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Thai Eye: Breaking down biodegradable plastic illusions

PHUKET: Imagine feeling the piercing of your heart each time you are handed a plastic bag. Imagine an electric shock each time you press your lips against a plastic cup.

By Kanokwan Homcha-aim

Friday 2 May 2014, 02:39PM

Imagine feeling the breaking of your wrists each time you handle a plastic container. We are told biodegradable plastic is the answer to all of our plastic consumption issues. Let’s look at this issue a little closer.

Here I am at the checkout counter again. “Mai sai toong na ka,” I manage to say most of the time. But there are some times when I’m late to tell the clerk or simply forget and am handed plastic bags placed in other plastic bags. As I walk out of the store, I see a garbage can full of plastic bags that had a lifespan of eight steps. However, I’m told it is okay because they’ll break down quicker now.

Technology invades every step of our lives. In the past, plastic waste would have a lifespan of over 1,000 years. The main ingredient for plastic bag production is polyethylene; which is derived from petroleum. As waste, plastic finds its way into landfills, marshlands, forests, rivers and the oceans. Animal life, plants and insects are adversely affected and potentially altered.

Eventually this technology progress led to the development of biodegradable plastic. What once took a thousand years was drastically reduced to only a few. In Thailand, several pilot shops and entrepreneurs have been embracing this new technology for over 10 years.

The issue though is what becomes of the plastic as it breaks-down? Are those tiny and microscopic particles of what was once a plastic bag, now safe for the world? How do these particles interact with our bodies, the bodies of animals and the composition of plant and marine life?

The answers are not so obvious; therefore, it is best not to blindly trust that biodegradable bags are eco-friendly – perhaps there is more to the story.

The biodegradable bags and containers that we now find in everyday life can be divided into two types: plant-based plastic and petroleum-based plastic. Plant-based plastic is primarily made up of plant matter (derived from corn, sugar cane or cassava, for example) and can break down into organic matter which has little to no impact on the environment. Unlike plant-based plastic, most petroleum-based plastic was produced using oxo-biodegradable technology, meaning it will break down faster in the sun. Much of the world’s biodegradable plastic consumption is of this second type.

Currently, there is not a requirement on ingredient labeling for plastic bags. This makes it more difficult for consumers to identify the type of plastic bags they are consuming. Furthermore, bag producers can add negligible plant-based material in their production; therefore, no matter how long it takes to decompose (one to two years or 100 years), plastic producers can still claim their products are “biodegradable”.

The USA and Canada have been using biodegradable plastic bags since the 1980s; where the main type of such plastics is polyethylene, with additives including heavy metals such as cadmium,lead, and beryllium. After it decomposes, such heavy metals may still contaminate the soil and water on a microscopic level.

The illusion of plastic bags turning to dust and then being okay for the environment needs to be understood. Biodegradable plastic bags do not really address the problem of over-consumption. They do not necessarily change our behavior but simply give us a better feeling about our use of the product.

Add up the amount of plastic you use/waste a year. Look around your neighbourhood. Notice the number of people at a rock concert. Watch the people in cities. Realise the population of the world. Plastic is breaking down – then blowing in the wind and swimming in the ocean.

Phuket leaders unite to address waste management

Phuket remains gripped by an increasing and unruly waste management problem that is akin to an octopus with many legs – chop one off and another grows back.

An assault on all forms of waste, with an emphasis on reduction, education and regional implementation, is required to ensure the long term health and protection of the Andaman Sea, our beaches, and our natural landscapes, which are under encroachment, polluted and degraded.

We have two choices: fight like hell for a better future, or watch it slip away in front of our eyes over the next five years. The choice is ours, the choice is yours.

In recognition of these complex issues, the committee from the Phuket Environmental Foundation (PEF) recently met at the Sapan Hin incinerator with representatives from the private and public sector to discuss an integrated, hard-hitting new waste management and reduction policy for the Andaman region using Phuket as a beacon and change agent.

The ongoing discussion is being supported by important leading business groups such as the Prince of Songkla University, Bangkok Phuket Hospital, local schools, CSOs, and NGOs, including SEEK.

The local government has started with a clean slate and a toolbox that includes a nearly full local landfill, two incinerators, and existing recycling channels, with plans for a new island-wide “Zero Waste” campaign similar to Scotland’s highly effective strategy of the same name.

Laguna Golf Phuket

Four committee groups were set up to accelerate individual pilots (see panel) and gather more support from community and business leaders.

In related news, JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa has underlined its commitment to the environment by trying new composting bins in a programme that will be expanded to His Majesty’s ‘sufficiency economy’ villages in Mai Khao, and the newly formed Mai Khao Green Club.

Integration of pilots within the existing green clubs of Nai Yang, Naithon, Layan, Bangtao and Kamala are supporting a much cleaner environment with financed recycling stations, litter reduction signage and positive community waste management education.

These are bold moves in a bid to tackle a multi-headed monster called waste; without our conscientious, unified and sustained efforts, our island’s natural beauty – her forests, rivers, white sanded beaches and the sea that we swim in – will all be wasted.

Phuket is at a critical juncture; support the future that you want. Visit


Pilot programmes


• Reducing organic waste in eight schools and two colleges

• Setting up of five waste management learning stations to educate about waste and serve as a first step in all school environmental education curriculums

• Promoting island-wide composting with locally made systems distributed to all restaurants and hotels across Phuket

• Further composting support with EM balls and worm farms to support diversion from landfill

• Teach the long term benefits of proper waste water treatment and road side cleaning to all tambons and major businesses including government offices, schools, hospitals, shopping centres and all mini marts and supermarkets

• Introduce port-based recycling stations and purchasing for all Andaman Sea fishing boats, which would help to reduce beach litter

• Local Green Clubs co-ordinate beach cleaning activities, as well as local curbside recycling programmes, litter reduction and signage campaigns and better hazardous material collection options for batteries and other wastes

• Trash for art programmes




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