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New law in Thailand risks drawing an avalanche of plastic waste

Junta-era rules are business-friendly, but greens object to lax monitoring

A recycling plant near Bangkok: According to Greenpeace, Thailand's plastic waste imports jumped nearly sevenfold between 2016 and 2018 to 481,000 tons.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thai environmentalists are pressing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to slow the enactment of a law they say could create a loophole in monitoring pollution and result in Thailand importing more plastic waste from abroad.

The law amends the 1992 Factory Act and is set to take effect in October. The amendment was approved in late February by the National Legislative Assembly, the then military-government's rubber-stamp parliament, to create a business-friendly environment, according to the government. It was one of many laws the outgoing military junta rushed through parliament before a contentious general election in late March.

Under the amended rules, only industrial companies with more than 50 employees and machinery exceeding 50 horsepower are subject to monitoring for waste discharge and antipollution measures. Previously the law applied to any industrial site with seven or more workers and machinery of at least five horsepower.

Environmentalists say factories that employ fewer than 50 people will be exempt from mandatory five-year licensing requirements and will escape pollution monitoring by the Department of Industrial Works.

While the revised law may cut red tape and be more business friendly, the environmentalists say the amendments open big loopholes that will foster the toxic business of waste imports, particularly of plastic, which have ballooned in Thailand since 2016. The new factory act "will increase nontransparency and corruption," said Penchom Saetang, head of Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand, a local green group. "Thai authorities need to revise the new Factory Act based on views from public consultations."

Analysts expect over 40% of the country's 60,500 registered Thai and foreign-owned factories to benefit from the looser rules. These include the seven Thai companies that hold licenses to import electronic waste for recycling.

"The new factory act opens the doors for companies to invest in factories and plants that will result in the country becoming more polluted," said Supaporn Malailoy, manager of the Enlaw Foundation, a local environmental advocacy group. "There is concern that the local authorities who will give factories permits to operate may lack specialization in assessing the environmental impacts of the factories."

The change in the law follows an earlier push by the junta to ease pollution rules three years ago that also angered environmentalists: Order Number 4/2559. The edict suspended planning laws in towns and cities that restricted the opening of toxic and heavily polluting waste disposal projects in areas where people live and places zoned for farming.

According to Earth Foundation, another Thai green group, three provinces near Bangkok where industry is expanding highlight how investors have capitalized on the waste trade. Chancheng Sao, southeast of Bangkok, now has 159 plastic waste processing plants; Samut Prakarn, south of the capital, has 663 plants; and Samut Sakorn, also to the south, has 924 plants, the group said.

Somnuck Jongmeewasin, an academic at Silpakorn University International College in Bangkok, said Order 4/2559 has increased the number of waste processing plants across the country because "it only needs permission from local authorities to give a green light to set up a factory in a community." This easily leads to "corruption between the local government officials and the companies," he added.

The Thai government in April approved a draft of a long-term plan to reduce plastic waste, including a ban on the use of plastics in products such as straws and cups by 2022. But experts warn the new factories act could undermine such efforts and worsen the already serious plastic waste problem.

According to a recent study by international environmental pressure group Greenpeace, Thailand's plastic waste imports rose from around 70,000 tons in 2016 to 481,000 tons by 2018.

That surge was mirrored across Southeast Asia, where plastic waste imports over the same period grew by "a staggering 171% to 2,265,962 tons from 836,529 tons," according to the study, titled: "Southeast Asia's Struggle Against The Plastic Waste Trade." According to Greenpeace, "That's equivalent to around 423,544 20-foot shipping containers."

The rise of Southeast Asia as a dumping ground for plastic waste was fueled by China's decision to ban the import of plastic waste, along with textile and metal scrap. By the time the ban came into force in January 2018, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam had emerged as alternative sites for plastic waste imports, Greenpeace said.

The waves of plastic waste landing on Southeast Asia's shores only add to the region's own mountain of the stuff. Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have been ranked by the Ocean Conservancy, a global environmental lobby, among the top five countries tossing plastic into the sea. China was the worst polluter, the group revealed in a 2017 study.

The controversy over waste imports has produced some results, at least on paper. Regional leaders who met for a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok over the weekend of June 22 and 23 pledged to strengthen actions at the national and regional level to "prevent and significantly reduce marine debris."

Environmentalists welcomed this first step by the 10 members of ASEAN. But they contend that the promise requires teeth, with Greenpeace calling for "imposing an immediate ban on all imports of plastic waste, even those meant for recycling."

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