Environmentalists in Thailand have waged a long, uphill battle against plastic bags, trying to convince skeptical consumers to give up a convenience that many regard as a symbol of modern life.
Now their campaign is finally gaining momentum, as businesses find profit in selling reusable, fabric shopping bags that have become a hot new trend embraced by celebrities and major retailers.
AdvertisementFrom China to Britain to South Africa, activists and authorities have taken steps to discourage or even ban single-use plastic bags which activists say choke landfills, cause pollution and damage wildlife.
Just a generation ago, Thais carried baskets or fabric bags to markets to do their shopping, and bought food wrapped in banana leaves, said Anake Nawigamune, an expert on traditional Thai culture at the Cultural Affairs Association.
"Plastic bags started replacing those containers in the 1970s. Later plastic bags became common all over Thailand," said Anake.
"Everyone loves convenience. That also applies to Thai society, which has shifted to plastic bags," he said.
But public awareness of climate change is growing in Thailand. Bangkok has hosted major UN climate meetings this year and last year, while the city has joined in international campaigns such as Earth Hour, which encouraged people to turn off their lights to save energy.
Major shopping malls and other businesses are eager to show off their green credentials, and cloth bags have become one of the most popular ways to do so.
Krittachamai Ratanaphupha, 40-year-old owner of a company called Goodearth, said orders for her fabric shopping bags have her scrambling to meet demand.
"Our hands are now so full with local orders that we do not have time to think of exporting," she said.
Companies are ordering as many as 500,000 bags at a time, and she's selling them for up to 50 baht (1.58 dollars) each, she said.
The most popular models carry slogans that effectively proclaim the carrier's green credentials, such as "Stop global warming" or "Reduce and reuse."
Demand is driving up the cost of the fabric used to make the bags, which jumped from 18 to 26 baht per yard within a week in March, she said.
Another maker of fabric bags, Hatairat Promsakanasakonnakorn, concurred, saying orders for her products were also soaring, with many companies distributing the bags as promotional items rather than T-shirts or other products.
"The bags are very trendy," she said. "And a fabric bag is cheaper than a T-shirt" by about 25 percent.
Both Hatairat and Krittachamai worry that the move toward cloth bags could be just a trend unless the government actively discourages the use of plastic.
"Green trends like this fabric bag campaign are hardly sustainable if the government does not legally enforce them," Krittachamai said.
Vorragorn Taenumchai, an environmentalist at the environment ministry, said he feared the cloth bag trend could be just that -- a passing fad that will not instill long-term change in Thai consumers' behaviour.
"Retailers can do better by providing easily degradable plastic bags or foam containers," Vorragorn said.
He also encouraged environmental campaigners to focus their efforts not just on shoppers but on the education of young children to ensure change takes hold.
"Concern for the environment is about changing habits and taking responsibility. That won't change in just a few days or weeks because of trendy campaigns," Vorragorn said.
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