Thai trash collectors threatened by continued waste imports

Surging imports of plastic waste have put a strain on the livelihoods of Thailand’s informal trash collectors.

landfill in thailand
Landfill in Thailand. Image: Thibaud Saintin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Throughout September, hundreds of garbage collectors from Thailand’s Saleng and Recycle Trader Association (SRTA) gathered in Bangkok to protest outside government offices against the continued import of foreign waste.

Since the start of 2018, when China began imposing bans on waste imports there, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia have become a new dumping ground, inundated by plastics, electronics and paper, as well as other types of waste, coming mainly from western nations. This has driven down prices for recyclables in Thailand, threatening the livelihoods of the estimated 1.5 million people who collect, sort and transport these materials. This army of casual workers are known colloquially as saleng, the Thai word for the three-wheeled carts they drive.

The government was set to ban imports of plastic in September 2020 as part of its Roadmap on Plastic Waste Management 2018–2030. But the ban has so far failed to materialise, and now the authorities are eyeing an extension to the current policy through to 2023 or 2025. The SRTA and others involved want the ban to go into effect before the end of this year.

“The problem is that the price [that collectors are paid] for waste mostly goes down, often several baht at a time. It rarely goes up,” said Nathida Rerkyanyong, a second-generation saleng working in northern Bangkok, and an active member of the SRTA. She has joined many of the protests against falling waste prices.

With a few saleng carts in the family, they leave early in the morning in search of materials discarded on the street, or for pre-arranged pickups from houses and flats. They bring these materials back to their house, sort them and then take them to be sold at a local recycling company.

“It’s not a question of whether we can survive or not. We have to survive. If the price drops, we can’t just stop trading,” she said.

There are roughly 30,000 government-registered recycling businesses who buy materials from the saleng, selling on in bulk to manufacturers. They too have been affected by the slump in prices, says Thawat Krairak, owner of a medium-sized recycling business in Bangkok and one of the founders of the SRTA.

“At the beginning of 2019, the price of waste paper dropped from around seven baht [US$0.21) to below two baht [US$0.06) per kilo,” he explains.

“This meant that people who specialised in buying and selling paper lost a lot of money. I myself personally lost over a million baht, and people were not able to continue dealing in paper.”

No ban in sight

Despite the government’s plastic waste roadmap and promised imports ban, NGO Ecological Alert Recovery Thailand (EARTH) warns that imports are still on the rise, with no signs of slowing. This is according to data it collected for an upcoming report from all the available official sources, including figures from the auction of containers full of imported plastic waste at Laem Chabang Port.

In addition to this, “we found that the number of recycling plants, both plastic and electronic, in Thailand started increasing in 2017 and 2018,” says EARTH’s director, Penchom Saetang.

The main driver of this increase, she says, is Chinese plants relocating to Thailand to avoid Beijing’s import bans, the first of which was announced in July 2017 for 24 types of waste. Since then, China has brought in a series of more stringent bans – the latest, which came into effect at the beginning of this year, ended imports of all types of solid waste.

Another issue for Thailand is that, even when its government’s promised ban on imports is brought in, it won’t include the country’s “free zones”, which don’t have to follow national domestic policy. At present, information from the Department of Industrial Works puts the number of companies with permission to import foreign waste operating in free zones around the country at 40 to 50.

Saleng fight back

September’s protests by the saleng were sparked by an online meeting on the 6th of that month between government agencies and other parties involved in the waste import and recycling sector, including large manufacturers. At the meeting, the director-general of the Pollution Control Department, Attaphon Charoenchansa, explained that the authorities are considering three options in relation to the ban on plastic waste imports: cancel all remaining imports that have already been agreed, commence a ban in 2023, or push it back to 2025.

Representatives of the SRTA, as well as concerned environmental groups such as EARTH and Greenpeace, were invited to the meeting. But as soon as they introduced themselves, they say there was opposition to their participation, and one by one they were removed from the meeting.

The saleng in particular took their removal from the meeting as a sign their voices were not being considered or respected. In response to this, as well as the possibility of a four-year continuation of the current policy on waste imports, they organised physical protests outside ministries, demanding an apology and explanation. Well-organised, and armed with petitions signed by 108 organisations, the protesters visited every government agency involved in the process of importing plastic, including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Department of Industrial Works under the Ministry of Industry and the Customs Department.

Holding placards announcing their demands, and calling on officials to come out and receive their petitions, they were determined to make their disapproval heard, and hoped this would persuade the government to bring the ban in imminently.

Two-pronged approach

EARTH and other environmental organisations such as Greenpeace began research and advocacy into the issue of transboundary waste entering Thailand around a decade ago. When the SRTA became involved following the increase in imports in 2018, the two sides decided to collaborate, attacking the issue from both the environmental and the economic angle.

“We need to collaborate because, apart from our research on the transboundary movement of waste, we also look into the internal problem of waste management in Thailand and try to promote the reduction of waste at the source, and a fair and friendly recycling business. So we need to advocate for the improvement of the waste management policy in Thailand,” explains EARTH’s Penchom.

Thanks to their numbers, the saleng have proved a powerful ally in the campaign for a ban. In late 2019, about 1,000 collectors, many accompanied by their carts, descended on the Ministry of Commerce to demand the government intervene in the plummeting price of recyclable paper. As a result, in February 2020, the government raised the minimum purchase price of waste paper from 0.5 baht (US$0.01) to over two baht (US$0.06) per kg, a significant increase that satisfied the saleng.

Their more recent actions will have been equally hard for the government to ignore. But there has so far been no official response.

There is a lack of confidence across the coalition of 108 organisations that a ban will be brought in this year, and they are now considering legal action against the government if it doesn’t happen. Many of the saleng, though, are talking about another approach: using their vast network to simply stop collecting waste altogether to see what happens.

The impact of waste imports on the saleng’s economic situation has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Repeated lockdowns have made it hard for them to collect enough recyclables to earn a living. According to the United Nations, the pandemic has pushed millions of Thailand’s most vulnerable back into poverty, increasing reliance on informal work like that done by the saleng.

“I think they will maybe implement the ban in 2025, but I am not confident. If there is a change in government then the policy will change again,” says recycling business owner Thawat. “That doesn’t mean I’m not confident in this government, but I am worried about the power of money more, which will result in the policy changing year after year.”

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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