PHUKET: The island’s monsoon-season seas continue to plaster popular beaches with rubbish, while the growing urban environment produces an average of 729 tonnes of trash a day.
Though deemed unsightly by expats, locals and tourists, the mass of junk does provide a living for numerous individuals, families and communities.
“About one ton of trash is swept onto two of Phuket’s most popular beaches – Kata and Karon – every day,” said a Kata-Karon Municipality Environmental Department officer, who declined to be named.
“We send people out to collect the trash from the beach daily. Though we don’t record exactly how much is collected, it feels like much more trash is washing up this year and more people are talking about it. I think this problem will continue to grow.
“We really can’t control the beach trash because it comes from the sea; all we can do is pick it up and encourage people not to litter.”
However, some of what is being picked up has a great deal of value to those in the business of scavenging for recyclables.
The profits from reusable items and recyclables on the island swings big business money of hundreds of thousands of baht a month. Even entire communities, such as Plai Laem Saphan Hin and Klong Koh Pee, continue to support their families by picking through trash.
Garbage collectors working in the Phuket City Municipality area, such as 54-year-old Paitoon Jeraton, separate recyclables and electronics from the rest of the rubbish during their routes. Five trucks service the area two times a day, collecting about 144 tonnes of rubbish. From that, the municipality workers are able to glean about 4,000 baht each.
“We go to houses, restaurants, markets, hospitals and hotels to collect rubbish,” said Mr Paitoon, who has been working as a garbage collector for about 28 years. “Basically, we collect tin cans, plastic bottles, pieces of plastic, metal, cables and cardboard.”
With years of experience, garbage collectors know how to dismantle electronics, separating what can be re-sold and what is hazardous to dump. Hazardous waste is properly disposed of at the incinerator, Mr Paitoon confirmed.
The items saved from rubbish bins are sold to small recyclable collectors who are able to bundle the sorted items and re-sell them to production factories in the region. However, one business on the island has gone beyond just being a middle man in the world of recyclables.
“My father always said that trash is the gold that you can find everywhere,” said Kanin Raksaraj, owner of the private garbage-collecting company Thanasup Recycle Phuket.
The company was founded about a decade ago during the construction of the Tesco Lotus in Samkong.
“They hired my father to transfer all of the debris from the construction site to the landfill, which is when it occurred to my father to also start transferring rubbish,” Mr Kanin said.
After having won the business of a number of hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and government offices, Thanasup Recycle Phuket was able to start turning large piles of trash into piles of cash.
“We collect about five tonnes of trash per day and have about eight to 10 workers sorting and cleaning it so that it can be sold to a recycling plant in Songkhla,” Mr Kanin said.
His employees are paid between 10,000 and 12,000 baht per month.
“After washing and separating the plastics based on quality, they are pressed into a cube so that they can be transferred to the factory in Sadao, where they melt the plastic so that it can be used again,” Mr Kanin said. “Plastic that is too dirty to be cleaned up will be pressed into a different cube and sent to a factory in Bangkok.”
Glass, however, is separated by color, ground into small pieces and then sold to a factory in Thalang for about one to two baht per kilogram.
“There are some items that people don’t think about having any value at all, such as old pastries and bread, that we are able to re-sell to farms to use for fish or duck food,” Mr Kanin said.
However, high quality plastics, worth about 47 baht per kilogram, and tin cans, which fetch about 40 baht per kilogram, are the real bread winners for the company.
“We are the only company that I am aware of that provides private rubbish pickup services that combine sorting recyclables to such a great profit,” Mr Kanin explained. “We make hundreds of thousands of baht per month.”
What cannot be sold is put back into the dump trucks to be taken to the Phuket incinerator at a cost of 530 baht per tonne. Hazardous waste costs 22 baht per kilogram and infectious waste costs 15 baht per kilogram, confirmed Prachoom Suriya, chief of the Environmental Division of the Phuket City Municipality.
Unfortunately, not all plastics fetch so much money. The Paktai Plastic Factory in Songkhla, not the one that Mr Kanin sells his recyclables to, offers 11 to 25 baht per kilogram for lower-quality plastics.
“We buy plastic bottles of various grades,” said a Paktai Plastic Factory representative, who declined to be named. “We then melt the plastic and create plastic beads.”
The beads are sold in 25-kilogram bags at a profit of about 1.04 baht to 1.52 baht per kilogram.
Though numerous families rely on the trash produced by the island daily, the massive increase continues to be a cause of concern for government officials.
In May this year, it was re-confirmed that the two operational incinerators at the Saphan Hin landfill – a third one has been offline since 2012 – have a total burning capacity of 700 tonnes a day, falling short of the amount of rubbish produced on the island.
And though a 530-million-baht budget to fix the original, defunct incinerator has already been approved, the project will not be completed until April 2017.
“The bottom line is that people need to work on creating less trash in their daily lives. No matter what, some trash will be created. But we have to make sure we are dealing with it properly and not just dumping it into the ocean,” said Meechai Theerapongpaisan, acting chief of the Environment Division of the Phuket City Municipality.
“As the island continues to expand and develop, we will do our best to manage the massive amounts of waste. However, people must join our efforts, preserve the beauty of our island and set an example for the millions of tourists who visit our province every year.”
BOTTOM OF THE TRASH PILE
As the island’s trash goes through the hands of garbage collectors, small-scale recycling operators or even a company such as Thanasup Recycle Phuket, it also continues to help feed many more mouths.
Members of the Plai Laem Saphan Hin community, comprising about 100 households, and Klong Koh Pee community, comprising 171 households, live abreast of Phuket’s swelling landfill – deriving their livelihood from what can be found among the heaps of unburned trash.
“I make about 300 to 500 baht a day. Right now, times are tough, as there is a lot less trash to collect during low season and the municipality officers manage to burn most of the fresh trash before we have a chance to go through it,” said 43-year-old trash picker Suchart Ayuyeun. Mr Suchart has spent the last 30 years of his life in the small community of shacks at the landfill site.
“Many members of the community have the same job as I do. We collect plastic bottles, garbage bags, electric cables and pieces of metal.
“There are lucky days too, when I find some money or accessories, maybe even a ring or watch that I could sell for ten thousand baht.
“Those are rare days though,” he said with a laugh.
— Nattha Thepbamrung