Thailand’s plastic bag ban is an overdue step towards pragmatism

Author: Tim Forsyth, LSE

Thailand recently took an important step towards environmental protection when 75 leading retailers stopped issuing plastic bags to shoppers. This step continues a campaign started by environmentalists and local governments in Thailand to reduce urban waste and pollution. The long-term plan is to ban all single-use plastics by 2021.

A woman uses a shopping bag after the government's ban of single-use plastic, at a shopping center in Bangkok, Thailand, 2 January 2020 (Photo: REUTERS/ Soe Zeya Tun).

Thai newspapers have shown customers responding in good faith to the ban. Many are taking wheelbarrows and buckets to supermarkets, and others are re-using sacks made for transporting sugar and rice.

But critics ask why it has taken so long. The first bans of lightweight plastic bags took place in Bangladesh and India in 2002. China banned lightweight bags in 2008. And Thailand’s role in producing plastic waste has been known for years.

A recent article in Science shows that, in terms of national averages, Thailand is the world’s 6th largest dumper of plastic. Adjusting these figures for coastal populations and coral reefs, Thailand leads the world. According to the article, Thais and visitors to Thailand will — knowingly or otherwise — throw some 8.9 million plastic items into sewers and canals by 2025, resulting in more than half a million tonnes of waste in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. Recent news stories in Thailand have reported occasions of animals, including a deer and baby dugong, dying from eating plastic bags. Despite its late arrival, the new plastic ban is a welcome and pragmatic step.

Yet too often, attempts at regulating plastic use are wrapped up in the consumerism they seek to control. From 2008–2010, shops in Bangkok started a temporary craze of selling reusable bags with the words ‘global warming’ on them. Meanwhile, supermarkets in central Bangkok remain icily air-conditioned and their products overly packaged. Bangkok’s annual carbon use has risen from some 7 tonnes per person in 2005 to nearly 11 tonnes today. This is higher than London, New York City and Tokyo (but about the same as Beijing). It is also more than twice Thailand’s national carbon average of nearly 4 tonnes per person.

Governments have often supported these trends. In 2012, first-time car buyers received tax breaks, choking Thailand’s already crowded streets by an additional half a million cars.

One factor impeding long-term environmental planning is Thailand’s chaotic politics and military coups. But military coups and failing democracy have also shaped environmentalism itself. Like other countries, Thailand’s environmentalism reflects broader worries about the impact of growth on social order and tradition. Much historic environmentalism in Thailand focussed on fears about lost wilderness and heritage. Colourful paintings on the walls of schools and public buildings often show images of bucolic rural landscapes or threatened wildlife that present the ‘environment’ as something remote from cities.

Another theme in local environmentalism is the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy promoted by the late King Bhumibol, who ruled Thailand for 70 years until his death in 2016. Sufficiency economy presents a mode of living that urges moderation and tradition. It is promoted widely in Thailand by official sources. But the US embassy once described it — in emails exposed by Wikileaks — as ‘vague and malleable’, popular only because of a ‘public reluctance to criticise anything associated with the revered King’.

Despite these limitations, environmentalism in Thailand has served an important purpose in harnessing opposition to military governments. The last military government of 2014–19 banned public gatherings of more than five people and curbed other forms of dissent. Yet, in 2018, more than 1000 people gathered in Thailand’s northern capital of Chiang Mai to protest against a government luxury housing project on forested land near the revered national park and Buddhist temple of Doi Suthep. Ironically, a similar proposal was made and criticised during 1980–90 by the prime minister deposed by the military in 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra. One of Thailand’s earliest environmental controversies was opposition to a proposed cable car on Doi Suthep in the 1960s.

Environmentalism has its strongest legitimacy in the public eye when it opposes what is seen as state corruption and where it involves national heritage and wilderness. So, a consequence of this pattern is that popular environmentalism might only be effective on selected topics, and that necessary restrictions on other topics such as plastics are ignored.

Thailand’s new ban on plastic bags is a sign that environmental policies are becoming more effective. But there are many more steps to take. The ban needs to be enforced and extended. Climate change policy needs to adopt more efficient and renewable sources of energy. Replacing fossil fuels with technologies such as hydrogen cells and solar panels are priorities for public transport and home heating, and so are addressing excessive packaging and air conditioning.

What is needed is a root-and-branch rethinking of environmental priorities and an awareness that much popular environmentalism tends to romanticise Thailand’s past rather than think pragmatically about its future.

Tim Forsyth is Professor of Environment and Development in the Department of International Development, LSE.