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Cultural Conundrum at Heart of Thailand’s Plastic Trash Dilemma

The country is one of the top five ocean plastic polluters, but attitudes toward trash cleanup and inadequate waste-management systems haven’t kept pace with an explosion in plastic use.

Written by Erica Cirino Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Participants pick up plastic trash at a recent beach cleanup in Thailand.Erica Cirino

PHUKET, Thailand – It’s a hot, sunny Saturday morning and I’m at Nai Harn Beach in the Rawai region of Phuket, Thailand. I’m watching about 50 people of a wide variety of ages, ethnicities and fitness levels crawl on their knees and elbows through a lagoon. They’re participating in a free workout and beach cleanup session called Clean the Beach Boot Camp that is run by Krix Luther, a Muay Thai fighter and fitness instructor from the United Kingdom. After they finish their exercises and cap off the session with some yoga, Luther asks the participants to each put on one rubber glove, grab some black trash bags and start picking up plastic trash that litters the beach.

Plastic is everywhere in Thailand. And as more people in Thailand and other rapidly modernizing Asian nations adopt the Western convenience culture, the region’s plastic pollution problem has only worsened, according to researchers. A recent report by the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy found that Thailand is one of the world’s top-five plastic polluters, a group that includes China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Together those countries are responsible for more than half of the 8 million metric tons of plastic trash that washes into the ocean annually. But cleaning up plastic pollution in Thailand is a challenge due to cultural, infrastructure and environmental obstacles, according to locals and expats working to address the issue.

“Today there are few systematic efforts to clean up plastic from the beaches and streets of Thailand,” said Emanuele Mario Montalde, an 18-year-old Thai man who recently graduated high school and plans on pursuing a career in environmental conservation. “That’s because past generations didn’t need to clean it up – they didn’t use plastic like we do now, so there isn’t a system in place to deal with it, and people don’t think to clean it up.”

Volunteers pick up plastic trash from a Thai beach while participating in a Clean the Beach Boot Camp. (Erica Cirino)

Every other weekend, Luther and a group of certified fitness instructors hold the beach boot camp. He says he got the idea in 2012 after finding his favorite Phuket beach, Nai Harn, covered with trash while holding a fitness session for expats there.

“One day we were training on Nai Harn and saw the worst amount of trash I have ever seen,” said Luther, who moved to Thailand nine years ago. “In fact, I was afraid someone was going to get hurt. So I stopped the workout 45 minutes in and asked everyone to clean for 20 minutes. They all had huge smiles on their face afterwards, from the adrenaline of the workout and satisfaction of cleaning.”

Luther said more than 4,149 people have participated in his two-hour weekend boot camp cleanups since May 2013. He noted that most people who attend are expats and their families, as well as teachers and their students. After an hour of cleaning the beach at a recent session, Luther and his group had installed two bamboo garbage receptacles and collected at least 660lb (300kg) of trash – everything from nylon fishing nets and ropes to plastic water bottles, bags and drinking straws.

At the boot camp cleanup at Nai Harn, a Thai woman named Nangy Phanchana said that as recently as 15 years ago much of the trash on local beaches was banana leaves. Phanchana, who works in communications, said Thais had traditionally used banana leaves to hold food because they could be tossed on the ground after the meal was eaten.

In fact, many longtime residents and visitors connect the replacement of banana leaves with plastic to a huge accumulation of plastic trash on roadsides, fields and beaches. They complained that despite the amounts of trash piling up, the government was not taking meaningful action to address the plastic pollution problem. That has led Thai activists to take matters into their own hands, coordinating online petitions, such as one that pushes local convenience stores to charge a fee for plastic bags and straws. It’s also inspired people like Luther to organize cleanups, although they say doing so is not always easy.

“Many people in Thailand tell me they wish Clean the Beach Boot Camp could do more cleanups all over Thailand,” said Luther. “Yet while local Thai people are recognizing the problem, it’s not always easy to get them to participate.”

For one thing, people tend to focus on cleaning just their own patch of property. One afternoon I saw this in action at a lunch meeting with another beach cleanup organizer, Richard Cramp, a high-school history teacher originally from the U.K. Cramp volunteers with Trash Hero Phuket, a branch of beach cleanup organization Trash Hero, which was founded in Thailand in 2013 and today has 30 chapters worldwide. As we sat at a restaurant on Nai Yang beach, we watched a supervisor instruct uniformed young men to sweep the sand around the eatery’s perimeter. Using straw brooms, they piled the trash into small heaps, which they buried in the sand.

Like Luther, Cramp said it can be difficult for his organization to get Thais to participate in beach cleanups due to the lower-class cultural connotations associated with cleaning trash.

“Of course we like clean roads and beaches,” said Tidarat Pimvoramatakul, a Thai woman who attended Luther’s Clean the Beach Boot Camp, “but we are not accustomed to cleaning up trash outside our homes. But times are changing now and more people are paying attention to the need to keep the environment clean, because that is really our home, too.”

Despite such cultural obstacles, Cramp and Luther said they’ve been able to recruit more locals as attitudes toward trash cleaning begin to shift.

Inadequate waste management systems pose another challenge in Thailand and other rapidly modernizing Asian nations.

“These countries have all succeeded at achieving significant growth in recent years, and they are at a stage of economic growth in which consumer demand for safe and disposable products is growing much more rapidly than local waste-management infrastructure,” states the Ocean Conservancy report. “Of the leakage that comes from land-based sources, we found that 75 percent comes from uncollected waste, while the remaining 25 percent leaks from within the waste-management system itself.”

Cramp said his volunteers had recently found old refrigerators washed up on the beach that had apparently been dumped into the sea.

Seasonality is another factor affecting the volume and type of plastic that ends up on Thailand’s beaches. Luther and Cramp reported an increase in the amount of single-use plastic items – bottles, bags and packaging – on beaches during the November to February tourist season. Large amounts of trash also wash up during seasonal high tides. And in Thailand’s rainy season greater volumes of plastic trash wash into the sea from land and freshwater sources.

“Plastic pollution in Thailand, and worldwide, harms wildlife, human health and our overall quality of life,” said Luther. “We need to acknowledge the problem and work together if we want to reduce our negative impact on the earth and live healthier, happier lives. Cleaning beaches is one small thing we can all do to help.”

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