Elephant’s Leg

This turtle died after eating a plastic bag

This turtle died after eating a plastic bag

Forget everything you learned in your Lonely Planet phrasebook about how to greet people or how to buy two train tickets to Chiang Mai.

Probably the most common Thai phrases I use is “mai ao thung” (I don’t want a bag). I say this almost every time I buy something in a shop in Thailand. If I do need bags, I frequently repackage them so that my goods fit in one or two, rather than three, four or even five, and give back the superfluous extras.

They are handed out with everything. I don’t need a plastic bag for a bottle of water or a packet of tissues. I obviously don’t need one for an ice-cream. I absolutely don’t need one for a four-pack of paracetamol. (All real examples).

And even when they are necessary, they are over-used. A single bag is not going to split open if you buy two 1.5-litre bottles of water, so it doesn’t need to be double-bagged. And what’s with these chain stores’ insistence on separating items based on category? That sealed bottle of ketchup is not going to spoil my sealed packet of ballpoint pens. Don’t give me two bags for them! Why does alcohol go in one bag, and soft drinks in another? Furthermore, I don’t need four plastic straws for those four beers, and I certainly don’t need a straw for my large bottle of water.

Thailand is awash with plastic bags. According to the Pollution Control Department, 5,600 tonnes of plastic bags are produced in this country every day. Nobody seems to care about that. The customers don’t give it a second thought when their packaged sandwich is placed in a plastic bag, which they then place inside another plastic bag they already have! And the shops evidently don’t care either, even if massive corporations such as 7-Eleven should be seen to apply environmentally friendly practices. Making matters worse, recycling efforts nationwide are minimal to say the least.

Staff at these shops react in different ways to my unorthodox words and behaviour. Some just ignore me, perhaps thinking the farang said the wrong thing, and dish out the plastic with aplomb anyway, and then look offended when I re-pack or return unwanted bags. Others react as though I’m a risk-taker, asking me if I’m “sure”, shooting me a look that suggests I’m either weird, or brave, or both, to walk out of the store carrying a single bag with six items in it. The nicer ones thank me, as if I’m being benevolent to the company by returning the bags.

Koh Larn landfill

Koh Larn landfill

As with many things, changing practices requires a change of thinking on a mass scale. Of course, my home nation, the United Kingdom, used to be just as bad, but most shops there now either charge for plastic bags or at least don’t give out bags unless they are asked for, and the general populace now either reuses bags or hand-carries if they can. Perhaps companies here in Thailand would be nervous about the former approach, fearing customers might eschew a store that charges for bags and shop at a competitor instead, but there’s no reason the latter approach couldn’t work. It would at least make the customer think if they do actually need a bag, rather than just blithely accepting whatever they are given.

Apparently, last Saturday (August 15) was a nationwide bag-free day. It was the first of what is intended to be a monthly event, when every 15th day the major supermarket chains refrain from handing out bags unless they are expressly requested.

I didn’t realise this occurred until two days after the event. It was minimally promoted, if at all. And, looking back, I did visit a supermarket on Saturday (Tops) and, lo and behold, it has been business as usual in the bag-dispensing department.

To its credit, Tesco Lotus did embrace the campaign, and it reportedly spared the use of 1 million bags as a result. A million bags! In one day! Just take a moment to let that sink in and you will understand the scale of the problem.

I suspect this campaign – if it even continues – will be embraced the same as other do-gooder campaigns are in Thailand, i.e. not at all. Look at “Car Free Day” – every September, Bangkokians are offered free public transport for one day, but the roads are just as busy as ever. And there have been any number of campaigns aimed at improving the lawless nature of the traffic in this city, yet the situations is just as dire as it ever was.

The plastic bag problem persists because it its consequences are out of sight and mind for the ordinary person. Once it has been binned, the bag is forgotten, and the customer doesn’t think about the landfills that blight parts of this beautiful land, nor that they are a major contributing factor to the floods that often threaten this city, as they gum up sewers and irrigation canals. Even further from their mind is the threat they pose to wildlife, especially marine animals that die after mistakenly eating them.

There’s little I can do to improve the situation, and I realise my one-man war is in itself a futile gesture in a city of 10 million people. But I would like to improve my Thai skills, so please, retail staff of this kingdom, at least give me something else to say at the checkouts than mai ao thung!

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