Thai garbage collectors threatened by continued waste imports

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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 importation of foreign waste.

Since the beginning of 2018, when China started banning waste imports, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia have become a new dumping ground, inundated with plastics, electronics and paper, as well. than other types of waste, mainly from the West. nations. This has lowered the prices of recyclables in Thailand, threatening the livelihoods of the roughly 1.5 million people who collect, sort and transport these materials. This army of casual workers is known colloquially as saleng, the Thai word for the three-wheeled carts they drive.

The government was to ban plastic imports in September 2020 as part of its 2018-2030 plastic waste management roadmap. But so far, the ban has not materialized and authorities are now considering an extension of the current policy until 2023 or 2025. SRTA and other parties involved want the ban to take effect before the end of this year.

Saleng protesters demand an end to imports of plastic waste outside Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Bangkok (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue)

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

With some saleng carts in the family, they leave early in the morning in search of materials thrown in the street, or for pre-arranged pickups from homes and apartments. They take these materials home, sort them, and then bring them in to sell to a local recycling company.

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

Nattida Rerkyanyong sorts the cardboard she recently collected before selling it to a local recycling center.
Second generation saleng Nathida Rerkyanyong sorts the cardboard at her home before selling it to a local recycling center (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue)

A saleng driver unloads his collected waste for weighing at Thawat Recycling Company in Bangkok.
Nathida is waiting her turn at the recycling center to weigh the materials she delivered (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue)

There are approximately 30,000 government registered recycling companies that purchase materials from the saleng, selling in bulk to manufacturers. They too have been affected by the drop in prices, says Thawat Krairak, owner of a medium-sized recycling company in Bangkok and one of the founders of SRTA.

“At the start of 2019, the price of waste paper rose from around seven baht[0,21 USD]less than two baht[0,06) USD le kilo», explique-t-il. [US[26].21) to below two baht [US[26].06) per kilo, ”he explains.

“This meant that people who specialize in buying and selling paper were losing a lot of money. I myself lost over a million baht and people weren’t able to keep selling paper. “

No ban in sight

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

On top of that, “we found that the number of recycling factories, both plastic and electronics, in Thailand started to increase in 2017 and 2018,” says EARTH director Penchom Saetang.

The main driver of the increase, she said, is the relocation of Chinese factories 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 implemented a series of tougher bans – the latest, which came into effect earlier this year, halted imports of all types of solid waste.

A worker adds plastic bottles to a squeezing machine inside a recycling company in Bangkok.
A worker at the Thawat Krairak recycling plant in Bangkok collects plastic bottles for feeding into a compression machine (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue)

Another problem for Thailand is that, even when the import ban promised by its government is introduced, it will not include the country’s “free zones”, which do not have to follow national domestic policy. At present, information from the Department of Industrial Works estimates that between 40 and 50 the number of companies authorized to import foreign waste operating in the country’s free zones.

Saleng to defend oneself

The September protests of the saleng were sparked by an online meeting on the 6th of this month between government agencies and other parties involved in the waste importation and recycling industry, including major manufacturers. During the meeting, the director general of the Department of Pollution Control, Attaphon Charoenchansa, explained that the authorities are considering three options regarding the ban on imports of plastic waste: cancel all remaining imports that have already been agreed, start a ban in 2023, or postpone it to 2025.

Representatives of SRTA, as well as relevant environmental groups such as EARTH and Greenpeace, were invited to the meeting. But as soon as they showed up, they say there was opposition to their participation, and one by one they were withdrawn from the meeting.

Penchom Saetang, director of the non-governmental organization Ecological Alert Recovery - Thailand (EARTH) (left) and Attaphon Charoenchansa, director general of the Pollution Control Department (right) attend a meeting with the Saleng Association in Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
EARTH Director Penchom Saetang (left) and Attaphon Charoenchansa, Director General of the Department of Pollution Control, speak at a meeting attended by SRTA and environmental groups from the Ministry of Natural Resources and l ‘Environment. The meeting was called by the groups to demand an explanation of why they were removed from an online meeting on September 6. (Image: Luke Duggleby / Chinese Dialogue)

The saleng in particular, took their withdrawal from the meeting as a sign that 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 waste import policy, they staged physical protests outside ministries, demanding an apology and explanation. Well organized and armed with petitions signed by 108 organizations, the protesters visited all government agencies involved in the plastic import process, including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Department of Industrial Works of the Ministry of Industry and Customs Department. .

Holding signs announcing their demands and calling on officials to come out and receive their petitions, they were determined to voice their disapproval and hoped it would persuade the government to impose the ban imminently.

Protesters in Saleng wait on the steps of the Ministry of Industry for a person of authority to come down and receive their petition.
Saleng protesters wait on the steps of the Ministry of Industry for an official to come out and receive their petition (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue)

Two-pronged approach

EARTH and other environmental organizations such as Greenpeace began research and advocacy on the issue of transboundary waste entering Thailand a decade ago. When SRTA got involved following the increase in imports in 2018, the two sides decided to work together, tackling the issue from both an environmental and an economic perspective.

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

Small local recycling company sorts e-waste
Recycling waste in Thailand has long formed its own circular economy. This small business buys electronic waste collected by saleng and extracts precious metals such as copper, which can be sold to large manufacturers who are making new products. (Image: Luke Duggleby / Chinese Dialogue)

Thanks to their number, saleng have proven to be a powerful ally in the campaign for a ban. At the end of 2019, around 1,000 collectors, many of them accompanied by their carts, went to the Ministry of Commerce to ask the government to intervene in the fall in the price of recyclable paper. As a result, in February 2020, the government increased the minimum purchase price for waste paper from 0.5 baht (0.01 USD) to more than two baht (0.06 USD) per kg, a significant increase which has satisfy him saleng.

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

There is a lack of confidence in the coalition of 108 organizations that a ban will be imposed this year, and they are now considering legal action against the government if that does not happen. A lot of saleng, however, speak of another approach: using their vast network to simply stop collecting trash altogether to see what happens.

A saleng driver unloads his collected waste to be weighed
Without the saleng, garbage would quickly pile up on the streets of Thailand and valuable materials would be wasted (Image: Luke Duggleby / China Dialogue)

The impact of waste imports on the salengThe country’s economic situation has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. The repeated blockages have made it difficult for them to collect enough recyclables to make a living. According to the United Nations, the pandemic has plunged millions of Thailand’s most vulnerable people back into poverty, increasing the use of informal work such as that carried out by the United Nations. saleng.

“I think they might implement the ban in 2025, but I’m not confident. If there is a change of government, the policy will change again, ”says Thawat, owner of a recycling company. “That’s not to say that I don’t trust this government, but I’m more concerned about the power of money, which will cause policy change from year to year.”

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