Thai Style Recycling

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Over recent decades the Thai government has made a concerted effort to improve the nation's waste management infrastructure and move away from the use of open dump sites. Policies that offer incentives to both local government and private industry have helped increase the country's recycling rate to 22%. Shabbir Gheewala examines how the momentum can be maintained.

Like other developing countries in Asia, Thailand is facing severe problems in the sphere of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management. In 2009, the volume of waste being generated in Thailand reached about 15.1 million tonnes - approximately 41,410 tonnes per day. Of this only approximately 3.3 million tonnes, or 22% were separated and sent to recycling centres, a rather small fraction as compared to the total amount of garbage produced. More than 20% of the MSW generated in the country is from Bangkok Metropolitan Area (BMA). In addition, there is the potential for an annual increase of 200,000 tonnes, resulting from a combination of factors including population growth, economic growth and tourism.

Before the 1990s, most of the waste collected from urban areas in Thailand was dumped in open areas. However, since then there has been a gradual improvement in waste disposal practices from open dumping to sanitary landfilling. And since then, recycling has become the second most common method of MSW management method in Thailand. At a community level, recycling offers local communities the potential to generate income, while diverting materials away from landfills.

Over a number of years the Thai government has been encouraging co-operation among various stakeholders to promote the 3Rs (reduce, re-use, recycle) concept in the country. The central government has also been providing technical and financial support to local governments in order to improve existing waste management systems in their area. In addition, guidelines, measures, and standards related to the 3Rs concepts are being developed and disseminated to the local community. As a result of all these efforts, successful recycling projects have been implemented in the private sector as well as local communities.

Private sector recycling

Recycling businesses are growing successfully in many cities in Thailand. There are also cases where recycling businesses have faced serious difficulties, especially due to price fluctuation of materials. One example of this is Wongpanit, a private sector waste-buying business based in Phitsanulok Province that has been expanding across the country. In parallel to this private initiative, a government initiative with waste banks collecting recyclables is also encouraging the active participation of elementary and secondary school students, teachers and staff, parents in a project to raise public awareness of the value of waste materials. Participants are encouraged to join waste sorting operations leading to the recovery of valuable recyclable materials. In many instances this waste bank program operates in coordination with Wongpanit.

Wongpanit purchases various types of municipal and industrial waste including plastics, steel, precious metal scraps, paper and glass for recycling into value-added products. At present, the company can handle between 200 tonnes and 250 tonnes of waste per day.

Community involvement: local citizens are encouraged to join waste sorting operations

After sorting and processing the recyclable materials (particle size reduction and baling), materials are then transported. The price paid for the different types of recyclable materials can fluctuate with demand by between 1% and 25% each day.

Currently over 400 Wongpanit branches are spread throughout the country. The reasons behind the company's progress are successful networking with franchises, adhering to international standards, promoting the idea that local collectors should neatly separate wastes, setting up purchasing points which are convenient local drop-offs, and promoting further branch franchises, even overseas, thereby promoting international trade.

Encouraged by its success in Thailand, Wongpanit is extending its business to other countries in Asia, including Laos, China, Malaysia, and India.

Local authority sustainable recycling programs

The recycling rate in Thailand is progressively increasing due to efforts from both private companies and local authorities. One example of how the local government is helping Thailand to boost its recycling rate is in the Nonthaburi Municipality. Located 20 km northwest of Bangkok, it covers an area of 39 km2 with a population of 270,000. The Nonthaburi Municipality is making a significant effort to maximise recycling and minimise waste generation through community approaches, public awareness and public participation. Nonthaburi has a strong policy to promote waste separation at source through public participation, and has expanded such activities to a number of its communities. As a result, waste recycling has risen from 22% in the year 2006 to almost 25% in 2010. Building public participation and awareness, as well as the strong political will of the local administration were deemed crucial to boosting recycling rates in the region.

In Nonthaburi recyclables are pre-processed and then sent to recycling facilities

At present Nonthaburi generates around 370 tonnes per day - 0.8 kg per capita per day. Approximately 90 tonnes of source separated recyclables are being collected by 38 small private companies. These 38 small companies have spread within the municipal limit so that people in the community can always sell source separated recyclables with less effort. The collected recyclables fall into five major categories such as paper, plastics, glass, aluminium and steel at 22.9%, 3.3%, 7.3%, 26.6%, and 39.9% respectively. These recyclables are being pre-processed (cleaning, size reduction, compaction and baling) at a pre-processing facility and then sent to various recycling facilities in different provinces by heavy duty trucks.

Particular attention is being paid to the separation and sale of aluminium, metals and paper since there is a possibility of earning a good income from such materials. However, a considerable fraction of un-recovered recyclables (87 tonnes per day), mostly plastics and paper (less valuable fraction), is still being disposed at the landfill along with the mixed waste stream. Changing public perception is therefore very important to enhance recycling and reduce environmental pollution.

A sustainable solution

Economic and social benefits should be taken into consideration when developing sustainable recycling programs. As far as the environment is concerned, the attractive point of such a recycling program is the potential opportunity for the recovery of significant amount of materials, which indirectly, reduces the demand for fossil fuels.

For instance, considering the composition of recyclables in Nonthaburi Municipality, which recycles 90 tonnes per day, the annual GHG emission reduction would amount to 151,120 tonnes CO2 equivalent.

In addition, the current recycling activities would substantially contribute to avoidance of fossil fuel depletion through material recovery, with estimated annual net fossil fuel savings amounting to 25,580 tonnes of crude oil equivalents.

Recycling is also an economically attractive option since there is a potential of generating 11,300 baht ($380) per tonne of mixed recyclables in Nonthaburi as net earnings. In fact, approximately 373 million baht ($12.5 million) can be expected as "annual net earnings" from the existing recycling program in Nonthaburi.

This money is being distributed among the stakeholders of the process chain, such as the small companies collecting the recyclables, sorting facilities and recycling companies. Such financials prove that recycling activities would therefore be an economically attractive business in Thailand.

Furthermore, recycling can contribute to raising living standards of the community in Nonthaburi. At present, the sale of source separated recyclables (on the basis of 90 tonnes per day) is estimated to offer an indirect annual income generation potential of 573 million baht ($19.2 million) to the community. It is also estimated that 675 skilled employment opportunities at will be created.

What is next?

Although there have been successful cases of effective recycling activities observed, still only 22% of the waste generated in Thailand is being recycled. The success of recycling mainly depends on the active contribution from the community. Initiation of effective source separation programs is a key feature of successful stories in Thailand. Thus, education and awareness raising campaigns are pre-requisites to ensure more widespread and successful recycling activities in the country.

Shabbir H. Gheewala is a professor in the Joint Graduate School of Energy and Environment, King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, Bangkok, Thailand. Co-authors included Dr Sébastien Bonnet and Miss S. N. M. Menikpura, lecturer and PHD student, respectively.

- The information was collected as part of the Integrated Sustainable Solid Waste Management project (ISSOWAMA) funded by the European Commission under EU-FP7.

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