SAMUT PRAKAN — A temple in central Thailand gives plastic bottles new, consecrated life in the form of new robes for monks.
“Don’t think that the waste problem can’t be solved. Buddha taught us that there is always a solution to every problem,” the deputy abbot of Wat Chak Daeng, Phra Maha Pranom Dhammalangkaro, said.
The temple manages a campaign calling for donations of plastic bottles, which are processed into synthetic fibres and used to make robes. The upcycling initiative has already saved 40 tons of plastic since its inception last year.
Visitors walking into the vast temple in Bang Krachao, dubbed “Bangkok’s green lung,” could easily mistake it for a waste processing plant. Volunteers sort waste in a large warehouse, while a monk pours food waste into a compost machine to make organic fertilizer and biogas. The clamor of plastic bottles being crushed drowns out the chant of afternoon prayers.
The temple’s recycling operations, which began more than a decade ago in 2005, are spearheaded by Phra Maha Pranom. The monk never received a formal education in science, but plastic waste piling up by the river bank sparked his passion for waste management, and ultimately the idea for a “recycled robe.”
As a Buddhist studies teacher, he was also inspired by religious teachings and scriptures, which describe several monastic duties that are similar to the modern-day practice of recycling.
“Buddha has become a role model for recycling,” Phra Maha Pranom said. “The Buddhist canon said he made robes from discarded fabric obtained from trash piles and corpses, which he then cleaned and sewed into robes.”
“Even when the cloth became old, he would use it as a mattress. When the mattress became old, he would use it as a floor mat. He has set an example for his devotees to see how much use they can make out of a piece of fabric,” the deputy abbot added.
Phra Maha Pranom started his operations by attempting to extract petrol from plastic bottles in a process called pyrolysis, where they are heated in a vacuum to extract oil. However, he abandoned the process as twenty kilograms of plastic yielded less than a litre of oil.
About the same time, the Royal Chaipattana Foundation launched an environmental conservation project in Bang Krachao. The project brought a devotee to the temple, who told Phra Maha Pranom that the shirt he was wearing was made from plastic bottles. The monk asked the man whether plastic bottles could be turned into a robe.
After three years of trialing and collaboration with a chemical company, the first set of “recycled robes” were rolled out in 2018. Phra Maha Pranom claims that the texture of the resulting cloth is not as rough as plastic bags, but instead soft and smooth like silk. The robes also boast anti-odor properties as they are sewn with antibacterial polyester zinc strands.
However, the process is meticulous and labor-intensive. Only bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) can be used, which volunteers clean and press into blocks. They are shipped to a factory, where a machine shreds the plastic, while another churns out polyester threads. The threads are blended with cotton and antibacterial strands to create a fabric, before being dyed saffron.
The factory then sells the fabric back to the temple, where another group of volunteers cuts and stitches robes. One piece of robe consumes 15 plastic bottles. A set of full monk attire requires four pieces of robe, or 60 plastic bottles.
Like many green products, the price of a recycled robe is higher. A set of “recycled robes” is sold at 5,000 baht, compared to 3,000 baht for an ordinary set of robes.
“It costs around one million baht to produce one batch of fabric, or 12,000 yards,” Phra Maha Pranom said. “Up to 400 robe pieces can be made out of a batch.”
Apart from preserving the environment, the initiative creates jobs for locals and generates income for the temple. Phra Maha Pranom also hopes to use the waste problem as a tool to teach dhamma to devotees.
“We have to use our wisdom to see the hidden value of things around us. If we can see their value, there will be no excess or dearth,” Phra Maha Pranom said.
In the long run, he aims to establish a conservation center alongside a Buddhist studies institute.
“Plastics are not bad. Don’t let your bias overwhelm you. Plastic is like nuclear energy, which gives tremendous benefits to mankind, but can also wipe out our civilization. Plastic takes time to decompose, but it can also be reused for many purposes,” Phra Maha Pranom added.
Apart from PET bottles, Wat Chak Daeng also processes other types of waste including plastic bags, beverage cartons, glass bottles, styrofoam, paper, paper cartons, and aluminium cans.
To donate your waste, drop it off at the temple or mail it to:
Wat Chak Daeng
16 Moo 6, Phetchahung Road, Tambon Song Khanong,
Amphoe Phra Pradaeng, Samut Prakan 10130