Pandemic leads to epidemic The Covid-19 crisis has led to a rapid rise in household trash, including problematic contaminated waste. How the city addresses this may determine Bangkok's future

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Pandemic leads to epidemic  The Covid-19 crisis has led to a rapid rise in household trash, including problematic contaminated waste. How the city addresses this may determine Bangkok's future

Bangkok, as the city that generates the highest amount of waste per day in Thailand, saw over 2.2 million tonnes of trash in 2018, according to figures from the Department of Environment, an equivalent to approximately 10,525 tonnes a day. Without proper management, the amount of waste in the capital city is expected to reach 15,000 tonnes per day by 2030.

Waste is a colossal environment issue in Thailand. Especially now that the country is facing the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, household trash is no longer the only thing people have to manage. Contaminated waste, including discarded masks and shields as well as used antigen test kits, have proliferated. According to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), the amount of contaminated waste grew from 61.19 tonnes a day in April this year to 120 tonnes a day in mid-August, which exceeds the city’s incineration capacity of only 70 tonnes a day.

Dr Suwannachai Wattanayingcharoenchai, director-general of the Department of Health, said the country’s infectious waste has increased by 94% to an average of 294 tonnes per day. With the shortage of staff and vehicles for trash collection, contaminated waste is now piling up in many provinces, including Nonthaburi and Rayong.

“We have issued guidelines to reduce infectious waste in field hospitals, quarantine facilities and patient waiting centres. For example, we have banned foam containers and water bottles. Patients can use personal cups instead,” he said in a recent interview.

Food delivery — a new normal practice during Covid-19 home isolation — also turns things from bad to worse. While food delivery businesses were predicted to have expanded by 10-20% annually according to the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI), the pandemic has fuelled growth to more than 100%. The business surge, unfortunately, comes with a huge downside — plastic waste. The TEI reported the amount of plastic waste has seen a significant rise — from 5,500 tonnes recorded before the outbreak to 6,300 tonnes per day during the pandemic.

“Food delivery is a part of plastic increase. When a person orders chicken and rice, there will be seven to eight pieces of plastic such as bags for rice, chicken, soup, vegetables, sauce and utensils. Because of the pandemic, people are worried about diseases. They prefer a plastic container since it is a secure package. Unlike paper wrap, it doesn’t break or tear easily,” TEI president Wijarn Simachaya told the Bangkok Post.

Besides solid waste, water waste is also detrimental to the country and people. Chief executive officer of E-Square Environment & Engineering Jiraphan Chotiratanasak is now in charge of treating over 100 million litres of water waste from industries daily. He said there is an urgent need to properly treat the high volume of polluted water that presents a real threat to society.

Jiraphan founded E-Square in 1998 with a commitment to make the world greener by treating polluted water using his academic background and expertise in technology for resources and environmental development.

“When you wake up in the morning and know you can get rid of polluted water that is disturbing others, that’s when you feel you can make the world a better, more liveable place,” Jiraphan said of his business commitment.

Pandemic leads to epidemic  The Covid-19 crisis has led to a rapid rise in household trash, including problematic contaminated waste. How the city addresses this may determine Bangkok's future

In 2003, Jiraphan visited Germany to study and observe how they implemented technologies to treat industrial waste water. At that time, he discovered that Germany was 20 years ahead of Thailand when it came to waste water management. After the plant visit, he became increasingly interested in waste water treatment technology, so much so that he brought the know-how back from Germany and adapt it to the Thai context.

Under UOB’s Smart City Sustainable Finance Framework, Asia’s first dedicated financing framework by a bank to make sustainable financing more accessible to companies contributing to the creation of smart cities, E-Square was recently granted a special loan which will help not just with its business but also the supply chain in E-Square’s ecosystem so that all related parties can grow and develop responsibly and sustainably.

“We are among the first companies to have implemented highly advanced waste water management technology in the country,” he added. “Many times Thai firms brought [waste water treatment technology] to use in Thailand but it didn’t turn out to be a success because they failed to take other factors into consideration such as the environment, the country’s temperature, humidity, sunlight and so forth. As for our company, we have adjusted some conditions to make it fit here.”

What E-Square Environment & Engineering does now is to treat highly polluted water from factories before releasing it to the sea. E-Square can also make waste water from BMA’s trash-collecting trucks 95% recyclable.

Apart from E-Square, UOB Thailand is also among businesses that join the bandwagon in Thailand’s waste management. Committed to the responsible consumption and promotion of sustainable waste management, the bank launched the Waste to Wisdom campaign to encourage colleagues located at the UOB Sathon and Phetkasem buildings to focus on waste segregation practices with recycling in mind. Colleagues are encouraged to sort their waste into six categories: general waste, e-waste, plastic bottles, cardboard, general plastic and toxic waste. These waste materials can then be managed and recycled appropriately.

Furthermore, UOB Thailand also collaborated with five industry partners — AIS, GEPP Sa-Ard, Indorama Ventures, SCG Packaging and Thai Plastic Bags industries — in the waste management ecosystem to standardise the disposing and recycling of waste materials.

“As part of its Waste to Wisdom campaign, UOB Thailand contributed more than 3,000kg of cardboard donated by colleagues between January and May 2021 to Southeast Asian packaging company SCG Packaging’s Field Hospital Bed Project,” said Wasinee Sivakua, executive director, chairman of the Sustainable Committee, UOB Thailand.

“A total of 150 companies contributed 450 tonnes of cardboard to the project, which was recycled into 28,000 field hospital beds. These recycled field hospital beds were donated to 74 field hospitals across the country which were in urgent need of beds due to a spike in Covid-19 cases in April 2021. The field hospital beds are made up of 100% recycled materials that are environmentally friendly and can each bear up to 100kg of weight,” she added.

In terms of the government’s efforts, BMA’s director of the Department of Environment Wirat Manassanitwong said it has launched a waste-sorting campaign and provided 1,000 orange bins for biohazard waste. It is in the process of purchasing at least 5,000 red bins aimed for infectious waste for all communities.

Wirat is also encouraging waste sorting to reduce the burden of management. Incinerating contaminated waste costs 13,000 baht/tonne while general waste costs 900 baht/tonne. When it comes to capacity, the general waste incinerator is being used to handle infectious waste excess.

“It can burn up to 500 tonnes a day of waste at 1,000C, which can kill germs because infectious waste incinerators normally work at over 700C. However, other provinces that lack incinerators disinfect contaminated waste and dump it into landfills,” he said.

Developed countries are also in a battle against increased plastic waste from the food delivery industry, but they have better ways to handle plastics. More restaurants in the United States and South Korea, for instance, provide more reusable containers than eateries in Thailand. Efficient waste sorting and waste management in those countries also help prevent plastics leaking into the environment.

“In Sweden, people are required to sort their waste into more than 20 categories and dispose of them separately. Then, a municipality will pick up each kind of waste on different days. In order to get rid of their household waste, Swedish people have to first sort their waste properly,” explained Pichmol Rugrod, Plastic Free Future Team Leader at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

“Malaysia has efficient waste management both in terms of landfill and incineration. Their private sectors arrange waste-to-energy plants by having the government as an inspector. If we want to solve our waste management problems and build up a waste-to-energy plant, we should allow the private sector to invest under the control of local governments,” Wijarn suggested.

Both Pichmol and Wijarn agree that Thailand needs an environmental law, although the country has a long-term roadmap to reduce plastic waste until 2027. As a TEI representative, Wijarn said that while there were discussions in the past about the possibility of an environmental law and reuse, reduce and recycle policies, there was no progress.

“The no-plastic-bag campaign [implemented since last year] has worked well. People have been forced to carry tote bags. The country’s plastic reduction roadmap should lead to a clear-cut law. The roadmap should not be just a suggested direction, otherwise it is not enough to make obvious changes because it will be just asking for people’s co-operation,” said Pichmol.

“Along with an environmental law, there should be a campaign to educate people on how plastics affect the environment. Raising awareness takes time, but having an environmental law will affect everyone.”

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