Government must ban imports of plastic scrap
Bangkok Post 27 August 2021 | Punyathorn Jeungsmarn and Penchom Saetang*
Last Monday, members of the Anti-Plastic Scrap Citizen's Network submitted a petition to the environmental minister. The petition demanded the government impose a ban on the import of plastic scrap by the end of this year.
It was signed by 108 civil society organisations (CSOs) and individuals, and a change.org petition was signed by 32,000 people, supporting the ban on imported plastic scrap.
Despite the fact there is plenty of plastic waste in the country already, recycling businesses have relied on imported plastic scrap, saying they need certain plastic waste types.
Despite its seemingly green image as a "recycled" product, imported scrap has been reported to cause pollution problems and is turning Thailand into a dumping ground of plastic waste from other countries.
In addition, there have been numerous reports about illegal hazardous waste -- electronic waste, for example, hidden in imported plastic scrap containers. Communities near the recycling factories started complaining about the impact on their farm land.
At the same time, cheap, imported plastic scrap has reduced the income of domestic garbage scavengers -- known as saleng -- who are key players in contributing to the domestic recycling system.
The problem of plastic scrap imports became more worrying in 2017. China that year announced a policy to ban imports of certain types of garbage, including plastic scrap. Subsequently, Thailand experienced a surge in imported plastic scrap.
From 2017-2020, the amount of imports exceeded 150,000 tonnes a year, a sudden surge compared to the 75,000 tonnes imported annually from 2012 to 2016. In 2018 alone, imports jumped to 552,912 tonnes annually, according to information from the Custom Department's database on imports and exports under the Ministry of Finance.
To deal with the alarming surge of plastic scrap imports, the government in 2018 established the Subcommittee for Integrative and Systematic Management of E-waste and Plastic Imports. It decided to ban plastic scrap imports by Sept 30, 2020.
In 2019, the cabinet approved the Roadmap on Plastic Waste Management 2018–2030, which says that by 2027, 100% of plastic waste must be reusable. Campaigners rejoiced as the government promised sustainable solutions to the plastic crisis.
But this optimism did not last long. September 2020 rolled by, and no ban was implemented.
On Jan 25 this year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment reportedly decided to extend the deadline of the ban to Jan 1, 2026, giving industries five more years of plastic scrap importation.
Civil society, conservationists and the public involved with the Anti-Plastic Scrap Imports Citizen's Network fought back by asking the ministry impose a ban by the end of this year instead.
Dr Jakkrit Kunthong, a resident of tambon That Thong in Chon Buri province, said the imports should end, as the imported plastic scrap affected farm communities.
That Thong, in Bor Thong district, has been one of the main plastic recycling factory areas; many of these plants are supported by Chinese investors.
These recycling factories are not small businesses. One Chinese-backed plastic recycling factory is to be developed on 140 rai of land surrounded by a farm environment, connected to a public river and canal that local farmers use.
Investors are applying for this area to attain Free Zone status -- an industrial promotion status granted by the government. In principle, Free Zones stipulate areas that are outside a country's customs jurisdiction, encouraging investment through tax exemption.
Free Zones are loopholes for plastic scrap-importing industries to get around environmental regulations or import bans.
Industrialists have always pushed for such laws. Had the ban been implemented, investors could have used this loophole to continue importing plastic scrap.
The That Thong community is not the first to be threatened by plastic or dirty recycling industries. Over the past decade, a community in Nong Phawa district in Rayong province and the Nampu community in Ratchaburi province saw their agricultural land and environment dirtied by wastewater, air pollution and leftover waste residue from recycling factories.
Plastic scrap imports also inhibit more sustainable solutions and local grassroots economies.
High levels of plastic scrap imports reduce the price of domestic plastic waste, devaluing the saleng's source of income and discouraging people from recycling domestic plastic.
Representatives of saleng groups said the import of plastic scrap hurt their business. But the most crucial point is that there is enough local plastic scrap in the country for recycling.
The solution to the plastic crisis lies in cooperation with the saleng and the dealers, as well as communities and citizens.
To reach the goal of the Roadmap to Plastic Waste Management, the government should work with people to improve domestic recycling processes, and not seek more plastic scrap from abroad.
By calling for a ban on the import of plastic scrap, citizens are asking that the government returns to a more sustainable solution. It is a call for cooperation in creating a circular economy.
Another meeting of the subcommittee will be called this Monday. A decision on the import of plastic scrap may come in the month following that meeting. Citizens will monitor this process.
In these months, the government must remember the voices of the citizens and take steps towards a cooperative and sustainable solution -- by implementing this long-awaited ban.
Punyathorn Jeungsmarn is an Information and Communications Officer at the NGO Ecological Alert and Recovery -- Thailand (EARTH). Penchom Saetang is the director at EARTH.