Combating Convenience: plastic addiction in Chiang Mai

Thailand is one of the world's worst plastic polluters will they follow Taiwan's lead and ban the endless plastic bags?

By | Fri 1 Jun 2018

In a bold move against single-use plastics, Taiwan became the first country in the world to issue a blanket ban that will eliminate the use of plastic straws, cups, lids and bags by the year 2030. The act has been termed aggressive by media outlets and doubt is widespread as to the effectiveness of such a ban.

Still, there is precedent; with numerous local and national governments taking action against plastic for the last few decades as the problem of plastic pollution becomes alarmingly dangerous to our environment. Ocean pollution worldwide is set to triple in the next seven years and here in Thailand, more and more plastic debris taints the pristine beaches of the south. The question then becomes obvious and urgent: How is Thailand, one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste in the world, combating its plastic addiction?

While the government has made efforts to encourage citizens away from plastic use, such campaigns are still in their infancy. At the start of April, five water bottle manufacturers agreed to eliminate the plastic seal meant to prevent the refilling and resale of water bottles. Total bans remain rare.

It is easy to blame the government for a lack of bans, but responsibility also lies in the will of the people, or lack thereof. Without a public outcry for stricter regulations, plastic bans remain elusive. Part of the problem stems from a lack of education, the laissez faire attitude of so many and the fact that there are many people who do not know the extent and dangers of plastic pollution. Dr. Sate Sampattagul is a researcher and professor at Chiang Mai University in the faculty of engineering. “Many people don’t understand how bad the situation is that we are facing,” he said, and explains that his research evaluates environmental impacts. “Research alone can only do so much. We need someone to bridge research with government policy,” he suggested. “To make a project you need to push really hard to get it started,” he said.

That push is being taken up by the passionate few who are involved with small environmental groups with big goals. One of those few is Lisa Nesser, founder and managing director of Thai Freedom House, Free Bird Caf้ and My Best Life CNX as well as being a past beneficiary of the annual Citylife Garden Fair. For nearly a decade the caf้ has been committed to reducing zero-use plastics. While leading the way by example at Free Bird Caf้, Nesser has recently decided to do even more and start up Chiang Mai’s first zero waste store, called My Best Life CNX.

“My Best Life CNX was born out of a need to do more. The problem is just getting bigger and a lot of people seem to want to do something but don’t know where to start,” she says. Having been involved in the movement against plastic for years, Nesser has confidence that she and her team have the know-how and ability to get people active.

“We respond to what is asked of us,” she says, citing a community of support behind her initiative. “They truly want to do the best that they can to eliminate waste in this place that they love. The companies that we are working with are really into it as well. They have agreed to ditch their packaging and small plastic bottles and send us large bulk orders of stock in reusable containers.”

My Best Life CNX represents a remarkable leap towards a plastic free Chiang Mai and addresses the problem head on. In this fight they aren’t alone. Shayne Rochfort founded Chiang Mai Clean City in an effort to kick the plastic addiction. After working in the city for some years he noticed a phenomenon he calls trash blindness, where people simply no longer see the garbage around them. His goal was to get everyone, exactly where they were, to pick up and notice the rubbish in their area, be it a small sidewalk in front of their house or a field next to their business.

Despite the success of their first cleanup, there was more work to be done. “There were heaps and heaps of rubbish left,” he described. Besides this, plastic continues to build over time. As more and more plastic is consumed, more and more cleanups are necessary in spite of having no avenue for recycling.

Frustratingly, Rochfort described a worker who had been filling bags with rubbish and then left his empty used plastic water bottle sitting behind a tree seemingly unfazed about the irony.

Reducing plastic waste at its source eliminates much of the problem, but many of the people fighting the plastic addiction repeat the same sentiment: we are fighting convenience.

“They know it’s bad, but it’s a habit,” said filmmaker Suwin Chawla who works with the Chiang Mai organisation The Last Straw. The name is something of an oxymoron, he notes. While the last straw denotes something final, the movement is in fact just beginning.

The Last Straw was an effort at the beginning of the year to initiate a revolutionary new way to discourage one of the most inessential plastic waste items: the straw. The idea was to target coffee shops around the city and offer free concerts at places that would reduce plastic use and help to educate people against plastic use. “It was a music festival as a route to education,” said Chawla.

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The Last Straw concert

Pradon Pramnuay, owner of the popular bar North Gate Jazz Co-op is also an avid environmentalist and has also been trying to combat trash blindness with The Last Straw. After working on cleaning up the city moat, he came to see firsthand the extent of Thailand’s plastic addiction.

“Once you see this issue of plastic pollution, you see it everywhere,” he said. “Even in the relatively clean city of Chiang Mai, plastic debris builds up on the streets and goes largely unnoticed by locals and tourists. The Last Straw was an effort to amp up awareness, so to speak.”

One participating caf้ owner was Phongsila Commak who made the decision to reduce plastic in his coffee shop, 186 Caf้ and Bar, after seeing a viral video of a sea turtle having a straw painfully extracted from its nose.

“It hurt me, so I decided my caf้ was going to try an alternative,” he resolved. “At the beginning, I thought it was aggressive to replace the plastic straw,” he admitted. To make it easier, he began with his most loyal customer base, making hard sales for reusable alternatives directly with those people he had established relationships with. He also purchased reusable straws made from titanium for the casual customer at his caf้ and told his employees to offer people the choice between reusable or plastic.

Old habits die hard. When given the choice, his employees found that nearly everyone would ask for plastic. However, Phongsila’s employees later confessed that asking customers took too much time. So instead they simply started giving reusable straws without asking. The result? While customers chose plastic straws when asked, nobody was upset when given a reusable straw and rarely asked for plastic instead.

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Such success was promising, and Phongsila continues to try and dissuade his patrons from plastic by offering different pricing for customers who don’t use plastic. Other cafes around the city that participated in The Last Straw concerts also limit their single-use plastics. The Jazz Co-op went plastic straw free several months ago. From Akha Ama to Monsoon Tea and Birds Nest Caf้ to Holland Pancake House, many have cut back on single-use plastics and in particular the straw.

One of the reasons The Last Straw targeted coffee shops is because of their nature as a meeting and thinking space. While change happens in the offices of the government, it also happens over a cup of coffee between friends. “We think that when people meet up and social life happens change is possible,” said Suwin.

This principle is what inspired The Last Straw and is also what brought another diverse group of people together in a small meeting room in Elephant Caf้ and Co-working space. Rain Guo, a native of Singapore, was the facilitator of this meeting between Thais, foreigners, business owners, college students and activists who all shared a common goal. Their mission was to brainstorm in a space where people, particularly Thais, could come together to think of solutions to the issue of plastic pollution.

“We want people to work together to be part of the process. We don’t want to project our own ideas onto them,” said Guo. While not a native of Thailand, she has been focused on the ways Thai culture challenges people’s ability to eliminate plastic use.

“It’s a little bit rude and not in the culture to say no to people,” she says as she describes the discomfort she faces when refusing plastic bags or straws. Furthermore, she believes in creating a discussion among Thai people to foster a passion for the environment and offer the education needed to make a change.

Part of the problem the group confronted is how to engage with the greater community and who to target first. As Suwin and Phongsila noted, expanding environmentalism is difficult when some people simply don’t care. “The ones who are avoiding plastic are the ones who were already avoiding plastic,” Phongsila explained.

Guo and her group made note of that issue as they sat down to discuss how to begin a conversation on reducing plastic use. The goal was to replicate success such as that achieved in Bali with ‘Bye Bye Plastic.’ This organisation, set-up by children, ended up expanding outside of Indonesia as well as being the organiser of Bali’s largest beach cleanup.

As the group brainstormed, the enormity of educating and bringing people together was apparent. When someone suggested polling participants of the planned gathering about where the nearest plastic recycling facility was, many in the group realised they themselves did not know.

“We need to make it as effortless as possible so they can adapt,” said Guo, who like many others insists that environmentalism would be the obvious choice for everyone if it was easy.

The hope from all these groups is that the efforts of the few will be adopted by the many. Bringing about a cultural norm of caring for the environment over convenience in the moment may be the best way to evoke lasting change. As Pradorn maintained, “I mostly work with individuals. Saying I work with the government or with the municipality is too small. Actually, there is no power there. You want to connect with something deeper.”

To Guo, Suwin, and Rochfort this means working on the ground to educate and spread the word with local people that ‘life with less plastic is fantastic.’ For Nesser and Phongsila, it means creating a space where people can experience the convenience of plastic while going zero waste and leading through example. Though Thailand as a whole has many steps left to take to become plastic free, the work of these small groups in Chiang Mai are the cornerstone for change both within the city and perhaps even throughout the country.