The Thailand Environment Institute (TEI) is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has been assisting in the environmental development of Thailand since 1993. The Institute’s mission is to act as a liaison for holistic environmental operations among the government, businesses, and civil society in order to drive the country’s development towards environmental equilibrium. TEI has received recognition from international organizations like the University of Pennsylvania in the United States of America for being the country’s environmental think tank for the 9th consecutive year as well as the agent for coordination and implementation of numerous environmental programs that bring together all groups of people both within the country and internationally.
Environmental development encompasses the management of natural resources, pollution, climate change, and biodiversity, as well as networking, personnel training, and public relations. Another important aspect is the issuance of Green Labels to verify products throughout the life cycle, from material acquisition and production to waste management, in order to ensure efficient use of resources and reduction of waste.
In this issue, we sat down with Dr. Wijarn Simachaya, President of Thai Environment Institute, to discuss the overall environmental issues in Thailand and globally as well as the roles of business operators, manufacturers, and consumers in creating environmental consciousness together.
What is the relationship between environmental problems and the global garbage crisis?
Dr. Wijarn: “When it comes to the world’s current environmental problems, climate change is considered a critical issue as it affects livelihood, the economy, society, and the environment. Therefore, it is essential that we prepare for the long term. Climate change is here to stay, and the likelihood is that it will have an even greater impact than COVID-19. At the same time, Thailand is currently facing fundamental environmental issues, such as waste, water pollution, and PM2.5 every year, so these are pressing issues which we must solve with urgency.”
“Waste is a key problem in Thailand. Cumulatively, in the country each year, around 27.8 tons of waste is produced, which equates to 1.15 kilograms per person per day. Meanwhile, we only have the capacity to properly manage less than half of this amount. Furthermore, in many tourist destinations or coastal towns which generate significant income for the country, waste management is still a problem. In some areas, trash is piled up on top of hills, and contaminated run-off water carries pollution down, impacting the marine environment, which is a natural resource that we sell to tourists. Therefore, this is a critical issue that we must attend to immediately in preparation for the reopening of the country to tourism in the near future.”
Is the best solution to the plastic problem simply to stop using plastic?
Dr. Wijarn: “Waste is a significant problem on both the global and regional scale, as well as for Thailand, which has been placed among the top 10 countries contributing to the marine waste problem. Thailand accumulates around 2 million tons of plastic waste each year, which accounts for approximately 20% of all waste, but we are only able to properly manage and recycle around 500,000 tons, or only 25%. Meanwhile, the other 75% is put into landfills, incinerated, or disposed of incorrectly, polluting canals, rivers, and ultimately the ocean. Large pieces of plastic break down into microplastics, which can remain in the ocean for over four hundred years.”
“However, is it feasible to stop using plastic in our daily lives? The answer is ‘no’. Especially, during the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic waste has seen an increase of about 50%, demonstrating that plastic has come to play an important role in disease prevention. PPE suits are made from plastic, and the masks we wear contain plastic components, not to mention the various containers used for food delivery services. Therefore, since we have no choice but to rely on plastic, we have to foster the approach of getting the most out of the plastic we use. This begins with consumer behavior. We can start considering which types of plastic are necessary, reducing the use of single-use plastic as much as possible, and placing importance on proper management and having a standard storage and collection system in place to ensure that as much clean plastic is returned to the recycling process as possible, while contaminated plastic can be used as fuel for energy production. The circular economy is, therefore, a concept that can be applied to sustainable plastic use and management.”
What is your view on the perspective of consumers that environmentally friendly products are typically more expensive than conventional options?
Dr. Wijarn: “Environmentally friendly products are not necessarily more expensive. In the beginning, this may have seemed like the case because there were few manufacturers. But as the industry becomes more competitive, prices will naturally go down. Nevertheless, even if there is a slight difference in pricing, if we care about the environment, then it’s not a difficult decision. Eco-friendly products are generally designed with environmental concerns in mind and with solutions integrated into themselves, such as by using biodegradable or recyclable materials, avoiding chemicals that are toxic or harmful to health, as well as lessening the burden of the public sector in managing post-consumer waste. All of this equates to added value.
From the point of view of business operators and manufacturers, how can they begin to shift their businesses towards becoming more environmentally friendly?
Dr. Wijarn: “It begins with the simple idea of viewing the circular economy not as a burden for business operators but an opportunity to implement a proper system and consider the entire life cycle of a product to ensure not only quality but also efficient use of resources and alleviation of the burden of waste management on society by reducing or facilitating the recycling of waste into new resources. Here, a comprehensive approach will help reduce various impacts as well as serve as a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions as well.”
“TEI has issued the Green Label, which is a type 1 environmental performance label certifying various types of product based on how they are produced. The product itself must first pass Thai Industrial Standards (TIS) in terms of quality before being considered for Green Label certification, which involves continuous review and monitoring by a committee, from the production process until the product reaches the hands of consumers. TEI would like to extend an invitation to business operators to join us in creating a new product standard for the environment and society. The government itself has established policies to foster and promote the purchase of eco-friendly products and services. Consequently, as long as manufacturers, business operators, and consumers have a mutual understanding, we can all drive the country towards sustainable development that balances economic, social, and environmental factors. Furthermore, this presents an opportunity to export eco-friendly products to international markets that have environmental standards.”
For more information and updates on the Thailand Environment Institute, please visit http://www.tei.or.th