Efforts to Clear the “World’s Trash Bin”: Hazardous Waste Challenges in Thailand and beyond
Bangkok Tribune 18 November 2020 | Mali Hom-ngern
In spite of the fact that Thailand is gearing towards the next era of its industrial development, with the Thailand 4.0 policy being promoted as the flagship, its hazardous waste management is said to have stood still at the era of 80s to 90s, resulting in a number of hurdles in hazardous waste management that can barely keep up with the rising challenges at the moment, the Dialogue Forum 7 was told.
650,00 tons is the latest controversial figure of plastic waste planned to be imported by the recycling industry, but subject to a recent review by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment; to see whether it’s actually necessary and should be allowed to enter the country.
The figure is just a stark reminder for the Ecological Alert and Recovery Foundation (EARTH)’s director, Penchom Saetang, how the hazardous waste problem has still prevailed here, largely due to legal and management mechanisms that were first introduced over 30 years ago but have remained stagnant since.
As an anti-industrial pollution campaigner, who has pushed for change at a policy level since early days, Ms. Penchom has recently shared her views and insights on the issue along with other speakers from noted institutions at the recent Dialogue Forum 7: Hazardous Waste Situation and Efforts to clear the “World’s Trash Bin”, organized by Bangkok Tribune and partners with the support of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Thailand Office).
Tracing back the trash trails
According to Ms. Penchom, who has studied the origins of the waste extensively, the history of hazardous waste movements around the world fist took place around the mid-1980s. The routes generally ran from the North to the South, with destinations in several developing countries in South America and Africa.
In early 1990s, the routes started to shift, running from the West to the East, mostly ending up in some Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary, or Romania, where they started to open themselves up to the world.
Afterwards, around the mid-1990s, the routes then shifted again, running from developed countries in Europe or the US to Asia, with China and India being their prime destinations. This continued until a few years ago, during the time which China decided to close the door against the waste imports.
The turning point occurred around late 1980s, when a number of developing countries, which had taken the wastes sent out from developed countries, decided to stand up against the trend, calling for an international agreement to control transboundary movements of the wastes, according to Ms. Penchom.
As the meeting was held in Basel City, Switzerland, the agreement was then called the Basel Convention. It first took effect in 1992.
Just a few years later, in 1995, however, there was a growing call to amend it with the total ban on the waste movements. Thailand itself ratified the convention quite later than that, in 1997. It came into effect locally in 2001, a quite delayed move on the issue by the country viewed by anti-hazardous waste advocates including Ms. Penchom.
Ms. Penchom explained that the Basel Convention itself was seen as containing some flaws and too much compromising. While rich countries wished to find some safe places to throw away their wastes, some poor or developing countries justified such the course of action, viewing that this could help their local economies as those wastes could be recycled and reused.
Such the idea, she said, has still prevailed among concerned authorities here nowadays.
Under the convention, wastes from those rich countries were as such allowed to be transported and destined for some developing countries on agreed terms.
“This is a critical compromise of this convention. Thailand itself still has a commitment under this agreement, which means it has opened up to the transfers of the wastes here,” said Ms. Penchom.
Ms. Penchom said the Basel Convention contains another weak point as nobody can tell to what extent the terms under it are accomplished. This is because they are very detailed and hard to follow up and monitor. This, in turn, has critically undermined the convention’s enforcement and regulation on movements of the wastes, Ms. Penchom said.
So, three years after the enforcement, a number of developing countries just felt why they had to take these wastes into their countries as they were not the “World’s Trash Bin” for anyone.
They then started to stage a rally against the convention in 1995 to amend it. The part was called the Ban Amendment aimed to ban all the wastes from the OECD countries (member states of the European Union, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).
The amendment was just in effect in December last year. While a number of countries including some in SE Asia have ratified it, including Malaysia and Indonesia, Thailand has not yet done so, according to Ms. Penchom.
The wastes at home
Zt hime, Thailand had actually found itself being the dumpsite of hazardous wastes since early 1980s, when it had no direct laws in place to deal with the issue.
Some were found to have attached to other shipments that were not declared as hazardous waste, or stuffed in unknown shipments, making it difficult to send the illegal shipments back to the origin countries.
The explosion of cargos in a port in Bangkok ten years later first raised the public attention on the issue. The hazardous waste problem, Ms. Penchom said, remains unchanged since those days.
It was not until the Basel Convention came into effect locally here (2001) that Thailand started to come up with legal mechanisms to deal with the flooding of the wastes. Several announcements by the Industry Ministry were issued by then to allow the establishments of recycling plants as well as waste disposal plants and landfills (No. 105 and 106). And several more were issued to renew the waste imports and operations of the plants, all these were seen as facilitating the waste transfers to the country.
The hazardous waste transfers posed another challenge under the JTEPA (Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement) in late 2000s. Ms. Penchom said the trade agreement, which the organisations like hers had strongly opposed, was involved with permits for waste imports with tax cuts from 40% to zero. This was in line with the Japanese policy to drive the recycling business to the members of Asean countries.
The turning point of hazardous waste movement worldwide occurred a few years ago, in 2018, when China started to close its door against the waste imports, plastic waste included, Ms. Penchom said.
This was due to high pollution following the processing of those wastes in the country. Since, the wastes have started to flood into other SE Asian countries, Thailand included.
According to the EARTH monitoring, it is found that Thailand has received the largest chunk of plastic waste as a result of China’s door closing. And 80 countries have shifted their routes of plastic waste exports to Thailand.
“There are several problems about hazardous waste; plastic waste, e-waste, and so on. The issue has still posed critical environmental challenges in Thailand,” pointed Ms. Penchom.
Thailand’s hazardous waste management
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in August 2014 approved the roadmap for household waste and hazardous waste management, which clearly stated that the hazardous waste should be cleared by the year 2020.
According to the Pollution Control Department (PCD), it found that last year the total amount of hazardous waste from households was at 648,208 tons, 421,335 tons (65%) of the waste are e-waste, and the rest are other household hazardous chemical materials.
Due to poor waste segregation management, almost all kinds of waste, including hazardous waste tend to end up in the same landfills, according to Director of the PCD’s Waste and Hazardous Substance Management Division Pornpimol Chareonsong.
Ms. Pornpimol conceded that it is difficult to manage the hazardous waste from the household sector due to a continuing increase of its amount and the local administrations’ limited capacities to manage the waste.
The PCD, she said, (PCD) has a role in monitoring and assessing the impacts of hazardous waste on the environment. It has found contamination of several types of heavy metals and toxic pollutants in the environment, farm produce, freshwater animals, and others, affecting public health.
The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and its minister (Mr. Varawut Silpa-archa) have specially paid attention to the problem. So, the minister has proposed a sub-panel be set up under the National Environment Board to take care of the issue.
At present, the problems concerning plastic waste and e-waste are in the focus. However, there is no sufficient information about the industrial waste yet, according to Ms. Pornpimol, suggesting no concrete directive in place to specifically deal with it.
It’s not easy to obtain the information, and investigations on the ground are essentially needed, she added.
For e-waste problems, the panel has come up with some new mechanisms and approaches and submitted them for the NEB’s consideration, which would soon be forwarded to the Cabinet to decide, including work integration among concerned agencies such as the PCD, the Department of Local Administration, the Department of Health, and others, said Ms. Pornpimol.
In the meantime, a new commerce announcement has been issued to ban imports of up to 428 e-waste items, she added.
“We have found that a voluntary basis to keep the environment clean does no longer work. We do need to have a law to enforce this. The new law relating with electronic waste management will be drafted based on cooperation from all stakeholders to make sure that it is practical in the real situation.
“The fact is not everything is all that bad. Used electronics can be useful and economical here. We may have to import them to save costs and resources, but of course, certain conditions will be imposed to ensure our utmost benefits,” remarked Ms. Pornpimol.
Associate Professor Dr. Sutha Khaodhia, a director of the Centre of Excellence on Hazardous Substance Management at Chulalongkorn University, said that the wastes from household and industrial sector are more complicated, which require sufficient information to help guide a decision for implementation of actions and measures to respond to such the challenge.
This includes a “big data” that all related agencies are going to work on details together to share and link information in a more systematic way. This, he said, needs a support of research and development to have responsive answers to the overall hazardous waste management.
“We can’t manage what we don’t know. We need to have a clear data on waste and hazardous waste produced by the country to make a projection. It is an answer for the country’s efficiency to manage those toxic wastes in the future,” he said.
The centre has recently launched its report of waste production in the Eastern Special Economic Zone, which has predicted that the amount of hazardous waste in the EEC (Eastern Economic Corridor) will increase from 791,781 tons in 2022 to 1.172 million tons in 2037.
The trend is similar to households’ waste, of which the number will be up from 1.99 million tons to 2.63 million tons at the same period.
Meanwhile, a number of waste processors located in the EEC areas in Rayong, Chachoengsao, and Chonburi provinces are not adequate to deal with those wastes, which means that the wastes will be moved for disposal outside the EEC zone.
At present, there are 255 waste processor plants in Chonburi, 133 plants in Rayong, and 106 plants in Chachoengsao provinces. It also found that 40% of waste in EEC is improperly managed and the amount of hazardous waste will be up to 80% compared to the current level.
The center has also conducted a research on 21.58 million households countrywide to survey electronic tools, and it has found that the number of electronic tools in households is around 490,299.21 tons per year. They are mainly televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, personal computers, notebooks, and mobile phones.
To deal with those electronic wastes properly, the government should come up with mechanisms to control the recycling plants and set up the system to make sure all unwanted electronic tools will go to the recycling procedures properly, he suggested.
Management mechanisms of the new age
Dr. Poonsak Chanchampee, a director of Waste Management Siam Co., Ltd and an advisor to the industrial group for environmental management of the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI), said considering the current context, it has not yet fully implemented eco-designing or circular economy, so waste disposal becomes a prime choice in dealing hazardous wastes here.
The fact is there are differences in standards of the waste disposals here, and that somehow has posed a challenge to the country’s hazardous waste management. For instance, some localities opt for money saving, resulting in a compromise of the waste disposal capacity and hence the environmental impacts that follow, Dr. Poonsak said.
“Overall, I think our waste disposal capacity combined at present is not a problem (as it can take industrial waste up to 200,000 tons a year, or 10% of 2 million tons of the hazardous waste estimated in the country), but how to direct the wastes to the disposal sites is a challenge, and that’s really about our waste management system,” said Dr. Poonsak.
Besides the industrial waste, Dr. Poonsak pointed similarly to what Dr. Sutha shared; that there has also been increasingly hazardous wastes produced out of households and communities.
At least, 600,000 tons are estimated a year, two thirds of them are e-waste. There must be a new management system in place to handle them, he said.
“Waste disposal management has progressed somehow, but our overall hazardous waste management is still the same as what implemented some years back and much centralized. For instance, we require households to collect their wastes, which would then be collected for disposal by municipalities. That’s the management of the 80s or 90s.
“In the future, I think we need to develop our hazardous waste management further, especially by integrating the idea of EPRs, or the Extended Producer Responsibility,” said Dr. Poonsak.
For the overall hazardous waste management, Dr. Poonsak pointed that the solution lies with a new legal framework lining up authority to manage the waste. He said it does still not clear whose authority is directly responsible to the task.
At present, there are some few laws to deal with the issue, either the Factory Act or the National Environmental Quality Act, but they are quite outdated as they were promulgated over 30 years ago and related legal structures and mechanisms do not reflect or keep up with situation at present, Dr. Poonsak said.
Dr. Poonsak suggested the set-up of a new body in a form of a regulation committee to oversee the overall waste management, while promoting circular economy to help ensure cross controls over relevant work, while supporting and materializing the circular economy concept with resources provided.
And there should also be a new direct operational agency, which integrates related work, rather than letting certain departments responsible for the task in a frustrating manner like present. Because that is not enough to deal with the situation, he said.
“If we still stick to our aged old legal and management framework back to the 80s or 90s as ever, we would definitely get bogged down in the same old problem,” said Dr. Poonsak.
For Ms. Penchom, she said at the core of the hazardous waste issue is the taking of advantage by those having more power and resources, which can be observed from both hazardous waste import cases or homegrown ones.
The issue has become critical because of the lack of accountability and transparency as much as our weakness in law enforcement, Ms. Penchom pointed.
“The EPR principle is actually nothing new. The PCD has been attempting to introduce a new law to deal with community based waste and e-waste, but at the end of the day, it has been kicked out from the parliament’s deliberation list. This is not to mention that the draft law has been rewritten to the point that we have no idea whether it is enforceable,” said Ms. Penchom.
Ms. Penchom pointed that at present there are no direct agencies responsible for the problem. The PCD, she said, has no direct authority to deal with hazardous waste. It’s the Industrial Works Department which is rather in charge of the issue, and it hardly shares or discloses relevant information to support the management.
If it did, the situation and the environment would have been much different than they are now, Ms. Penchom said.
“The fact is we have long had the problem with the overlapping power to oversee the issue. The IWD has authority to promote industry while overseeing environmental impacts if they occur, including revoking industrial permits. Such the overlapping authority must be separated, with the part on the environmental management pulled out from the agency.
“With the authority lied within the same agency like this, our pollution problems would never be solved,” said Ms. Penchom.