The Sustainability Equation

When I first returned to Asia from England some 25 years ago, Bangkok rivers and canals were polluted, the air was un-breathable, garbage disposal unregulated, but one thing in the midst of all this chaos, was how highly organised it all was!

Households would segregate garbage, setting aside, paper/newspapers, glass bottles, plastic stuff before disposing of general garbage, a “saleng”, some sort of a cart on a motorcycle would come door to door daily to buy plastic, paper and glass by weight.

He then sells them to recycling shops that would go through more segregation, compaction, and delivery to factory for recycling.

The entire affair was highly efficient, and everyone gained.

On the other hand, hotels, apartments, and houses along Bangkok main river were disposing their wastewater in the river, the carbon dioxide from cars exhausts was choking the city and canals smelled so bad it was hard to walk by.

These contrasting attitudes towards the environment puzzled me. Why one care so much about garbage segregation but not about the main river where all water supply to Bangkok was taken from?

Is it because people were caring about garbage segregation and recycling as it leads to a monetary gain? May be this is the simplistic answer, but I have another theory;

I think people understood the process of garbage segregation and recycling. It was a simple transaction and they saw how it can benefit the environment and benefit them as well.

Today, however, sustainability is the top agenda of every organization on earth, and the ever-growing number of codes and regulations regarding environmental protection is becoming overly complicated.

In the past people worked with an absolute care for their environment, they used what they needed, developed housing forms that were adequate to their lifestyle and their climate. So why is it that with all the advanced technologies we have today, we fail at the most basic tasks in dealing with environmental protection?

Nowadays people have sophisticated spaces and lifestyles, they need a lot of gadgets and more and more comfort. Is it wrong?  No, but what’s wrong is the fact that we do not seem to grab the importance of how everyone’s action has some form of impact on the planet.

Somehow, somewhere amid all these technological advancements we seem to have lost our understanding of how to live in harmony with our surroundings.

I am not sure there is a simple answer to all this, but I believe the initial solution rests at two levels;

First, I believe it is essential to use technologies to help deal with complicated waste and industrial waste to improve the way we protect the planet;

But most importantly however, we need to work at the cell level, the household; if 7 billion people contribute each to save water, re-use, recycle, save energy and do not pollute, we won’t need to invest billions in reversing and repairing the damages.

Could the solution partly be in the following?

  • Start the process by educating people at early age, we need two types of classrooms one indoor and one outdoor, we need to live the ecological cycle to understand it.
  • Show in simple ways how each can benefit from this process.
  • Break down the complicated equations we created about caring for the environment into smaller problems that every individual understands and can process and implement.
  • Develop simple technologies that are affordable and accessible.
  • Make household products truly recyclable.
  • Reward those who are truly committed to reduce, re-use and recycle process
  • Create incentives schemes

In conclusion and going back to my home country, Thailand needs to seriously look at other parts of the world where a number of schemes have been tried and are showing positive results;

  • A Deposit Return Scheme


  • State Recycling Tax Incentives

Many governments reward household for good recycling practices by introducing tax rebates.

  • Other Examples of successful waste disposal schemes:

Japan: optimizing segregation

“Thoroughness is the key to the success of Japan’s recycling system. Neighbors are responsible for sorting, treating and segregating their household waste, and then complying with the strict and scheduled collection calendar.

For example, prior to disposing of them, plastic containers must be washed, all labels removed, cartons folded to minimize space, then, all waste must be properly labeled with the household data, to ensure that individuals assume full responsibility and comply with all rules. To further instill these recycling habits among the population that there are no garbage cans on city streets, because each individual is responsible for processing their waste at home.

A prime example of the advantages of thorough waste segregation is the town of Kamikatsu, a mountain village that, due to its isolation, separates its waste into up to 34 categories, ensure that all materials that can be reused are recycled and optimize the management of non-recyclable waste. The town has set out to become a zero waste town in 2020.”

Switzerland: waste reduction

“One of the countries that have best understood the importance of the circular economy is Switzerland. The Alpine country is an example of how citizen awareness can be increased through training and national policies. In this case, efforts have focused on reducing non-recyclable waste with measures such as the single bag. To get rid of this type of waste, you must buy “official” garbage bags with a higher price, while recycling is free.

This has caused the volume of non-recyclable waste generated to decline by about 90 kilos per person per year compared to 20 years ago. Thanks to measures like this, about 93% of glass bottles or 91% of aluminum cans are currently recycled. In addition, the country has become a pioneer in the recycling of organic waste, which is used to make compost.”

Wales: active policies and education

In just 20 years, the British country household recycling rate has increased from 5% to 64%, one of the highest in Europe and expects to keep improving to become one of the world’s leading nations in this field.

All this has been achieved thanks to a set of ambitious plans and measures involve everyone, from citizens and businesses to public administrations. The country’s success builds on its ongoing three-pronged strategy, which includes the development a streamlined recycling structure to provide citizens with easy access to a simple and efficient recycling system, a comprehensive awareness-raising campaign focusing on the ‘3Rs’ approach as a waste management priority and a policy agenda envisaging both incentive and taxation measures, key to expediting public adopting. In the coming years, Wales is aiming to invest in systems capable of recycling items that, until now, were seen as non-recyclable waste, such as mattresses or diapers.


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