Thailand is bidding to become a plastic-bag-free nation. As part of an agreement between traders and the government, on the 15th of each month, shoppers will not be given any plastic bags at supermarkets, convenience stores or large malls. The aim to encourage them to bring their own reusable bags.
The one-day moratorium represents a baby step on the road to the long-term sustainable management of waste in the country, but even so, the question is whether it can achieve its goal, or will the idea simply fall by the wayside, like so many previous efforts in this direction.
The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry convinced 15 major retailers to sign up for the no-plastic campaign the day after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared improved waste management a national priority.
In a trial run on August 15, the retail outlets stopped packing customers' shopping in plastic bags. Many shoppers were annoyed by the inconvenience, but plenty of others expressed their support by bringing their own bags.
Some retailers had undertaken their own "war on plastic" even before the government stepped in. Since 2008 the Central Group has been curbing its use of paper and plastic shopping bags, and managed to do so by 26.4 per cent in the first year. Last year Central shoppers took home 1.8 million fewer bags than the year before, a drop of about 11 per cent. Tesco Lotus has just celebrated the first anniversary of a pilot project at its Nawamin branch, where no plastic bags are available.
It seems that retail giants are happy to engage in this battle to cleanse the environment, considering it a win-win concept for all concerned. In doing so, they reduce operating costs and at the same time earn a reputation for eco-friendliness.
But, until the majority of stores join the movement, the impact will remain limited. As long as the no-bag policy remains patchy, customers who prefer the convenience of having their good wrapped in plastic will patronise outlets where the service is offered.
Most of the early-bird retailers have incentives to gain customers' cooperation, thus helping to popularise the campaign. Too many shoppers, however, still feel "entitled" to their plastic bags at checkout, in contrast to European nations where consumers refuse to accept plastic bags when offered. The willingness and cooperation of shoppers are obviously the keys to this policy's success.
If every Thai shopper used just one less bag each day, it would add up to 24.46 million bags per year. At present, Thailand has to cope with 2.7 million tonnes of Styrofoam and plastic waste every year. Citizens must be made aware that this mountain is costing them more and more in taxes to manage. Most significantly, the burgeoning plastic detritus is threatening critical ecological problems.
One way of addressing the problem would be to embrace a longer-term ethos of sustainable living. The "no-plastic" policy should be more than "temporary packaging", so to speak.
We need concrete actions, strong political will and collective awareness if we're to safeguard the environment for the future. Only then can this baby step grow into a mature responsibility.