In our modern-day consumer-oriented society, packaging seems to become ever more important. It has become a very important industry in its own right. Now I’ve got nothing against colourful boxes, wrappers or even bags, but lately the sheer amount of disposable packaging material has got me worried. Not only is it a waste of precious resources, it is only a major contributing factor to the ever-increasing environmental pollution. In this article I’ll be the green guy and expose some of the problems Thailand and, truth be told, the rest of the world faces in this respect.
The column will go beyond environmental pollution though and also address other forms of pollution such as noise, visual and intellectual pollution.
People who often do the shopping in Thailand will have surely experienced this problem. Going shopping in Thailand means that you’ll come home with an incredible amount of plastic bags. I went to the supermarket the other day and spent the very modest sum of just under 200 baht (5 USD). The groceries and household supplies I bought were bagged in no less than six plastic bags. The problem was that he supermarket’s bagger – incidentally, a job that’s long been extinct in various Western countries - didn’t really go overboard because I had purchased that many items, but apparently because he had secret instructions forcing him to use as many bags as humanly possible whenever serving a customer.
I won’t go into detail and bore you to death as to what exactly I bought or for which items he used separate bags, but let it be clear that he could have used less than half the amount of bags without inconveniencing me one bit. Most if not all bags will of course end up as rubbish on a tip or – worst case scenario – will be dumped anywhere along the road and because plastic is non-biodegradable, pose a threat for fauna and flora forever after. What good is it to have great, idyllic beaches and beautiful national parks only to find them full of litter when you visit them? By the way, I remember a photo at the Sydney Aquarium with the heading “Most dangerous killer in the ocean”. At first I couldn’t identify the strange creature, but then I realised it was a plastic bag.
There are of course a lot of other materials that end up as rubbish such as polystyrene or Styrofoam (called ‘foam’ in Thailand) containers, disposable cutlery, straws, cans, bottles, etc. Some of these are recycled, usually not by consumers themselves, but by an army of refuse collectors and underprivileged people who try to scrounge a living by collecting and selling recyclable materials. Bottles, both plastic and glass ones, and cardboard are supposedly good earners for them. I sometimes wonder why most bottles sold in retail stores are disposable. Many drinks which come in disposable plastic bottles or cans (mainly soft drinks) and disposable glass bottles (mainly beer) could easily be sold in reusable bottles. I’m not an expert, but I assume that reusing bottles is cheaper and uses less energy than recycling (as reusing bottles only involves rinsing whereas recycling bottles involves crushing them and using the pieces to produce new bottles).
I’ll leave my plastic bag and bottle obsession for now and go on to visual pollution. By that I refer to all the ugliness around you when going somewhere. Bangkok is a big city that is not only polluted, it is downright ugly. You can find innumerable ugly buildings, run-down neighbourhoods, narrow and crumbling pavements next to hi-tech shopping malls full of ugly billboards.
There seems to be a lack of building regulations as people are building and expanding cities at a breakneck pace without clear regulations as to what they can and cannot do. I’m pretty sure there are lots of rules and regulations, but I suppose they are either inadequate or not being enforced. All of this results in a helter-skelter and seemingly unplanned growth, not to mention the often poor quality of construction work because builders are often forced to meet impossible deadlines or use substandard materials.
Real eyesores are the exposed, overhead electrical wires. Whereas in most developed countries these are put consistently underground, Thailand or rather the Thai government seems to think that this isn’t necessary. I know there are plans to put some of Bangkok’s electrical cables underground, but these plans come way too late. This should have been done years ago. By the way, in my opinion it’s not only ugly, it’s downright dangerous. I don’t think the tropical weather with its rainy season does the overhead cables any good. In fact, I think it’s a miracle there aren’t more accidents or power outages.
Loud, louder, the loudest. Bangkok can probably be best described with the superlative of the adjective loud. Traffic noise is probably unavoidable in most major city, but in Bangkok this is compounded with the blaring noise of shopping malls and advertising gimmicks. Most shops and advertising companies seem to think that the customers want to be exposed to deafening music when shopping.
Even restaurants aren’t immune to this sort of pollution. I was having lunch at Oishi Ramen the other day when the person in charge of changing the background music apparently thought that diners liked loud music. I thought I was in a music pub. An elderly Thai gentleman wasn’t pleased with this loud music, called a waiter and asked for the music to be turned down. The waiter didn’t really know what to do about this difficult problem (talk about problem-solving skills) and went to get the manager. The latter seemed well-trained and customer-friendly and immediately came up with the most logical solution. He offered to reseat the elderly couple a few seats further away from the speakers. When the customers remained adamant that this wouldn’t solve the problem and that they liked their table, he eventually instructed staff to turn down the music.
I have to admit I haven’t really heard of this phrase myself, but I’m referring to the kind of intellectual nonsense that has been flooding Thailand for quite some time now and which could be considered mind-numbing and potentially dangerous to people’s intellectual advancement. The three most popular and omnipresent activities in this category are probably reading comic books, watching soap opera and playing computer games.
Wherever you go, the odds are excellent that you’ll see someone reading a comic book. Although I never read them myself, I’ve got nothing against comic books per se. But when you see people of all ages, especially adults, reading Japanese manga as if their lives depended on it whenever they have the time or the opportunity, I think that’s all but a sign of intellectual maturity and socialising skills.
The most popular kind of TV programme in Thailand is soap opera. Every single night, especially during prime time, no matter which TV channel you try, there’s a very good chance that they’ll be broadcasting soap opera rubbish. Again, there’s probably nothing wrong with watching some of this soapy misery once in a while, but when viewers’ lives and social diaries start revolving around it, there could be something amiss in society.
Lots of Thais are computer literate, from the adults to the exceptionally young ones. Unfortunately, although most computer users are more than familiar with online chatting and extremely uneducational online games preferably played with the sound at full blast, lots can’t use the basic features of useful software. Addiction to chatting and games is a problem that without a doubt negatively influences children’s and teenagers’ grades. But then again, who cares about grades when you can’t fail?
Finally, are there any possible solutions to these modern problems? I suppose there are. I’m not going to discuss them here, but it probably involves changing our lifestyle and recognising that these are very serious issues. Solving them will take a lot of time and cost a lot of money, but let’s not forget that the future of the next generations is at stake here.
If you ask yourself what this article is doing on a teaching website, it’s because I’m convinced that we should start teaching our children a lot more about all kinds of pollution and instil in them more respect for the environment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a special course, why not have an English lesson once in a while debating the issue and asking students to come up with possible solutions. This will involve a great deal of communication and critical thinking, two important skills everyone should be good at. Let students brainstorm and debate possible solutions to pollution.
Although due to the antics of American paedophile and self-confessed child-killer John Karr, the international reputation and image of Thailand has taken a beating lately, Thailand is still usually considered a beautiful country. Taking into account all the damage done by the above-mentioned kinds of pollution, I’m afraid it could lose that image rapidly. Ugly buildings, ugly overhead electrical cables, littered beaches and national parks, overly loud shopping malls, constantly increasing air pollution and people incapable of carrying out any intellectual task but smiling could well contribute to tourists staying away from what once was considered paradise.