Just how difficult is it to have a plastic-free holiday in the Thai capital? Armed with a reusable bottle and metal straw, Denise Li takes a three-day city break to find out
Photos by Leigh Griffiths
Gold-spired temples sparkling on the horizon. Stacks of tropical fruit scenting a narrow alley. Cherry-red Coca-Cola bottles bobbing down a canal… Oftentimes, the spell of Bangkok’s colourful wonders is interrupted by evidence of the city’s plastic consumption. A 2017 government survey estimated that each Thai uses an average of eight plastic bags per day. That works out to over 198 billion a year.
Then add the 20 million or so foreign arrivals to Bangkok, the world’s most-visited city. Touring the sights in the steamy climate is thirsty work, and most visitors trust a branded bottle over the city’s plumbing. When they want a snack or fruit juice, they buy from the ubiquitous convenience stores and street stalls, which are notorious for freely distributing plastic bags and straws with every purchase. While the massive number of visitors is good for the Thai economy, their purchases place a huge burden on the country’s already stretched waste management system.
This is one of the reasons that grassroots movements are trying to make Bangkok more eco-friendly. It’s also their efforts that have inspired me to attempt to be a zero-waste tourist in a city I love.
“No plastic at all? In Bangkok?” a co-worker said incredulously when I told him about my mission to avoid all single-use plastic on my upcoming weekend jaunt. He wasn’t the first to express such scepticism about my travel challenge – friends who have lived there were convinced that I was going to fail on the first day.
The cynicism is understandable. It’s true that Bangkok is plastic-crazy. It’s also true that I’m not a tree-hugger – food delivery is one of my weekly indulgences, and I’m not all that diligent about sorting my trash. But I have a vested interest in making sure the city that’s so close to my heart continues to thrive for decades to come. And by challenging myself to avoid all plastic, learn about Bangkok’s waste woes and meet with the people working to solve them, I hope to improve the city and myself. So, armed with a 1.4l reusable water bottle, metal straw and 750ml mason jar to track how much waste I generate, I arrive for a three-day educational holiday in Bangkok.
My first stop is a morning meet-up with Dominic Puwasawat Chakrabongse, a full-time environmentalist and founder of the Bangkok chapter of Precious Plastic. My plan is to take public transportation and dutifully ride the elevated BTS train from my hotel to the Saphan Taksin station, then board a river bus to get to Chakrabongse Villas on the banks of the Chao Phraya river in the Tha Thien area, close to major attractions like the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. That’s the grounds of Dominic’s family home – part of which has been turned into a boutique hotel.
The plan is only partially a success. After my train ride, I leap aboard a river bus, joining the morning rush, but miss my stop as I’m too distracted taking a video of the spectacle-filled scenes along the banks. I hop off at the next stop and resign myself to taking a motorcycle taxi to Chakrabongse Villas as I’m already late. I assure myself that a scooter is a lesser sin than a car idling in Bangkok’s notorious traffic.
Dominic is at his workshop, wearing a pair of bermudas and a Precious Plastic T-shirt. He’s sitting in front of a small machine, not much bigger than a sewing machine, spinning a mould to carefully make a bowl from melted plastic. He knows all about my mission and is eager to help me learn more.
“Thailand is among the top five or six generators of plastic waste in the world,” the 29-year-old says, his face scrunched up in concentration as he puts the finishing touches on the bowl. “The waste management system hasn’t quite caught up with how to deal with it. Frankly, it’s a disaster.”
Precious Plastic collects bottle caps from various drop-off points around the city, then turns them into products like bowls and plant pots using custom-made machines, whose blueprints are available on an open-source platform online. Dominic explains that the organisation’s larger goal is to get more communities involved in collecting plastic waste and turning it into products that generate income.
“Look at trash around the city and you’ll hardly see aluminium cans and glass bottles, because there is economic value attached to them,” he points out. “What we’re trying to do is show people that plastic can be a commodity, too. We work with bottle caps because they are made from high-quality plastic, and the many colours lend themselves to making our products.”
I try my hand at making my own bowl. It’s oddly therapeutic to see the melted plastic come out of the machine like brightly coloured toothpaste while using the spinning mould to create layers. I’m amazed that it only takes 10 minutes to create something new and useful from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
For lunch, we head across town to Better Moon x Refill Station, a café and shop in the On Nut area. While we could have taken a boat and the BTS, convenience wins out over ecology, as it so often does in this sprawled-out city. The taxi ride is a failure, but I’m happy to have made it half way through the day without yet creating any plastic waste – I’m eager to prove the cynics wrong.
Besides, this is no ordinary café. Nestled on a small side street crowded with street food carts, the bright, airy restaurant doubles as a refill shop where people can bring their own bottles to stock up on earth-friendly household essentials. This is also one of Precious Plastic’s collection points, and a few minutes after we order our food, three locals pop by to drop off two big bags of bottle caps. Dominic chats with them and tells me that the caps were collected from a factory they run. He’s clearly pleased that Precious Plastic’s message is getting out.
After we’ve filled up on spicy pork, Dominic hands me over to 16-year-old Chuengnutigool Wasutha and 17-year-old Thiti Usanakul, my two tour guides for the rest of the afternoon. They are students at Bangkok Christian International School and members of Grin Green International, a student-led social enterprise with an interest in environmental issues. As we walk through On Nut’s food stalls, they bemoan how takeaway is packaged in multiple plastic bags and how difficult it is to get Bangkok residents to sort their trash. I’m quickly impressed by how eager the young men are to create a greener future.
We head to the monthly Jai Talad farmers’ market at Argoon Public Park, a 10-minute stroll from the Thong Lo BTS station. It’s early afternoon, and the market is in full swing with around 20 booths selling everything from vegetables grown in nearby Nakhon Nayok province to beauty products made with organic essential oils. There are local snacks wrapped in banana leaves, and organic juice is sold in reusable glass bottles.
I strike up a conversation with one of the vendors, 61-year-old Phornphan Vaewsingngarm, a self-proclaimed farming expert from Suphan Buri, northwest of the capital. She’s selling all manner of non-GMO seeds – basil, sunflower, radish – and is passionate about making Thailand more mindful about the environment. “I hold regular workshops for people who are interested in starting their own urban farms from their condos,” the diminutive but effusive entrepreneur says. “These days, people are more interested in growing their own food, and I get a healthy mix of Thais and expats attending my workshops.”
When food is grown and sourced locally, there’s less need for plastic packaging during transport. The epitome of the local-food ethos can be found at fine-dining restaurant Haoma. Opened in November 2017 on a quiet backstreet near the Phrom Phong area of Sukhumvit, the restaurant is helmed by 29-year-old chef Deepanker Khosla. DK – as he prefers to be known – is one of the most exciting chefs to watch in the Bangkok fine-dining scene, not least because of the ultra-sustainable approach he takes to preparing his brand of “neo-Indian” cuisine.
DK comes over to introduce every dish throughout my 11-course dinner, and each seems to have a backstory more intriguing than the last. A dish called “Me in a bowl” consists of charbroiled chicken topped with curry sorbet and served with a crumpet-style naan. It’s his deconstructed take on comfort-food favourite chicken tikka masala, which he says is the first dish he eats when he returns home to Mumbai each year. “Haoma in a bite” features sashimi of tilapia that is raised by the restaurant and served with vegetables grown on-site.
After the meal, DK walks me through his farm behind the restaurant, where rainwater is used to rear fish and water plants. The fish subsist on surplus food from the kitchen, and their waste is turned into fertiliser for the plants. He tells me that in 2018, the restaurant threw out just 400l of waste water – the equivalent of a single bathtub.
The chef plucks an Indian borage mint leaf from a small shrub and asks me to take a whiff before eating it. “Notice how much flavour you get from a single leaf when you pluck it straight from the plant,” he says. “Why do we need to eat hamachi from Tokyo or beef from Kobe? What we’re trying to do is show people that it’s entirely possible for a fine-dining restaurant to use produce that’s 100% available locally.”
Having seen how much waste can be saved by consuming local products, I head confidently to Tep Bar for after-dinner cocktails. Renowned for using Thai ingredients, the speakeasy is located in an old shophouse on the fringe of Chinatown. It’s packed to the gills even at 8pm, with punters coming to imbibe concoctions made from aromatic ya dong, a type of Thai liquor distilled from rice then infused with herbs for a month. Sipping to the sounds of Isaan country music, the experience is a brilliant showcase of not just local ingredients but Thai culture, too. The best part? Tep only uses paper or metal straws with their drinks. Despite fancy eating and drinking all over town, I am proving the naysayers wrong – I’ve completed a day in Bangkok without plastic.
Promising beginnings notwithstanding, there’s still much to be done to make plastic-free visits appealing to most tourists. The government has set targets to end the use of microbeads, cap seals and oxo-degradable plastics by the end of this year, and to eliminate plastic bags, foam boxes, sin- gle-use plastic cups and plastic straws by 2022. And some of the major retail companies have started charging for bags. But for the time being, single-use plastic remains all too ubiquitous.
While some cafés have made the switch to paper or metal straws, drinks are still by and large served in disposable cups, even when customers are dining in. At one café I visit, I see glass bottles of cold brew coffee stored in a refrigerator behind the counter, but to my chagrin, my caffeine fix is served up in a disposable cup – this ends up being the only piece of plastic I use on this trip.
The culture of convenience might not change overnight, but an increasing number of the city’s hotels are making it easier for guests to make sustainable choices. The luxurious 137 Pillars Suites & Residences, just a hop and skip away from Haoma, uses refillable dispensers for shampoo, body wash and body lotion, provides toilet amenities like shower caps and toothbrushes made with corn starch and has eliminated plastic straws and stirrers from its dining outlets. The hotel is now in the process of replacing plastic water bottles with glass bottles in all its suites.
Sustainability initiatives aren’t confined to five-star digs. In a quiet corner of the hip Ari neighbourhood, The Yard Hostel has been a beacon of sustainability since it welcomed its first guest in February 2015. Upon check-in, guests are presented with a reusable bottle to use throughout their stay, and the property is zealous about recycling. “From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to go plastic-free and have lots of trees on the premises,” says 40-year-old co-owner Atiporn Sangcharoen. She estimates that hostel saves about 2,000 plastic bottles from being sent to the landfill every month.
Atiporn’s business partner Amonrat Amornsirichairat explains that an eco-friendly set-up isn’t only a moral imperative – it also makes financial sense. She gestures to a tap at the bar, which guests can use to refill their water bottles. “Installing this water filtration system was a one-time investment, and it can be used for years to come,” she says. “Now, we’re trying to educate other businesses that switching to eco-friendly practices can save them money.”
And by the end of my zero-waste week-end, I’m no poorer in terms of cash or experience than I would have been otherwise. So much for the idea that being eco-conscious means making major sacrifices. I’m pleased I have just that one plastic cup (and its attendant paper straw) stuffed into my mason jar, despite having enjoyed many of the city’s sights and tastes.
In fact, this short visit has made me completely rethink the way I travel. Previously I wouldn’t have given a second thought to buying bottled water from a convenience store; but over three days, I have been astounded at just how feasible it actually is to dodge single-use plastic as long as I fill my water bottle at the start of the day, drink my fill of water at mealtimes and avoid takeaway street food. (Resisting the temptation of freshly opened pine- apple at the fruit stalls is a serious challenge.) Having met some of the activists and innovators working towards change, I’m optimistic that Bangkok can gradually make waste-free tourism easier.
And as more of the city’s citizens join the cause, and as its businesses become greener, and its waterways refill with glittering silver fish, the City of Angels has the potential to become even more heavenly.
Fly to Bangkok with Hong Kong Airlines and experience a zero-waste trip! Click here
Ecotopia at Siam Discovery
The fourth floor of this sprawling mall sells over 100 brands of eco-friendly products, from stylish organic clothes and jewellery, to green gadgets and recycled stationery. Fresh produce is also available for anyone craving a snack.
Better Moon x Refill Station
Bring your own containers to buy household essentials like body wash, then fuel up at the café with a mix of Thai and international food. This cosy space is one of Precious Plastic’s collection points, so drop off your bottle caps, too.
This casual café in Thong Lo specialises in modern vegan dishes. A must-try is the broccoli quinoa burger, topped with mango-tomato salsa served on a cranberry charcoal bun.
Tucked away in the Phrom Phong area, Haoma serves up “neo-indian” cuisine in an intimate setting. The three prix-fixe menus feature pesticide- and hormone-free produce grown in Thailand.
Where to stay
The Yard Hostel
“Yard” means “relatives” in Thai, and this cheap and cheerful option in trendy Ari lives up to its name, thanks to its warm service and a convivial vibe. Rooms are housed in shipping containers and guests are given a reusable bottle for water refills.
137 Pillars Suites and Residences
This all-suite luxury boutique hotel along Sukhumvit Soi 39 has eliminated plastic straws from its F&B outlets, provides amenities made with cornstarch and is equipped with smart tech like intelligent air-cons that turn off when doors are open. 137pillarsbangkok.com