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After carrying a 16-inch fan on his shoulder and laying it down on the bed of his old pickup truck, Mr. Laphon Phuekdej is still looking to a long day of collecting unwanted and unusable household items in his neighborhood. Where he lives in Southern Thailand, plastic waste continues to leak into the oceans, remaining a persisting and ignored problem.
For the past 16 years, Mr. Laphon has been collecting waste and turning them into a source of income for himself and the Wat Pothawas community in the Surat Thani municipality, located some 645 kilometers south of Bangkok.
“Waste recycling is very impactful. It can change the society for the better.”
His journey to become a community leader is no bed of roses, but the 65-year-old retired civil servant never lost his spirit.
He was forced to move his waste recycling site because neighbors complained bitterly about the smell and ‘bad sight’.
No one understood what he was doing but he still drove his truck to pick up rubbish from homes, apartments, coffee shops and public areas across the municipality every week.
A range of household items, from water bottles, beer cans, unused clothes to plastic chairs, pedestal fans and baby strollers can be spotted on the bed of his pickup truck.
Despite difficulties, he sought another way to connect with his neighbors. He spoke about the benefits of recycling rubbish on the community radio for a month, explaining how people can make money from it.
Many people started paying attention to waste disposal and have followed the example.
“As of now, there are 366 households selling waste to me and 64 giving them to me for free,” said Mr. Laphon, adding that he can sell up to 900 kilograms of plastic bottles and bags per month.
In 2019, around 67,525 tons of solid waste were generated in the Wat Pothawas neighborhood, covering a total of 70 communities. But only 15,184 tons were collected and recycled.
Although the local authorities run a daily trash collection routine and have launched waste exchanges for eggs and washing detergent, waste management systems are inadequate to ensure consistent recycling of materials. Large quantities of waste still go to landfills or leak into the oceans and endanger marine life.
In this, Mr. Laphon saw an opportunity to fill the gaps of the formal waste management systems.
“People used to think that waste is dirty and valueless. Now, they are starting to realize that waste can turn into cash. I still remember the first day I collected unwanted materials from my neighbors. I earned about 170,000 baht (or US$5,674),” he recalled with a light smile.
The money Mr. Laphon earns is used for the community’s benefits. For instance, his earnings have given 30 scholarships to children every year, as well as provided funeral services free of charge.
The Wat Pothawas community’s waste management and Mr. Laphon’s leadership have set an example for other coastal cities of Thailand.
However, there is one type of plastic waste that remains a huge environmental problem.
Today, sorting and recycling of stretchy plastics are still a challenge because only a few people know they can be recycled and there are not many buyers due to its abundant types and low price.
In order to bring about a more effective plastic waste management system and waste recycling behavior at the local level, the municipality of Surat Thani has joined forces with WON Project and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Thailand.
All parties signed a partnership agreement on 16 November, 2020 and a plastic compressing machine was handed over to the Surat Thani municipality, with the aim to reduce plastic leakage into the environment.
Efforts of local communities and officials to develop circular economies are in line with WWF’s goal to reduce plastic leakage into the environment by at least 30 percent in 2025.
Speaking to Ms. Amornsri Raklek, a retired community member who has adjusted her lifestyle to reduce plastic usage, she openly admitted there are various facts about plastics she never knew.
“I never thought plastic could be so harmful to the environment and that the plastic bags I use everyday can be recycled,” she said.
Ms. Amornsri started sending plastic bags to a recycling facility every month.
Waste management problems can become smaller when community members show their willingness to change attitudes toward garbage, she said.
“Plastic is beneficial, clean and durable. If we know how to sort and recycle it, it can be asset.”