Thailand’s Plastic Pollution Crisis

Plastics and Petrochemicals

Thailand’s petrochemical sector first appeared in the 1960s, heralding a countrywide trend toward plastic manufacturing and use. Thailand’s petrochemical sector has a total capacity of 32 million tonnes in 2018, including 11.8 million tonnes of downstream petrochemical products and plastic resins, making it the largest in ASEAN and the world’s 16th largest.

PTT Group and SCG Group are two of the most major domestic petrochemical firms. PTT Group is active in upstream industries such as oil drilling, natural gas production, oil refining, and the manufacture of a wide range of petrochemical products. SCG Group has assets in industries that utilise petrochemical inputs, including as consumer goods and building materials makers.

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Other major players often specialize in the manufacture of intermediate and downstream goods. Thai companies like Vinythai, a significant PVC plastic maker, are among them, as are international operators or joint ventures with foreign companies like Indorama, a PET producer, Exxon, a Xylene producer, and MingDih, a PS/EPS producer.

It is estimated that the industry contributes between 5% and 6.75 percent of Thailand’s GDP. Without a doubt, Thailand’s petrochemical sector is booming, backed by pro-industry government policies and a predicted increase in petrochemical product demand from downstream industries in both domestic and export markets. In 2020, revenues in Thailand’s petrochemical sector were lowered because to the global COVID-19 epidemic and its consequent impact on the Thai and global economies. According to Krungsri Research, the industry remains subject to a multitude of risks and difficulties, including rising global demand to address plastic pollution.

The Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC)[ref], historically known as the “Eastern Seaboard,” serves as the hub for Thailand’s petrochemical complexes. Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong province, in particular, was billed as Asia’s largest and most modern petrochemical complex. Previously known for its modest rural farming and fishing settlements, decades of industrial expansion have changed the region into one of the most polluted in the country, as well as the location of judicial struggles for environmental justice.

On July 27, 2013, a pipeline owned by PTT Global Chemical (one of Thailand’s leading petrochemical businesses) ruptured while delivering oil to a vessel. The leak impacted several beaches as well as the province’s general ecosystem. The Civil Court ordered them to pay financial compensation to the affected coastal communities in August 2016. [ref]. In 2020, the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) Office and the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) conducted a study that discovered that ambient air quality, notably volatile organic compounds (VOCs), was still above the standard in several Map Ta Phut locations. Local populations lack knowledge about how each type of VOC affects health.

Thailand’s Single-Use Plastic Consumption

The growth of Thailand’s petrochemical and plastic industries has increased demand for plastic. It skyrocketed in the 1970s and 1980s, corresponding with the growing usage of single-use plastic bags. Thailand’s plastic use reached 5.281 million tonnes per year in 2017, according to the Roadmap on Plastic Waste Management 2018-2030, with single-use plastic packaging accounting for roughly half of that total (41.4 percent or 2.331 million tonnes). Thailand creates almost 2 million tonnes of plastic garbage every year at this rate. Thailand creates 4.7 million tonnes of plastic garbage each year, according to OECD estimates and the World Bank Group.

In Thailand, roughly 51,000 tonnes of uncollected and illegally disposed of plastic debris wash into the sea each year. In 2017, a swarm of rubbish islands with diameters of more than a kilometer was detected floating toward major tourist areas off the coast of southern Thailand. Plastic pollution has been connected to the mortality of animals and endangered species in Thailand, including a wild deer and a young dugong. More than 300 endangered marine species die in Thailand each year as a result of eating plastic waste or being entangled in fishing gear, according to marine scientists.


Microplastic contamination in terrestrial and marine environments has been a cause of worry in Thailand. Several studies have been conducted. Seafood items are one of the most common sources of microplastics in people. Fish is a key source of protein in Thailand, with an estimated yearly per capita fish consumption of roughly 27.2 kg. Dried and fermented fish products are popular in Southeast Asia, particularly among the poor, as a source of protein and as a seasoning for plain rice.

According to recent studies, humans inhale hundreds of microplastic particles each year merely by consuming salt. Some studies claim that the concentration of microplastics in Asian salts, particularly sea salts, is considerable (as compared to lake, rock, or well salts). A 2018 research of microplastics in 39 salt brands from 21 nations revealed that Asian concentrations were particularly high when compared to brands from other continents; sea salts from Indonesia, China, Thailand, and India scored first through fifth in terms of microplastic concentrations.

The Asian Plastic Waste Trade: What Does It Mean for Thailand?

China announced the “National Sword Policy” in 2017, prohibiting the import of twenty-four different categories of plastic garbage beginning in January 2018. In 2018, the prohibition was expanded to include an additional 32 forms of solid waste, with the first 16 taking effect in January 2019 and the remaining 16 in January 2020. As a result, the global garbage trade has changed, with Southeast Asia—including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam—now serving as the closest dumping ground for many of the ships that used to dock at Chinese ports. 553,000 tonnes of plastic junk and debris were shipped to Thailand in 2018 for disassembly, crushing, and final disposal. Thanks to a global corporate network, it is 3.6 times higher than the previous year.

The trash trade provides corporate industrial profits in addition to the inescapable destructive toll on people’s and the environment’s health and well-being. Despite the fact that processing plastic waste scraps produces hazardous chemicals and byproducts such as cadmium, arsenic, mercury, dioxins, and furans, and that transboundary shipments should be avoided whenever possible, the economic cost does not account for the social and environmental harm imposed once it reaches Thailand’s ports. Much of the imported garbage winds up in Thailand’s waste and recycling infrastructure, increasing already-existing problems in this largely unregulated, unproductive, and deadly business.

Thailand’s military administration, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, made waste management a national priority and developed a package of measures targeted at reducing plastic marine pollution as a result of international and local pressure in intergovernmental events. The government formed the National Reform Committee in 2017, which has 11 subcommittees, one of which is in charge of plastic trash management. In 2018, the Pollution Control Department also implemented a 5-year Plastic Waste Management Plan (2017–2021), which resulted in cigarette smoking restrictions on 24 popular beaches and bans on the use of plastic bags and styrofoam containers in national marine parks.

The Thai government has promised to restrict plastic trash imports by 2021, however the ban was delayed after the head of the Pollution Control Department declared that the domestic supply of plastic garbage is insufficient to meet industrial demands. The Cabinet approved the Plastic Waste Management Roadmap 2018-2030 on April 17, 2019, with the goal of reducing and eliminating the usage of plastic and replacing it with environmentally beneficial products. Three plastic goods will be prohibited in 2019, according to the strategy. Water bottle cap seals, oxo-degradable polymers, and plastic microbeads were among them. In addition, by 2022, the usage of four other forms of plastic will be phased out. Plastic bags with a thickness of less than 36 microns, Styrofoam food boxes, plastic straws, and single-use plastic cups are examples of these.

According to Greenpeace Thailand, the roadmap has explicitly identified two main challenges: the first is the state of plastic waste along the supply chain (from production, consumption, post-consumption, and final disposal of single use plastic products); and the second is the lack of legal instruments and mandates for plastic labeling systems, restrictions on single use plastic packaging and products, and regulations that encourage waste separation and recycling practices. However, it is unlikely that the 12-year roadmap would bring about change and achieve its vision of “moving toward sustainable plastic management through a circular economy” unless legally enforceable measures are introduced, implemented, and enforced.

The Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Region was issued by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2019. The importance of addressing the issue of plastics and microplastics was stressed in this declaration. While it is an excellent example of regional action to address a common challenge, the framework falls short of addressing the root cause of plastic pollution by focusing on waste management rather than the need to reduce the excessive production of single-use plastics that cannot be effectively recycled. Most importantly, the framework omitted to address the problem of Basel ban amendment. Thailand has been battling with the worldwide waste trade, which has major environmental and social ramifications.

Limiting the scope of the Framework to marine debris focuses primarily on the conclusion of the plastic life cycle–that is, after plastic has been created, disseminated, and discarded–and treats the problem as a waste recovery, management, and disposal issue. However, the issue is not how to manage plastic garbage because there is no feasible and sustainable way to handle the huge amount of plastic material already in our environment. Thailand should instead focus its efforts upstream, dramatically lowering plastic output. Regrettably, the Thai government lacks the necessary political will. Furthermore, both the former military administration and the current semi-authoritarian government have enacted a variety of policies and made decisions that demonstrate their strong association with big business, which does not serve the interests of the people and the environment.

Government-Corporate Collusion

A section of the plan entered into effect on January 1, 2020, forcing businesses to voluntarily abolish single-use plastic checkout bags. The Thai Retailers Association, which owns some 24,500 retail distribution outlets across the country, backed the prohibition. Since then, the COVID19 has enveloped Thailand, causing millions of people to significantly adjust their lifestyles and relying more on food delivery services and online purchasing platforms. It added tonnes of plastic to Thailand’s already overburdened waste management system, impeding national attempts to minimize plastic waste. According to the Thailand Environment Institute, plastic waste grew from 5,500 to 6,300 tonnes per day during the pandemic.

Thailand’s plastic waste management roadmap clearly supports waste-to-energy incineration, which is a misleading solution. If 0.79 million tons of plastic garbage are burned as planned, 22.83 million tons of CO2 will be emitted, accounting for nearly 6% of Thailand’s GHG emissions. According to a recent CIEL analysis, global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the lifetime of plastic might account for up to 10% of the available “budget” of carbon emissions by 2050.

According to sources, the Thai government is hesitant to adopt a plastic tax due to its long-standing ties with the powerful petrochemicals business. The Thai Plastic Industry Association (TPIA) petitioned the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) in December 2019 to oppose the plastic bag ban (which took effect in January 2020), stating that it is putting a hardship on plastic manufacturers and workers along the supply chain. TPIA also claimed that MONRE violated an earlier pledge to begin the ban in 2022. Until far, the Thai government has avoided imposing a plastic tax, instead relying on voluntary corporate promises to transform Thailand’s consumer culture away from plastics. This policy appears to be an attempt to maintain support for the pro-militarist conservative Palang Pracharat (People’s State Power Party), which prioritizes economic growth over environmental changes.

Instead of minimizing their plastic footprint, Thailand’s petrochemical industry’s top participants continue to promote their corporate social responsibility activities, frequently misleading consumers into believing that the corporations are ecologically beneficial. PTTGC, for example, is a multinational chemical firm that claims to “upcycle ocean trash by collecting and recycling plastic before it enters marine habitats and landfills.” Not only is it physically impossible for PTTGC to compensate for the damage it causes–because PTTGC’s production rates far outnumber its contributions to waste management–but the concept of upcycling has also been criticized for merely postponing the inevitable path of plastic into the environment (and subsequent impact on human health) rather than closing the loop on industrial cycles.

Thailand’s petrochemical and plastic sectors have earned public support by incorporating sustainability principles into open-access sustainability reports that show their commitment to strategic sustainability goals. According to reports, plastic industry lobbyists persuade government officials to protect industry interests in closed-door meetings, which later translate into legislation and policies that emphasize waste management practices but result in no effective changes in plastic production, which is the root cause.

Thailand’s political structure remains far too entwined with corporate interests to effectively defend the people and their right to a clean environment. More political will is required to implement environmental changes and limit the power of the petrochemical and plastic industries. Otherwise, the creation of plastic, particularly single-use plastic, will compound the already-existing pollution catastrophe that is robbing our communities, climate, and environment of their future.

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