"Did the planet betray us, or did we betray the planet?” This question was rhetorically raised in former US vice-president Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. For many, any discussion revolving around the environment is often wearying—after all, the world seems too big and the problem too huge to handle all at once. Most of us know about global warming and its impacts, but being in tune with the environment may not be something completely ingrained into our conscience, let alone our lifestyle. We question our own actions. Do driving hybrid cars, planting more trees, recycling or upcycling make that much of a difference? Eco warriors Abigail Smith, Saroengrong Wong-savun, Lalana Srikram and Pipat Apiruktanakorn prove that you don’t have to be a scientist to change the world.
“They say that if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and America,” says Abigail Smith, chief operations officer at ThaiHarvestSOS. In Thailand, where food is inexpensive, often times it is almost instinctive for people to be wasteful. “When we throw away a carrot, we think we’re only throwing away five baht. But that’s not all we’re discarding. We’re throwing away the water, the soil, the transportation—everything that went into that carrot. And then when we put it in a landfill, people forget that it is letting off some of the worst greenhouse gases as it breaks down.”
The team at ThaiHarvestSOS rescue these excess foods, both fresh ingredients and cooked meals that would otherwise have been disposed of, and distributes them to the needy, from orphanages to refugee centres. They are also on a mission to eliminate hunger. “Thailand is not that high on the Global Hunger Index—we are about 8.4 per cent here. But until that number is zero, there are definitely people who are hungry,” Smith says. “If we can take something that was going to be thrown away and give it to the hungry for free, we’re going to offset some really high food costs, which allows them to buy other things that they also need.”
ThaiHarvest-SOS’s largest supporters in terms of partnership include agencies such as UN Environment, the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment’s Pollution Control Department, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, Pacific Asia Travel Association and Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau. Its largest corporate sponsor to date is hypermarket chain Tesco Lotus, which provides almost 500 kilos of edible food per day. In the hotel world, Minor Group’s Anantara Riverside Bangkok and Avani Riverside Bangkok were their first donors, now followed by Millennium Hilton Bangkok and Chatrium Hotel Riverside.
Through the foundation’s community fridge project, it has installed refrigerators at alliance venues, which the team has access to. “The Commons was the pioneer and we just had our second one installed at River City,” says Smith. Restaurants that are also donating include El Mercado, Roast, Holey Artisan Bakery, Gallery Pizza and Quince. “We also get support from local celebrity chefs that come in to do some cooking with us and help illustrate our mission,” she shares.
It was not all plain sailing for ThaiHarvest-SOS, having been rejected by businesses many times. “Their reasons? They tell us that they don’t have any food waste, that they’re perfect and reuse everything,” Smith says. But that’s certainly not the case. “At some of those places, we have seen compost bins with 100 kilos of edible fruit in them. If we have 50 restaurants giving us 10 kilos a day, at the end of the month that is 300 kilos, which is the equivalent of approximately 900 meals,” she adds. “Then there are those who say that Thailand’s food safety standards won’t let them give away their leftovers. But that has actually never been an issue.”
What policies could be adopted to help strengthen the foundation’s mission? “There are countries with Good Samaritan laws that protect food donors (against possible blow-back from contaminated food)—this would help. Carbon tax credits for reducing food waste would also make a difference,” Smith suggests. And then there’s being moderate, shaking off social stigmas such as ordering more than necessary at restaurants just because it makes us look better. “Also, reduce at the source. All of our donors are offered weight logs so that they know what they are giving us. And from that, we hope that they question why they’re donating so much a week. Is there something wrong with their supply chain?” With a team of just eight members to date, big partnerships coming up and plans for expansion, we ask her.
“I grew up in Chiang Mai in a house located in the mountains, where I witnessed first-hand the gradual changes of the surrounding vicinity. I saw how the forests were being destroyed or encroached upon, how clean water sources became more scarce. Within just 10 to 20 years, the transformation was sadly conspicuous,” shares Generation T lister Saroengrong Wong-savun. Believing that it is everybody’s responsibility to act upon these changes, as an independent architect and designer he felt that he could play his part by designing products that are eco-friendly both in design and production.
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Under Releaf design studio, Saroengrong and his team were inspired when they utilised used bicycle tyre inner tubes to create bindings for notebooks. “That was the very first time we played around with the material, which we felt could definitely be more than just book binding." That was the start of Rubber Killer. With the motto “Your trash, our treasure,” environmentally conscious fashion accessory brand Rubber Killer first focused on upcycling abandoned materials. “Over the past seven years we have used around 30,000 strands of inner tubes. So instead of just ending up as very large amounts of trash that takes years to decompose, they are transformed into new forms with new functions,” Saroengrong says.
That said, Rubber Killer was restricted in terms of design creativity and came to the conclusion that mixing recycled rubber with premium materials offered more room for innovation. “We are trying to change the consumer’s perspective that eco-friendly products have to look DIY,” he shares. Thinking that Thai consumers have expanded beyond using eco-friendly products just to channel their inner environmentalist, Saroengrong wants Rubber Killer products to truly be a part of our everyday lifestyles. “Are they practical? Are they cool to carry around? These are now what we focus on.”
While its factory, office and flagship store are in Chiang Mai, Rubber Killer’s products, ranging from tote bags to sneakers, are available online as well as in Bangkok at Greyhound’s Central Ladprao and Siam Paragon branches and soon at The Street Ratchada. Abroad, Rubber Killer is stocked in Japan, Taiwan, China, Germany and Sweden. “Our customer ratio is at 60 per cent international and 40 per cent local. My greatest aspiration for the brand is to perhaps generate a better international presence in the future,” he says.
For the creative talent, environmental problems can be easily dealt with on an individual level because global warming is something very near to us. “We are already witnessing climate change events such as drastic flooding and extremely hot summers—it is no longer about what will happen in the next 50 years, it is happening now. But we can initiate simple changes ourselves. Don’t over-think it. When you go to the convenience store, bring a tote bag or just carry the items in your hands if they’re not too much. Small actions can lead to huge differences. But don’t force it, make it a part of your lifestyle.”
Silver screen stars and environmentalists Piphat Apiruktanakorn and his wife Siraphun Wattanajinda once made headlines with their modest, eco-friendly wedding. “It was talked about because most public figures would probably opt for a more extravagant event,” Piphat reminisces. Instead of decorating the venue with cut flowers, for instance, they decked the space with plotted plants that guests could take home. “I guess light matters like these make it easier to communicate big issues to the mass. It sets an example of things that could actually be implemented in real life,” says the Generation T lister.
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Also a product designer, Piphat admits that he didn’t exactly grow up attentive to environmental concerns. “I picked flowers, littered and walked across lawns just like most of us,” he says. But 10 years ago after watching An Inconvenient Truth, he started to become more curious about the impact of global warming. “So I sought answers. My findings later inspired my master’s degree thesis looking at consumer attitudes to eco-friendly furniture,” he says. Pipat later began doing design consultancy for the National Science and Technology Development Agency, wherein he was one of the designers who oversaw factories with debris, transforming those waste materials into valuable items.
Then came the opening of Ecoshop Common at Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, a concept store that features a myriad of environmentally friendly and upcycled products, from organic tea to jewellery and furniture. “It attracted quite a lot of interest and inspired us to establish KidKid design and consultancy firm, which also focuses on eco-friendly work,” Piphat says. One of the company’s recent projects was a joint initiative with the government and Thammasat University. “Sanam Luang went through a serious littering and food waste problem at the end of last year as thousands of Thais went to pay their respects to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. We put together a video as a part of the no littering campaign. I was told that there was an actual decrease in amount of litter after it was aired.”
We asked Piphat what he thinks are the main sources of Thailand’s environmental issues. “People. We are at a very early stage of educating ourselves. We lack urgency because there is still an abundance of natural resources and lives remain unaffected—the tap still provides water, the lights still turn on,” he says. Then there is the priority of livelihood. “People have to fend for their families first, so often times they turn a blind eye to the issues. It is not uncommon that those who take an interest in the environment come from wealthy backgrounds, have stable careers and no serious obligations.”
He believes that we don’t have to be completely selfless to care about the environment. “Start by being selfish,” he says. “The first person who benefits from eating organic food is you, then follows the environment—the soil will not be polluted and farmers will continue to have healthy land to grow their produce for generations.” Pipat also points out that environmental policies today are mostly centralised on the bigger government agencies and corporates, but there is not much geared towards the general public. “I would like people to be as concerned about the environment as they are about eating food. Can we give more prominence to labelling things that are eco-friendly, for instance?” On that note, he hopes that KidKid will become a model for other local , enlightened businesses that aspire to become socially and environmentally conscious.
Generation T lister Lalana Srikram was born into a Thai farming family and experienced the struggles that Thai farmers face. The common problems as she perceives them include a lack of planning, market instability and the cycle of debt. “Most farmers don’t plan their crops based on what is actually needed in the market,” she says. They habitually grow what they feel will sell well, or what generated a good price the year before. This often results in an oversupply and great downward fluctuations in the market price. “Many farmers still practise conventional farming methods, in which relying on chemical fertilisers and pesticides is costly.”
Subsequent to successfully building up a market in Bangkok, the changemaker and her husband Bryan Hugill headed back home to Sisaket in 2016 to start extensive work under Raitong Organics Farm, which champions local farming as a more progressive business. “What we’re trying to do is to promote organic farming while extending it to creative and sustainable farming as a whole. We strive to follow in the footsteps of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej by reducing the risk of farming. We do this by introducing alternative crops to grow together with rice and after harvesting periods. This is so that farmers can utilise their land more efficiently.”
But getting local farmers to convert to organic farming was a huge challenge. “We had to win over the strong attitudes and mindsets of those who have been practising conventional farming ever since the green revolution. Although the differences are comparable, many still refuse to change,” she says. After 10 years of dedicated advocacy in their community, she and her husband are proud to say that they have converted 64 farmers, or over 600 rais of rice field, into organic farming. “People say it is always most difficult to achieve something in your own hometown. We have set up the Creative Farming Network in Sisaket to provide training and education on organic farming practices that will help to reduce costs but improve yields and quality.”
Raitong Organics Farm’s philosophies and practices stem from an eco-friendly and a sustainable development stance. “Everything is food for something else, therefore we try to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We also believe in teaching people to fish and cultivate so that they can eat for a lifetime,” the eco warrior says. “Food defines us, so we are committed to farming high quality produce for the consumers. This is why we focus our training on building good soil and maintaining natural biodiversity, because we believe they are the heart of organic farming.”
The couple have just completed the International Design Development Summit, in which around 55 participants from across the globe visited Raitong Organics Farm and its community for two weeks to work on solving challenges in organic agriculture, health, education and entrepreneurship. Their next goal is to set up their farm as a learning centre for sharing knowledge on organic and sustainable concepts with both farmers and the public. “We recently welcomed a group of kindergarten students from a local school. It was so much fun on the farm and we hope to have more visitors in the future.”