BANGKOK — Thailand and its Southeast Asian neighbors are becoming major dumping grounds for the world’s plastic garbage and electronic waste. Environmentalists now want to see a ban on waste imports imposed across ASEAN.
Environmentalists from Greenpeace Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines gathered at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on Tuesday to discuss the sharp rise in waste imports seen by the three countries after China banned plastic and electronic waste imports in 2017.
According to Greenpeace Southeast Asia, imports of plastic waste to Thailand jumped from 152,244 tons in 2017 to 481,381 tons in 2018. Last year, Japan was the biggest exporter of plastic garbage to the Kingdom at 173,371 tons, followed by Hong Kong at 99,932 tons and the United States at 84,462 tons.
But in Southeast Asia, Thailand accounts for only the third largest share of plastic waste imports, after Vietnam and Malaysia. Malaysia took in 872,797 tons of plastic waste last year (up from 549,876 tons in 2017) out of total global imports of 8.35 million tons.
Heng Kiah Chun, a Malaysian campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, explained that the trouble with being one of the world’s biggest importers of plastic waste is that not all of it can be recycled.
“Some ends up in abandoned buildings,” he said, noting that the Malaysian government has begun returning some waste to the United States and the United Kingdom.
Heng and his Thai and Filipino peers agreed ASEAN member states should impose an immediate ban on imports of plastic waste, as the region is being flooded with garbage from the United States and other wealthier countries, including China.
Penchom Saetang, director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH), posed the question, “What does Thailand want with this kind of waste?” before answering that corruption has a lot to do with it.
Penchom pointed out that Thailand currently grants legal waste importers tax exemptions and expedited customs inspection procedures. As for illegal importers, 2018 saw 2,100 containers of plastic and 85 containers of electronic waste confiscated.
The eastern port of Laem Chabang in Chonburi province has become a major entry point for waste imports, she added. Waste handling in the area poses risks not just to the environment, but to health and the tourism industry.
Penchom and Greenpeace Thailand urged the Thai government to ban all imports of plastic and electronic waste, reform relevant sections of the Factory Act and push for an ASEAN-wide ban.
The activist noted that she has heard the Thai government plans to ban 422 types of electronic waste next month, with an unknown number of exemptions.
“We still keep watching,” Penchom concluded.
But Tara Buakamsri, the country director of Greenpeace Thailand, said he is not expecting much action on waste imports from ASEAN. The issue won’t be on the table during the ASEAN summit in Bangkok later this week, even with Thailand as the chair.
Domestically, said Tara, the public has no idea what became of the hundreds of plastic and electronic waste containers confiscated last year.
“We want to know where the waste went,” said Tara, adding that it’s unclear how much freedom of expression locally affected people will have to raise complaints under the new government.
In June 2018, Khaosod English investigated the JW Metal Recovery Intergroup Co. Ltd. in Pathum Thani where reporters found over 200 metric tons of electronic and plastic waste piled up. Foreign men manning the premises tried to chase away the reporters and took photos of them.
In the same month, police led almost 20 raids on illegal electronic waste plants and dumping grounds in and around Bangkok. Environmentalists said an order passed by the junta in 2016 to exempt recycling factories from urban planning regulations created a loophole for illegal dumping grounds.