As Thailand pushes to cut its waste, a new startup is incentivizing residents and businesses to recycle. To be effective, the service depends on local governments building strong, sustainable waste management systems.
By Skylar Lindsay
Southeast Asia has a waste problem: plastic waste imports to the region have spiked since China banned most plastic recycling imports in 2017 and governments across the region are struggling to get a handle on their domestic waste management. Thailand still uses 200 billion plastic bags per year.
Thailand has pledged to get its garbage under control and recycle or “properly dispose of” 75% of its waste by 2021, up from around 50% today. The government also plans to shift to 100% recycled plastics by 2027. All of this requires massive investment from both the private and public sectors—about US$5.1 billion, according to official estimates.
One group hoping to make progress on this is GEPP, a new Thai startup that’s aiming to get businesses and households to recycle more. GEPP offers anyone who produces waste a chance to earn income by selling their recyclables, while also offering local governments data on their waste management.
“I founded the company with one goal: to make Thai people sort their waste,” said GEPP Co-Founder and CEO Mayuree Aroonwaranon.
GEPP is already active in 10 districts in Bangkok and in July, it began piloting a program in Chiang Mai city.
Whether the initiative is effective at addressing Thailand’s waste problems will depend on how local residents engage with the project. But it also depends on whether the recyclables are handled sustainably and safely as they move beyond GEPP’s purview.
A new app allows local residents and businesses to earn income from recycling
Less than a quarter of domestic waste in Thailand gets recycled. In Thailand, as in China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, 85% of the limited plastic sorting that does occur happens post-consumer.
GEPP is partnering with the Chiang Mai municipality—Thesaban Chiang Mai—to train waste producers in the district, including hotels, schools and local communities, to sort their waste and use GEPP’s platform. The platform is a web application, designed to be accessible to anyone within the program’s operating area.
When a school, restaurant or household has sorted their recycling, they schedule a pick up via the web application and the city will send either a municipal waste pickup truck or a local private collector. The collector records the type and amount of waste as well as the price they pay the producer for their recycling. GEPP collects this data on its platform for analysis and shares it with the municipality.
The requirements for recycling are kept simple: no food waste, no liquids and the recycling should be relatively clean, though it doesn’t have to be washed. This is due to Thai law: private collectors aren’t allowed to transport garbage destined for a landfill or municipal processing plant, as this is a government service.
Down the waste disposal chain, the GEPP model still needs more government support
GEPP doesn’t deal with what happens to the recycling after collection. There are no incentives to make sure the recycling is dealt with sustainably and safely. Depending on the economics of the recycling supply chain, some recyclables may still end up in landfills. This often happens because recycling arrives dirty, contaminated, or is otherwise unusable.
It’s possible that GEPP’s model will help address these issues. Collectors can refuse to pick up dirty recyclables, or offer waste producers a lower price for the pickup, incentivising more consumers to wash their recyclables.
Domestically, Thailand’s wealthy urban areas can also afford to send their waste—recyclable or otherwise—to rural, lower-income provinces. In the north and northeast of the country, local and provincial governments also reportedly export waste to Laos.
“In the north, the channels for recyclables go to Laos because it’s closer than the recycling plants in the centre of Thailand,” said Aroonwaranon. “Sometimes they will bundle it all up with larger aggregators, to share the logistical costs.”
Many recycling plants also produce particulate pollution that poses health risks for local communities and without a way to trace recyclables after collection, it’s difficult to measure the full extent of their environmental impact.
To design better waste management programs, cities need data
Chiang Mai municipality is tasked with disposing of 1,700 tonnes of waste every day. The more the city knows about waste patterns and consumer behaviour, the better it can tailor its solutions to our garbage crisis.
This is another key piece of GEPP’s angle on waste management. “[GEPP] provides the municipality with data on the sources and types of rubbish in the municipality,” said Aroonwaranon. “This enables us to better manage and reduce garbage in the municipality, which is trying to tackle climate change and reduce emissions caused by waste.”
During the pilot, GEPP provides this data to the municipality for free but as the program gets off the ground, the company’s primary source of income will be selling this data to the city.
Aroonwaranon has been impressed by the Chiang Mai municipality’s work so far and is optimistic about the future.
“No other municipality has taken such an initiative and put so much effort into guiding this process,” she said.
Data is key. For the GEPP model to be effective, cities and countries must build systems for handling waste. Thailand does alright but it isn’t perfect: in 2018, Thailand generated 27.8 million tons of plastic waste and the government estimates that at least 27% was improperly disposed of: people and businesses aren’t taking out their trash the way the government wishes they would.
Is the GEPP model scalable?
GEPP’s initiative poses crucial questions for Thailand’s cities but it also raises the possibility of a similarly market-driven solution for countries across ASEAN.
A private sector initiative like GEPP will always have the challenge of securing the buy-in from local communities—not just local governments, but also local business owners and households who would theoretically be using the service.
Many countries in Southeast Asia stand to benefit from focusing first on improving overall waste management processes before backing a program like GEPP. Vietnam and Indonesia, for example, mismanage more than 80% of their plastic waste.
Southeast Asian economies like Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are all struggling to deal with plastic waste as imports from the West increase. As urban areas across Southeast Asia grow denser, city governments are turning to new solutions to address their waste management issues. But changing the way a society handles its trash takes commitment at every step of the process, from production to consumption to disposal.
Thailand has the necessary infrastructure in place to effectively deal with its waste. The biggest outcome of the country’s new strategies may be that its businesses, government, citizens and tourists are forced to grapple with questions about the true impact of their trash: who is affected and what it will really take to manage waste safely and sustainably.