Humanity’s collective impact on the planet has long been problematic and continually worsening. A 2019 study from UN Environment found that resource extraction has tripled in fifty years. Combined with material processing, fuels, and food, those efforts collectively account for half of our global emissions. They also account for over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress. Such resource use is unsustainable, and waste from plastics and food are prime examples of our challenges.
We are involved with studies looking at waste systems in Bangkok, Thailand. The studies focus on the nation's highly informal collection systems and their social and environmental impacts. One study, led by Dr. Diane Archer at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), follows SEI's earlier work that compared informal plastic waste systems in Bangkok and Pune, India. Dr. Istvan Rado leads the other study at Thammasat University (TU). Dr. Rado’s study focused more on food waste, looking for ways to increase resource circularity. This post is the third in an ongoing series on these efforts, and it continues the discussion around socioeconomic factors related to these systems.
Plastic waste is a diffuse form of pollution. Large volumes become fragmented through use and go on to various end states. The diagram below visualizes this process, but it hides the contribution of informal waste workers who make the recycled content portion larger, while shrinking the rest of the flows. Ref: Sankey Diagram of Plastic Waste Flows to End States
A 2019 study (led by SEI with support from UNESCAP) estimated that in doing so, informal workers save the Thai government around 500 million Thai Baht a year. This savings exceeded the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s related spending in the early 2010s and is over 8% of the nation’s total waste collection costs. As the study’s authors noted, “These estimated cost savings indicate a strong financial incentive for the BMA to support informal actors in continuing and improving their role in reducing and managing plastic waste in Bangkok.”
Plastic waste is a complicated problem for governments. Informal waste collection occurs in places where formal systems are underdeveloped, and residents in precarious circumstances can eke out a living by selling material into the recycling value chain. Collecting waste out of necessity, informal workers pursue subsistence livelihoods and their circumstances are loaded with risk.
The aforementioned UNESCAP study reported on the efforts of informal waste collectors who worked at a transfer station where waste and recyclables are sorted. The study found they were paid 735 Thai Baht (currently around 17 GBP) per metric ton for the work. For comparison, a half Liter single-serving water bottle weighs around ten grams (a two Liter bottle is over forty grams). There are a million grams in a metric ton, so a waste collector would need to source around 100,000 half-liter bottles or ‘just’ 25,000 two-liter bottles to amass one ton of material.
Now consider the per ton rate against the average daily income of 275 THB per day (around 6.4 GBP) for waste pickers at the Sai Mai transfer station. Those workers typically work between nine and 13 hours per day. The maths is not kind.
Along with the low rates paid for recyclable materials, the challenge of making a living wage from waste collection is compounded by the lack of convenient outlets that accept all of the materials which might be sold into recycling value chains. Dr. Rado's study looked at seven of the twelve local junk shops in the study area north of Bangkok to better understand their role in the recycling system and their impacts on its functioning. Collectively, those shops received all commonly-recycled plastics, except for styrofoam (polystyrene). Individual shops tended to focus on a few material types. Five of the seven shops received four or fewer of the ten materials tracked in the study. This approach may be beneficial for the business, but it can foster inefficiencies for informal waste collectors as they may have to visit multiple shops to sell all of their materials. It can also lead waste collectors to avoid unaccepted materials, thereby limiting recycling. For example, one study of the Thai recycling market found that 61.8% of its respondents sold recyclables to a single waste dealer and that this was commonly due to a close relationship or promotions provided by the dealer.
Each shop received materials from different sources. Some shops only worked with local households that were not involved with informal waste collecting as a form of employment, while others received up to 60% from a mix of local waste pickers and itinerant ones that travel between communities. The latter group typically did so with the support of a vehicle for transport.Ref: Material types received as a % of the total (Dr. Rado’s study).
Another example comes from Bangkok’s Sai Mai transfer station, which receives waste from 18 of the city’s 50 districts. Informal waste collectors remove roughly 2 tons of plastic waste from the municipal solid waste that is unloaded at the station. The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority pays the informal workers THB 735/ton for the work. Even so, workers in the informal sector continue to lack recognition, as Thailand’s 1992 Public Health Act makes informal waste collection illegal. Thus informal waste workers perform their work in a gray area that leaves them in a precarious legal position.
Gaps in the System
Part of the challenge with recycling plastics comes from the gap between the installed capacity for recycling plastic resins and the existing need. One recent study found the missing capacity was over 75% of the need for all but one resin type.Ref: Missing vs. installed capacity for recycling (CFR) of major resins in Thailand
The recycling capacity gap, and the concomitant gap in collection, leads to significant loss of plastic material. The diagram below shows the outcome of Thailand’s plastic waste systems, which left over 82% of ‘key’ plastic types unrecycled in 2018 and lost 87% of the total material value of the plastics produced. (Key plastic types include Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), and Polypropylene (PP).) The current state is problematic, but it offers opportunities for reformed systems that improve recycling rates and broadly benefit participants.Ref: Proportion of Plastics Collected for Recycling by Resin Type
The Thai government is working with the World Bank on plans to improve the nation’s recycling systems. While the existing plastic waste systems leave much to be desired, change that improves overall outcomes could easily harm the informal workers whose subsistence depends on their income for collecting waste plastics. Whether and how they are included in that process might greatly affect the eventual outcomes. One shift came with the recent announcement that recycled plastic can now be used in food packaging. This change is expected to increase the demand for recycled PET, as well as its price. The announcement was just made on June 17, 2022, so how it might affect the informal collection remains to be seen. It may lead to increased incomes for those workers, but the increase in value may bring more competition for the materials.
The World Bank engaged with private sector stakeholders across the plastics value chain, government stakeholders, and other experts in Thailand, in developing a market study for Thailand published in February 2021. The aim of doing so was to uncover opportunities and challenges to fostering plastic circularity in Thailand. The resulting report uncovered three key quantitative findings, detailing the overwhelming loss of material to waste and the related lost economic opportunity, and put forth six recommended interventions and 27 priority actions to help accelerate Thailand’s transition.
Exactly how the system will be reformed remains an open question. Our aim is to support the transition to more efficient collection, increase the proportion of waste plastic that’s recycled, and do so in ways that are just and inclusive of the people who have long supported the system.