Status quo & problem situation
Plastic waste generation is also increasing steadily in Thailand; the country is considered one of the world’s top ten plastic waste dischargers into the world’s oceans. According to GTAI, approximately two million tons of plastic waste were generated in Thailand in 2018, of which only about a quarter was recycled. Today, local disposal of plastic is primarily through incineration or landfills, but these “solutions” are increasingly reaching their capacity limits. As a result of improper final disposal, combined with the specific local tropical climate and weather conditions (esp. sun, rain, tropical storms), this plastic waste often decomposes into micro- and nano plastics, which enters the oceans and rivers directly or via groundwater – and finally the animal and human food chain. A comprehensive account, with an analysis of the current situation, can be found here.
According to the Thai Environment Institute the current COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this situation. The amount of plastic waste in Bangkok (including used gloves, face masks, and empty take-out containers) increased by approximately 62% between March and April 2020.
General solution approaches
A wide range of initiatives for the avoidance, reduction and reuse (main-objective: “Cycle-Economy”) of plastic waste, accompanied by the establishment of appropriate legal frameworks, will certainly contribute to solving the problem. A core basis for all operational activities here in Thailand is the “Roadmap of Plastic Waste Management 2018-2030” of the Thai government, dated 17th of April 2019. The overall objective is the reduction or avoidance of plastic by utilizing environmentally friendly alternatives. A first specific implementation measure is the ban on the issuing of free plastic bags in grocery stores.
Creative and much appreciated approaches to maritime waste collection   often face the problem that landing, and recycling of the residual materials collected on the (open) sea is not possible or only possible to a limited extent, due to local legal restrictions.
Raising awareness among different target groups (core message: “waste as a valuable material”) with regard to the far reaching ecological consequences, as well as the offering of corresponding training courses for students, experts and multipliers (esp. of the younger generation) are also particularly important in this context. When analyzing current publications and statistics, however, it becomes clear that there is a considerable need to catch up, especially on the subject of “recycling”, and that this is one of the “keys” to solving the problem .
Option, opportunity & challenge: Thermo-chemical recycling
In our opinion, the key challenge of plastic recycling is to develop and implement an environmentally sound and economical process to compensate for the negative effects of landfilling (e.g. decomposition into microplastics, discharge into rivers and oceans) or incineration (e.g. emissions) of plastic waste and, in addition, to achieve a valuable material conversion or recycling of plastic waste, e.g. as a substitute for crude oil or as a basic product (“commodity”) for chemical processes based on it: The “upcycling” of the entire hydrocarbon chain including naphtha cracking and even the generation of hydrogen.
In this context it has to be taken into account that the majority of today’s plastic waste increasingly consists of heterogeneous composite plastics, partly with additives (e.g. cling films, food packaging) from households and industry. This means that mechanical recycling, which is used in particular for unmixed and pre-treated (dried & cleaned) polymers (keywords: recyclate, circular economy), is ruled out for this composition of waste. At present, the treatment of potentially infectious plastic waste is certainly also of particular importance.
For a comprehensive presentation of the topic of chemical recycling, I recommend further reading here.
In the technological considerations regarding a suitable (innovative & multipliable) process, its general key figures (e.g. capacity, stationary or mobile operation) must therefore be assessed within the framework of a superordinate (economic) overall concept, which in particular also includes the respective operating, supply, logistics and sales conditions (e.g. required permits, environmental, safety and quality standards, security of feedstock supply, transport routes and costs, requirements for the output products) on site.
The different options of the utilisation / processing of plastic waste (including pyrolysis) have already been studied in many Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) in comparison to landfilling (without entering the environment): Landfilling of plastic waste comes off worst (cf. The Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP): „LCA of Management Options for Mixed Waste Plastics”). Only the incineration of plastic waste shows a worse greenhouse gas (GHG) balance than landfilling. Their conclusion: Material usage always has a clear advantage over the entire life cycle, if fossil fuels, especially crude oil and natural gas, can be substituted.
Our project-approach in Thailand
On the basis of known processes for single-type-plastics recycling (e.g. pyrolysis, which is familiar from the recycling of used tires), I have therefore recently worked with the international team of experts at TAKT Co. Ltd. (a Thai technology company, headquartered in Bangkok) and with the support of an international research cluster at one of the leading technical universities in Thailand, to initiate a project to develop an innovative thermo-chemical process: Through an appropriately designed process with synchronous process control and the use of appropriate reaction materials (catalysts), a variety of advantages are to be generated for heterogeneous plastic waste from households and industry, such as optimized energy consumption, reduced or harmless emissions, high product quality, and as a base for a wide range of advanced applications.
Currently, we are in the process of conducting an actual / target analysis and setting up a corresponding project plan and structure (goals, tasks, team, milestones, technical & financial resources, etc.). Based on this, the first (prototype or test) system on the University campus will then be converted in order to monitor and evaluate in detail the important Proof-of-Concept (PoC). Unfortunately, however, our project work is also significantly affected by the current COVID-19 situation on site.
Having this said: I am very happy that we, as a cooperation partner of the UNESCO Office Bangkok, have the opportunity to inform you from now on regularly in this blog series about our further steps and progress, as well as about the problems and challenges we are facing.
I am looking forward to a constructive dialogue with you. Let me know of your thoughts and ideas, that we have not thought of, yet.
Bye for now and stay healthy!
Cover photo: A clean beach on the southwest side of the island of Koh Chang. Do plastic-free beaches still exist? (© Dr. Benno Böer)