Top: Niran Tangjitmet bring his own bags to a Tops supermarket on Jan. 2, 2020.

BANGKOK — Most retailers, except for a major convenience store chain, stopped giving out plastic bags for free at the beginning of 2020, giving Thailand a head start on green new year’s resolutions.

Grocery shoppers said Thursday they were adjusting to the big retailers’ ban, which was promised by the environment ministry back in September. TV stations were also told to blur images of plastic bags. It is the most ambitious attempt to curb single-use plastic products in a country blamed for polluting the environment with massive amounts of plastic waste.

Siranee Kheedsoy, a shopper at Big C Saphan Kwai, had to wait for her son to bring a backpack to retrieve her cartful of goods. The familiar green plastic bags were nowhere to be seen.

“I heard the news, but I forgot to bring my own bag because I didn’t intend to buy anything today,” the 44-year-old mother said. “I’m lucky because my home is not far from here, but I’m concerned about others who already purchased the items but couldn’t find a way to bring them back.”

Thailand, like Fiji and Mexico City, rolled out its ban on plastic bags in retailing businesses on New Year’s Day. More than 90 major retailers and plastic manufacturers have signed onto the government’s plastic reduction scheme, which is the first step towards the complete ban of single-use plastic bags by 2021.

Throughout 2019, several retailers offered smaller, flimsier measures to reduce plastic use, such as charging a baht per bag or promising to not automatically offer bags, but still give them for free if asked.

New Norm

At Big C Saphan Kwai, a large billboard was put up in front of the store reminding shoppers that plastic bags are no longer given. There were also reusable plastic bags on sale for 19 baht each, and free cardboard boxes for those who refused to pay for extra baht.

Many shoppers were prepared. Among them was Tanapon Thanadarangkura, 28, who came with his own small trolley. He said he supported the scheme, but he suggested there should be a better solution that doesn’t push all the burden to consumers.

“It’s a good policy, but retailers should do something to help out customers as well,” Tanapon said. “It’s fine for me to not handing out plastic bags. I believe there should be middle-ground solutions like changing to paper bags or charging for customers who still want plastic bags.”

The ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores are adopting a more flexible approach.

Plastic bags are still given for customers who purchased hot food or bulky items. A cashier said the management still let plastic bags to be given since they understood that people need some time to adapt.

“If you really want it, I can still give it to you,” the cashier said.

Tops supermarkets, a chain popular with middle-class customers, have implemented the ban. Shoppers at a branch on Nang Linchi Road either brought their own totes, purchased reusable bags at the cashier, or stuffed packages of crackers into their own bags.

Niran Tangjitmet, 40, had come armed with two gray bags he had purchased from Tops earlier for 3 baht apiece.

“I knew about the measure way before they implemented it yesterday, so I came prepared,” Niran said. “I think it’s a good idea to reduce plastic use. I have so many plastic bags stacked up at home anyway.”

Red signs at checkout counters clearly stated that plastic bags would still be provided for customers demanding them – at 1 baht per bag, which would be donated to Siriraj Hospital. The cashiers’ shopping bag hooks were empty of plastic bags.

Cashier Supaporn Lertwattananon, 22, said she herself hasn’t gotten angry customers demanding free bags for their purchases – yet. “People are cooperating. No one’s complained about this yet.”

All-out War

The intiative is part of the government’s plan to eradicate single-use plastic bags nationwide by 2021, which the next step is to push traditional retailers like markets and “mom and pop” stores to cease offering plastic bags.

Environmental minister Varawut Silpa-archa said after visiting four retailers on Wednesday that he’s surprised to see people adjusting their shopping habit.

“This is an unseen phenomenon because we previously used up to 5,300 tonnes of plastic bags per day,” Varawut said.

The Department of Pollution Control stated that the pilot program would be able to reduce about 30 percent of annual plastic bag usage, or around 13.5 million pieces.

The government is also pushing out an even more radical solution: blurring images of single-use plastic bags on TV shows, similar to the existing censorship of cigarettes, alcohol, and depictions of violence and sexuality.

At a news conference held on Dec. 18, Varawut said eight private and state TV channels have agreed to either cut down on presence of single-use plastic bags on air or blur them out, in order to reshape public opinion on the waste.

News programs would be exempted from the ban, Varawut said.

Additional reporting Asaree Thaitrakulpanich

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