Consumption of single-use plastics such as surgical masks and disposable cups has shot up since the advent of Covid-19

Most waste management systems in Asian cities are underdeveloped, with the informal economy dominating the processes of waste collection, sorting and recycling. Photo: Diane Archer / SEI.

In recent years, the scientific community has worked to better understand the size and nature of the problem both globally and locally. This post is the first in a series that will look at the challenge through the lens of two studies recently undertaken in Bangkok, Thailand. One of those was led by SEI Asia and the other carried out by the School of Global Studies at Thammasat University .

SEI research

The study led by Dr Archer is funded by a grant from Formas , the Swedish research council for sustainable development. It expanded on an earlier study conducted by SEI and UNESCAP that opened a window into Thailand’s poorly understood informal waste sector. The current study looks to promote a circular economy by identifying opportunities to transition waste systems in ways that include informal workers who are vital to the existing systems while also fostering safer working conditions for them. The research is focused on gaining a better understanding of the regulatory, technical, economic and physical environment, as well as behavioral elements related to household waste in urban Thailand. Plastic waste is a primary focus and the effort will look for ways to reduce its generation and improve recycling rates. Along with practical changes available that are possible in the current circumstances, the team will work to identify policy options that could improve outcomes.

Dr Archer’s team is working to reconceive the urban waste sector with the goal of integrating informal workers as partners. The big picture vision seeks “the achievement of just, inclusive cities alongside sustainable consumption practices.

The study’s overarching question, “How can we ensure a sustainable transition for informal waste workers to become key waste management actors in a circular economy?” is supported by the following questions:

  • How does urban household consumption and behavior influence patterns of solid waste generation?
  • How do informal waste workers currently operate as collectors of recyclable household waste?
  • What are the current barriers to a transition towards a more inclusive solid waste management sector in which informal waste workers are recognized and integrated as key waste actors in the sector?
  • What policy, technical and behavioral changes are required to achieving the transition outlined above?

Next steps

Both studies will wrap up by the end of the year and reports of the findings are forthcoming. In this series of posts, we will work to share what we have learned along the way. This will include calling out possibilities for future research and opportunities to explore potential changes in the waste system.

For starters, we are planning to share an overview of plastic value chains in Thailand that will provide an overview of things like the types and quantities of materials that are currently recycled and the process that’s undertaken. We will also highlight challenges in the current system, as well as some potential opportunities for further investigation. In addition, we will look at the socioeconomic effects of the system on informal workers, as well as the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on those informal waste workers.

We will also look at untapped possibilities for processing and manufacturing materials that are currently left as waste. We will share our experiences collecting data for research in the pandemic, including the specific challenges we have encountered and the modified approaches undertaken in the interest of helping others with adaptation.

The global plastic waste problem is massive and it is particularly challenging in Southeast Asia. We know these systems need to change. If we are going to address it, we first need to better understand it.

Read the full article on The RSA .