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Waste pickers' livelihoods threatened by continued waste imports, Thailand


Description:

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 [1].

After China banned foreign waste imports, including electronics and plastics waste, in 2017, Thailand became one of the world's largest garbage dumps [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [2].

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 [4]. 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 [1].

Around 30,000 government-registered recycling companies buy materials from the Saleng and sell them in bulk to manufacturers [1]. 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” [1].

The government planned to ban plastic imports in September 2020 as part of its Roadmap for Plastic Waste Management 2018–2030 [5]. 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 [1].

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 [1].

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 [1]. The wastepickers Saleng viewed their expulsion from the conference as an indication that their voices were not being heard or respected [1].

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 [1].

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 [6]. 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 [7].

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 [8][9]. However, several of the Saleng are considering taking a different approach: leveraging their extensive network to simply cease collecting rubbish and see what happens [1].

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 [10], the pandemic has pushed millions of Thailand's poorest people back into poverty, increasing their reliance on low-wage jobs like the Saleng's [11].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Waste pickers' livelihoods threatened by continued waste imports, Thailand
Country:Thailand
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
E-waste and other waste import zones
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste
Plastic / carton

Project Details and Actors

Project details

According to Greenpeace's 2019 report, the total volume of imported plastic garbage increased from 836,529 tonnes to 2,265,962 tonnes between 2016 and 2018 in the ASESAN region [3].

Greenpeace Southeast Asia has reported that Thailand imported more plastic waste in 2018 than in 2017: 329,137 tons, to be precise. The Southeast Asian nation imports most plastic garbage from Japan, Hong Kong and the United States (173,371 tons; 99,932 tons; and 84,462 tons, respectively) [10].

The livelihoods of the estimated 1.5 million of the marginalised individuals who collect, sort, and transport recyclables are in jeopardy [4].

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 [1].

According to October 2020 data from the Customs Department, Thailand still imported 8,715 tons of plastic waste under HS Code 3915 (plastic waste, parings and scrap) from 22 countries, with imports from China being the largest, worth a total of 10,038,664 baht [6].

Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:1,500,000 people
Start of the conflict:06/09/2022
Relevant government actors:Pollution Control Department
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment
Department of Industrial Works
Ministry of Industry
Customs Department
Ministry of Commerce
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Saleng and Recycle Trader Association (SRTA)
Ecological Alert Recovery Thailand (EARTH)
https://www.earththailand.org/en/
Greenpeace Thailand
https://www.greenpeace.org/thailand/

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Trade unions
Wastepickers, recyclers
Forms of mobilization:Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Strikes

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsPotential: Air pollution, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Health ImpactsPotential: Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors
Other socio-economic impactsDisruption of the local recycling industry

Outcome

Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Negotiated alternative solution
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Proposal and development of alternatives:"Moving towards a single-use plastic-free world" (Greenpeace, 2019 [11])

ASEAN should work together to enforce a region-wide ban on all imports of plastic waste, even those meant for "recycling", and ensure all ASEAN countries ratify the Basel Ban Amendment. Governments should incentivise and support domestic markets of sorting and recycling plastic waste, taking into account circularity. ASEAN Member States need to: Establish a regional policy geared toward massively reducing the production of single-use plastic packaging and products. ASEAN should also establish strict enforcement and monitoring of plastic waste trade within the region in order to deter illegal waste trade.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain: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. Although this is not a long-term solution, it could help to solve the urgent needs of this vulnerable group of people.

Sources & Materials

[1] Thai trash collectors threatened by continued waste imports, by Luke Duggleby - China Dialogue, 08/12/2021
https://chinadialogue.net/en/cities/thai-saleng-trash-collectors-livelihoods-threatened-by-waste-imports/

[2] Waste not, want not, by Suwitcha Chaiyong - Bangkok Post, 26/10/2020
https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/social-and-lifestyle/2008359/waste-not-want-not

[3] Southeast Asia’s Struggle Against the Plastic Waste Trade, by Greenpeace Southeast Asia - Greenpeace, 18/06/2019
https://www.greenpeace.org/malaysia/publication/1905/southeast-asias-struggle-against-the-plastic-waste-trade/

[4] Plastic waste still an issue, by Bangkok Post Editorial Column, Bangkok Post, 12/09/2020
https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1984063/plastic-waste-still-an-issue

[5] National Action Plan on Plastic Waste Management in Thailand, by Wassana Jangprajak - Pollution Control Department Thailand, 24/02/2021
https://www.iges.or.jp/sites/default/files/inline-files/S1-5_PPT_Thailand%20Plastic%20Action%20Plan.pdf

[6] From Saleng to factories: Vulnerabilities & limitations of the recycling business, by Yiamyut Sutthichaya - Prachatai, 24/02/2021
https://prachatai.com/english/node/9085

[7] Govt lifts scrap paper price, by Bangkok Post - Bangkok Post, 13/02/2020
https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1856204/govt-lifts-scrap-paper-price

[8] NGOs call for a ban on imports of plastic and electronic waste, by Arnika - Arnika Prague, 28/10/2021
https://arnika.org/en/news/ngos-call-for-a-ban-on-imports-of-plastic-and-electronic-waste

[9](in Thai) Oppose the import of plastic scraps petition: 108 civil society networks list, Change.org, 08/2021
https://reurl.cc/Er15qa

[10] Informal workers most affected by COVID-19 (2020). by International Labour Organization and UN Thailand, by United Nations, 18/06/2020
https://web.archive.org/web/20220429213641/https://thailand.un.org/en/50833-informal-workers-most-affected-covid-19-un-thailand

[11] Southeast Asia's Struggle against the Plastic Waste Trade, by Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Greenpeace, 18/06/2019
https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-malaysia-stateless/2019/06/a4175fab-waste-trade-report-gpsea.pdf

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

EARTH Thailand Facebook page
https://www.facebook.com/EarthEcoAlertEn/

EARTH Thailand Youtube channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDN_VVlUydwnBgfomyMvcbQ

Meta information

Contributor:Chang-Lin Yiin
Last update02/06/2022
Conflict ID:5852

Images

 

Saleng demonstrators in front of the Ministry of Industry

Saleng demonstrators wait for an official to come out and receive their petition on the steps of the Ministry of Industry. (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue, CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0)

Saleng sorting out recyclable waste

Without the Saleng, rubbish would quickly pile up on Thailand’s streets, and valuable materials go to waste. (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue, CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0)

Saleng protestors demand a halt to plastic garbage imports

Without the Saleng, rubbish would quickly pile up on Thailand’s streets, and valuable materials go to waste. (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue, CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0)