Top: Maneechanate Sammanee holds her jar of trash on July 19, 2019 at Refill Station.

Battling frowny kao gaeng vendors. Adamantly refusing durian cellophane-wrapped to a styrofoam dish and double-bagged. These are just some of the unique hurdles for Thais starting out on zero-waste lifestyles.

Unlike doomsday, “all-or-nothing” approaches to reducing waste often seen in the West – not just going vegan, but swearing off flying on planes, taking holidays, or even having children – Thai go-greeners who gathered at a recent zero-waste lifestyle event seemed to approach sustainability with a sense of “sabai sabai.”

Some of the main hurdles they face are street food shops and markets where vendors oppose their green efforts.

Frowny Vendors, Annoyed Fam

At a recent discussion event on zero waste held at Refill Station, participants recalled vendors variously praising and scorning their requests for curry to be placed in tupperware rather than double-bagged. Many food vendors are reluctant to stray from plastic or styrofoam which are cheaper than bagasse or other biodegradable materials, while governmental awareness efforts are often just publicity stunts.

Guay tiew noodles in a tiffin carrier instead of plastic bags. Photo: Mommam Mam‎ / Facebook
Guay tiew noodles in a tiffin carrier instead of plastic bags. Photo: Mommam Mam‎ / Facebook

Attendants also spoke of aunties charging more for green curry if you bring your own container, and of drink vendors who prepare beverages in a plastic cup before pouring it into the customer’s reusable one (and then promptly tossing the plastic cup in the bin).

Although she says vendors at vegetarian eateries are generally friendly, Maneechanate Sammanee, 29, an environmental blogger at Less Waste for Whales, still remembers the consequences of asking an auntie selling kanom krok [grilled coconut rice pudding] at Siriraj Hospital to forgo the styrofoam tray and just put it in her hand.

“She got very mad and said, ‘That’s too troublesome. I’m not selling it to you anymore,’” Maneechanate said. “I know that zero waste is a middle class thing. When we buy food from working-class vendors, while asking for extra work to be put in, that moment – combined with the stress in their lives – can make them lash out.”

Pattama Homrod and Wipawanee Nakcharoen
Pattama Homrod and Wipawanee Nakcharoen

Pattama Homrod, 20, still finds it perplexing that moo ping vendors line her tupperware with plastic bags. Nipapat Polsamak, 25, says her local joke congee shop tries to discourage her from bringing in a box.

“It’s hard to explain to the vendors sometimes. Education on this issue is sorely needed,” Nipapat said.

“Some vendors don’t seem too happy when we bring our own containers because they can’t as easily judge the portions they need to give us,” Wipawanee Nakcharoen, 23, said. “But others compliment me for bringing one. I asked her if a lot of people bring their own containers. She said out of the huge marketplace, I was only one of three people.”

“When I ask for no straw [lod or หลอด], the barista quickly tells me, ‘Don’t worry, we don’t use ice tubes, [naam kaeng lod or น้ำแข็งหลอด]’” Supatchaya “Ann” Techachoochart, co-owner of Refill Station shared. “A lot of them ask with grave concern, ‘How are you going to drink it without a straw?’ and give me one anyway.”

Family can also pose a barrier to using less waste. On the event posters, a prompt reads, “My family and everyone around me is saying that I’m yer” [too much, demanding].

Another event attendant spoke of her boyfriend who, despite previously saying she was “asking too much” for refusing a straw, finally stopped using single-use straws himself. Another success came in the form of her mother finally swapping to a tiffin carrier to transport food offerings for the dead, instead of dozens of individually-wrapped plastic food bags.

Papawee Pongthanavaron said she was once cyberbullied for pointing out that a foodie YouTuber wasted too much plastic – around 60 pieces for just one meal by her count – in buying 31 individually-wrapped sandwiches, using plastic cutlery and double-bagging.

“I was bombarded with comments saying I was too loke suay (naive). Others asked what the fuck was wrong with me,” Papawee said. “Another just wrote, ‘When you fuck, you don’t use bags?'” (Toong, or plastic bag, is also slang for a condom.)

Mai pen rai, we’ll get them next time na

In a 2018 Ted Talk, youth climate activist Greta Thunberg lamented, “No one is acting as if we are in a crisis. Most climate scientists and green politicians keep on flying around the world, eating meat and dairy.” However accurate this strain of environmentalism may be, its strictness risks alienating the vast majority of people who the green movement still needs to get on board.

“The trouble is, people think that you have to immediately stop producing all waste,” Maneechanate said. “And people can fall into the trap of judging others because they think they are greener, or do better.”

Meatballs can be put in reusable glass jar instead of plastic bags. Photo: Nuu BlueFern‎ / Facebook
Meatballs can be put in reusable glass jar instead of plastic bags. Photo: Nuu BlueFern‎ / Facebook

She’s part of a growing group of Thais trying to go zero waste without the extremism. In the open Facebook group Greenery Challenge, numbering more than 22,000 members, Thais are posting practical ways to cut back waste – asking Tops Supermarket’s salad bar to use lunchboxes, or putting their bua loi desserts in a steel cup, for example. Posts are lighthearted, with the feel of a fun, non-competitive game. It’s a good springboard for Thais looking to use less plastic.

So how does one start on this sabai sabai, zero waste path? Maneechanate recommends that a budding zero-waste lifestyler do a quick audit of all the trash they produce in a day or week, before trying out some easy switches. Instead of using several plastic bags to carry somtam from the cart to your house, a lunchbox or tiffin carrier (pinto) could do the trick. And don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for not using something that takes half a millennium to decompose, says Maneechanate. Soon, you’ll naturally cut back.

Even for people that don’t give a crap about the environment, a quick cost-benefit analysis shows that many zero-waste hacks save money. For example, buying a 14-baht bottle of water for 365 days a year could run you 5,110 baht, compared to paying 300 baht for a reusable bottle. In the long-run, a 1,000 baht menstrual cup will soon be cheaper than buying tampons or pads over and over.

“The only truly zero-waste thing is nature. What are you going to do, tell the doctor you don’t want to use a plastic syringe?” Maneechanate said. “It’s not a contest. Just do what you can. If you can’t stop eating meat, then cut out waste elsewhere in your life.”

Related stories:

Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam

Plastic Here to Stay, Vendors at ‘Model’ Market Say

Precious Plastic: Recycling Bangkok One Bottle Cap at a Time

How to Start Using Less Plastic in Bangkok Right Now