Round and round again

Recycling in SE Asia is not as prevalent in the West. That is putting it mildly. Waste disposal in countries such as Thailand is still a major headache and governments are racing to catch up and implement initiatives and measures which will deal with the problem.

In 2004 the Thai government decided to implement an environmentally friendly waste disposal system and enhance the waste disposal capacity of local administrative authorities. It also decided to promote the private sector’s role in research and development for recycling of raw material and clean technology. Its goal was to minimize 30% of total waste generated within 2009.

Many of us who actually live in Thailand feel rather cynical about these incredibly ambitious goals, and so far no figures have been released to support the ongoing success of these initiatives. However, the good news in Thailand at least is that there is an informal waste management system in place which seems to do much of what entire governments of other countries strive to achieve. Waste collectors called ‘sa leng’ are prominent fixtures in Thailand, commonly using rickshaws or tricycles. I often look out my window and see them going through the garbage at the end of the drive, which in some ways is comforting and in others nerve-wracking as I worry about what I put in my garbage bin that morning.

There are also several thousand waste pickers or scavengers who collect waste from windfall and sell it as their livelihood. Municipal garbage collectors can also be seen sorting and collecting recyclables for sale on an informal basis to supplement their income.

The materials regularly collected for recycling include glass and plastic bottles, food cartons and tins, cardboard and paper. Some of the items are used directly to make new products and others are sold in recycling factories. Even in the technological sector some companies are starting to offer hardware recycling services. As soon as your laptop is past its use-by-date just take it in and it will be considerably disposed of. It will be broken down, and all of the materials will be classified into different categories such as aluminum, iron, glass and copper.

Even the islands of Thailand are getting in on the act. In Koh Samui, a local initiative called the Green Island Project was established in 2007 and is helping to educate people about recycling. It works with local government and schools to provide instruction for children in primary schools scattered around the island. Schools, hotels and other institutions are also taking the lead by sorting their own garbage and providing education to people and businesses while doing so.

Perhaps this all shows that a local approach to recycling can work. Or is it just that the particular conditions in Thailand are ideal for good waste disposal? This is a country where not much goes to waste at all. A new use can always be found for anything used or broken and even if you have no need for something any more, someone else will be able to take the components, even the most basic ones, and create something new.