Hundreds of waste pickers from Thailand's Saleng and Recycle Trader Association (SRTA) gathered in Bangkok during September 2021 to protest the continuous import of foreign waste outside government offices .
After China banned foreign waste imports, including electronics and plastics waste, in 2017, Thailand became one of the world's largest garbage dumps . As a consequence, the garbage from many developed countries that was formerly carried to China is now being transferred to Southeast Asian countries where environmental rules are not strictly enforced.
According to Greenpeace's 2019 report, the total volume of imported plastic garbage in the AESAN region increased from 836,529 tonnes to 2,265,962 tonnes between 2016 and 2018 . As a result, Thailand has found itself in the terrible situation of becoming a new disposal destination for foreign waste. Worse, according to Bangkok Post, the imported e-waste increased from almost 2,000 tons in 2016 to over 54,000 tons in 2017. These wastes arrived at Thai ports due to lack of law enforcement .
The surplus supply of recyclable waste has dropped the recycling prices in Thailand dramatically. The livelihoods of the estimated 1.5 million marginalised individuals who collect, sort, and transport recyclables are in jeopardy . This group of people is known as “Saleng”, the Thai word for the three-wheeled carts they drive. “Saleng” are unsatisfied with the price plummet due to the weak recyclable waste import control. Thus they request that a government-appointed subcommittee on plastic waste, chaired by the Environment Minister, discontinue plans to extend the time limit for plastic waste imports by another five years. Instead, the government should accelerate the process of plastic import ban by the end of 2021 .
Around 30,000 government-registered recycling companies buy materials from the Saleng and sell them in bulk to manufacturers . They, too, have been impacted by the price drop, according to Thawat Krairak, owner of a medium-sized recycling company in Bangkok and one of the SRTA's founders. Thawat Krairak stressed, “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.” “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” .
The government planned to ban plastic imports in September 2020 as part of its Roadmap for Plastic Waste Management 2018–2030 . However, the ban has yet to take effect, and the authorities are currently considering extending the current policy until 2023 or 2025. The SRTA and others involved hope to get the ban in place by the end of 2021 .
In desperation of seeing no ban in sight, the Saleng's protests in September were started by an online meeting involving government agencies and other parties involved in the garbage import and recycling sector, including large manufacturers, on the 6th of September 2021. At the meeting, Attaphon Charoenchansa, the director-general of the Pollution Control Department, explained that the authorities are considering three options for the plastic waste import ban: cancel all remaining imports that have already been agreed upon, commence the ban in 2023, or postpone it until 2025 .
The online conference was attended by SRTA representatives as well as concerned environmental groups such as NGO Ecological Alert Recovery Thailand (EARTH) and Greenpeace. However, they claim that as soon as they presented themselves, there was hostility to their participation, and they were removed out of the online conference one by one . The wastepickers Saleng viewed their expulsion from the conference as an indication that their voices were not being heard or respected .
SRTA were resolved to make their dissatisfaction heard, holding signs proclaiming their demands and calling on officials to come out and receive their petitions at the Ministry of Industry in September 2021. They thought that by doing so, the government would be persuaded to implement the ban immediately .
EARTH and other environmental organisations like Greenpeace began researching and advocating on the issue of transboundary waste entering Thailand for decades. The collaboration between environmental organisations and SRTA began from the surge in imports in 2018. Two sides decided to work together, targeting the issue from both an environmental and an economic standpoint.
The Saleng have proven to be a significant ally in the drive for a ban due to their size. Around 1,000 collectors, many of whom were accompanied by carts, came on the Ministry of Commerce in late 2019 to urge that the government intervene in the falling price of recycled paper . As a result, the government increased the minimum purchase price of waste paper from 0.5 baht (US$0.01) to over two baht (US$0.06) per kg in February 2020, satisfying the Saleng .
An alliance of 108 civil society organisation is skeptical that a ban will be enacted this year, and they are considering legal action against the government if that does not happen . However, several of the Saleng are considering taking a different approach: leveraging their extensive network to simply cease collecting rubbish and see what happens .
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the burden of waste imports on the Saleng's economic predicament. They have struggled to collect enough recyclables to make a living due to repeated lockdowns. According to the United Nations , the pandemic has pushed millions of Thailand's poorest people back into poverty, increasing their reliance on low-wage jobs like the Saleng's .