BANGKOK — As the coronavirus epidemic is keeping most people at home, single-use plastic bags and packaging are making a comeback, an environment official warned on Wednesday.

Although the Pollution Control Department said they detected a slight drop in household garbage production since the stay-at-home policies came into effect, the volume of plastic waste surged as a result of greater use of food delivery services – threatening to upset the hard-won gains seen in Thailand just months ago. 

Read: Food Delivery Drivers Brave Virus Anxieties While Feeding Bangkok

“We found more plastic food packaging and utensils among the waste [in Bangkok],” director-general Pralong Dumrongthai said in a phone interview.

The waste situation is compounded by the fact that many people no longer opt for bringing their own containers amid the pandemic – a habit that only became a norm thanks to massive campaigns in 2019 – and garbage collectors are now less likely to sort waste due to fear of contamination.

“The department is currently collecting data from food service platforms to see the extent of impacts they pose to the environment,” Pralong said. “We are already in talks with service providers to ask them to switch to eco-friendly packaging.”

Revenge of the Plastics

With restaurants and cafes shuttered, Bangkokians rely more on food delivery services than ever. 

According to Foodpanda, one of the online food delivery services available in Bangkok, the number of orders grew 20 to 25 percent compared to the same period last year. 

Environmentalists fear the reliance on food deliveries and their multiple plastics may reverse the trend towards a zero-waste lifestyle, which appeared to enjoy much success earlier this year. 

A file photo of motorcycles parked in Bangkok on March 23, 2020, by food deliverymen.

A major concern is that Thais will revert back to the habit of using plastics even after the virus fades away. 

“This is the dilemma of comfort,” said Pichmol Rugrod from Greenpeace Thailand. 

She added, “Before the epidemic, we’re trying to change people’s mindsets, so their behavior won’t change with circumstances and people will continue their eco-friendly lifestyle.”

Hard to Adapt

Food vendors remain split over support for eco-friendly packaging as they weigh between supporting the environment or convenience and preserving food quality. Concerns over perceived food hygiene sparked by the coronavirus pandemic may tip the scales even further.

Some vendors like Aut, a fried chicken vendor in Ari, said she found eco-friendly boxes made of bagasse impractical, despite her personal compassion towards the Earth.

“I tried bagasse boxes before, but customers couldn’t see what’s inside,” Aut, who now sells fried chicken rice in plastic boxes, said. “I’d love to save the Earth, but many of my customers don’t share my thoughts.”

Fried chicken rice sold in plastic boxes at Aut's roadside stall.
Fried chicken rice sold in plastic boxes at Aut’s roadside stall.

On the other hand, for an upscale chef like Deepanker Khosla, who owns Indian restaurant Haoma, he said paper boxes do not jeopardize the quality of his food.

“Our restaurant’s ethos is all about sustainability, so we decided to use paper boxes for our delivery orders,” he said. “We haven’t received any complaints about the food quality so far. They look as good as in the restaurant.”

But delivery services generally don’t hold back at all when it comes to use of plastic. 

For instance, a single set of shabu-shabu hotpot delivered to home can involve least 50 pieces of plastic; a variety of meat cuts plastic-wrapped in styrofoam trays, lidded plastic cups for different kinds of sauces and wrapped with plastic wrap, plastic bags filled with soup, and utensils wrapped in plastic.

A New Hope?

With our food orders stuffed to the brim with plastic waste, it may be hard to imagine that it was just three months ago that plastic use was universally shunned thanks to a campaign by both public and private sectors. 

In January, the government kicked off the ban on plastic bags for major retailers in an effort to curb single-use plastics in the country, which is thought to be one of the world’s top ocean polluters.

But it might not be too late to get back on the course towards a greener society. Pichmol, the Greenpeace campaigner, said more people might become more aware of the waste problem when they can easily spot garbage piling up in their houses during the quarantine.

Trash collectors in Bangkok on April 6, 2020.

To stay green amid the ongoing plague, Pichmol recommends cooking your own food. And if you are able to, order from restaurants that use eco-friendly packaging.

Pralong, who oversees the pollution control agency, also believes Thai society is still gradually making headway in giving up their obsession with single-use plastic products.

“I don’t think the COVID-19 crisis will do anything to our strategy on plastic waste management,” Pralong said. “People are happy with our plastic reduction schemes.” 

He continued, “Our latest research in fresh markets across the country shows that vendors agree to drop plastic bag handouts. We will implement it soon after the disease is gone.”

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