and plastic bags are huge contributors—and 7-11 stores are often cited as the worst offenders—but all superfluous plastic packaging adds to the mountains of waste being thrown into landfills and our oceans. Perhaps because we are “grasping at straws” to solve this problem, that’s why straws have become the rallying point when it comes to starting the discussion on plastic waste. And since straws really are a luxury, and not a necessity, they make for an easy target. However, all plastic waste is to blame.
The recently opened Refill Station, near On Nut BTS station, is a bulk store (and café) where you can refill your empty shampoo, shower gel, and detergent containers—which means less plastic packaging in the trash bin. They also sell eco-friendly products, including bamboo straws and toothbrushes, wheat straw utensils, and reusable pads. It’s yet another tiny foot forward on the long road to recovery, but all journeys begin with a single step.
NOTE: If you want to find out more about which businesses are limiting their plastic waste, visit Zero Waste Thailand (www.facebook.com/th.zerowaste).
By Bruce Scott