The government recently set a target to recycle all plastic in the country by 2030. While this ambitious goal is a solid start, Thailand needs to make serious changes to its physical recycling efforts and regulations governing recycled plastic.
Namely, a change to a regulation that forbids recycled plastic or recycled-polyethylene terephthalate (r-PET) being used in packaging for food and drinks. Major food and beverage companies, as well as plastics manufacturers in the country, are calling for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the regulation to allow what most developed nations already permit.
“Initially, the regulation was in place to prevent people from blending all kinds of things into food-grade packaging material,” said Vipin Kumar, senior vice-president of Indorama Ventures. “The regulation was in place in many emerging markets to prevent this type of behavior, but as technology improved, many Western countries, followed by Brazil and Japan, changed the law.”
Indorama Ventures is the largest plastics producer in Thailand and has been lobbying the FDA to change its rules to allow more r-PET to be used here.
To address concerns that recycled packaging could be unsafe, Kumar said the government should delegate only a few trusted facilities to produce packaging with r-PET. Indonesia already has this model, whereby the government has authorized one facility to produce food and drink packaging with r-PET.
In 2017, 185,000 tons of PET bottles, made from virgin plastic, were supplied to the Thai market, while some r-PET, recycled in Thailand, was exported to markets like Japan and Australia. Lifting the r-PET ban may help reduce waste in the manufacturing process, eventually reducing waste ending up in landfills and the oceans.
Thailand is the sixth-largest contributor of plastic in the oceans, contributing between 150,000 and 410,000 tons of plastic waste a year, according to a report in Sciencemagazine, far ahead of India’s 90,000-240,000 tons a year.
Some 24% of municipal public waste in Bangkok is from plastic, with 3.4% of total waste being recyclable plastic, according to a 2015-16 report by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
The quality of recycled plastics in Thailand is relatively low, mainly because most people fail to separate their trash and recycled plastics become tainted by surrounding trash. Most of the waste separation and plastic collection is done by an informal network, lacking strong central planning.
“Currently, Thailand has to import plastic waste from other countries, especially Japan, in order to comply with an international manufacturing rule that requires a third of the materials used to come from recycled material, as its locally generated plastic waste is considered unfit for industrial recycling processes,” Kumar said.
In Japan, people often wash their plastic bottles and other recyclable material before disposal, leading to a very high quality of recycled plastics.
In order for the business model for recycling plants to be sustainable, they must use a blend of foreign and domestic recycled plastics until Thailand improves its recycling standards.
But importing more plastic will increase overall plastic waste in the country, as the recycling process is not 100% efficient and some of the waste Thailand currently imports is completely unrecyclable or contaminated. The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry has proposed a total ban on importing plastic by 2020 and to increase domestic recycling by 100% over the next 10 years.
“Collecting bottles and cans is an occupation for many people, especially in emerging markets,” Kumar said. “If demand improves for recycled plastics, then the pricing will improve, incentivizing more collection.”
Dominic Chakrabongse, director of Precious Plastics Bangkok, a non-profit that helps communities turn plastic waste into useful products, says the biggest obstacle to encouraging recycling is the perception that plastic waste has no value, compared with other recycled materials like glass or aluminum.
“Metal and glass are already easily recycled, and people associate that process with receiving tangible value back,” he said. “That is not currently the case with plastics, and that is something we would like to change with our project.”
He said Thailand should implement nationalized waste-recycling systems using a universal color-code or symbol-based system so that communities across Thailand understand what to recycle and where to recycle it.
The country should also either tax or subsidize companies that manufacture plastic products to encourage them to use more recycled plastics in their products, which will, in turn, increase the value of recycled plastic on the street, encouraging more collection and recycling.
“I think the government’s goal is ambitious, but this is exactly the kind of thinking and aspiration that we need right now and is a goal that we should promote and encourage as much as possible,” Dominic said.
Coca-Cola already has a worldwide goal to use 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030; however, Thailand and nations like it with restrictions on the use of r-PET in drink packaging make the goal difficult.
“We are using 100% virgin plastic in our products in Thailand,” said Nuntivat Thamhatai, communications director at Coca-Cola Thailand and director of the Thai Beverage Industry Association (TBA). “In a way, the regulation is definitely a barrier to our global mission, but if the law is changed, hopefully it will promote the use of recycled plastics.”
The FDA has set up a committee to review the evidence to make a decision on whether to change the regulation and is taking guidance from the TBA and related bodies.
Nuntivat said the government should specify the quality of the plastic used in food products if the regulation is changed.
“The big problem from the study we commissioned is that people don’t segregate their waste and everything is lumped together,” he said. “If this law is changed, the government also needs a law on how waste is collected and processed.”
He said the private sector and government need to understand and learn to work better with the informal sector of junk shops and recycling pickers to improve the quality of recycled materials.
The beverage industry should refrain from using colored bottles, he added, as it makes separation harder because clear bottles should not be recycled with colored bottles. The industry should also standardize the other plastics used to bottle drinks to make them easier to recycle.