Eco Heroes, To Your Stations!
Striking A Chord
Three years ago environmental writer and climate activist Nanticha Ocharoenchai, or Lynn, caught the attention of the public when she organised the country’s first Climate Strike, a march by environmentally concerned people campaigning for urgent solutions to climate change. The activist organised the march as part of a global initiative launched by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg that took place simultaneously across 25 countries.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint when I became truly concerned about the environment and climate change,” says the 23-year-old Chulalongkorn graduate, “but it was during my university days that I decided I wanted to do something impactful. It was after I read an article on Greta Thunberg. It focussed on a more intimate side of her life’s journey and her personal challenges. I just felt like her highs and lows in life were so relatable. Her struggles to highlight climate issues too. Here I was in Bangkok feeling so frustrated about our environmental problems and the fact that seemingly little was being done to address them. So, following Thunberg’s example, in March 2019 I decided to act by starting a Facebook page to rally people and make some noise about environmental issues on the streets.”
Her first ‘call-to-arms’ for Climate Strike garnered a small group of around 20-30 people, most of whom were expats and international school students—“None of my friends showed up,” she laughs—but were soon attracting upwards of 250 participants. Then, realising the gatherings weren’t having the kind of impact she wanted to make, Nanticha instead began collaborating with former Miss Universe Thailand Maria Poonlertlarp of SOS Earth. “We met when she attended one of the marches and we naturally gravitated towards one another because of a shared environmental vision. It has been great being able to work on these projects through more creative outlets,” she says. “For instance, creating content for videos and short films that raise awareness of the environment by reaching out to the public using humour.”
A storyteller at heart, a career in environmental journalism appeals to Nanticha, perhaps as a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic. If she does go that route, one of her focusses will be the need to shift from fossil fuel-dependent policies to more efficient forms of renewable energy. She also hopes to highlight the need for more sustainable agricultural approaches. “Ultimately, I think it’s imperative that people understand the underlying linkages between the health of our environment, social issues and people’s welfare. I think this needs to be more present in the Thai education system. Once that understanding comes, real sustainable development can take place. People complain a lot but don’t do much about it. The cornerstone for big scale change is everyone doing their own small part first.”
See also: Truths And Myths Of Sustainability
Solving Culinary Conundrums
Widely known for his work helping disadvantaged Thai youths and refugee families, Sakson Rouypirom, founder of the non-profit SATI Foundation, understands the inter-connections between the environment and social conditions and tries to enlighten others on the key issues through food and dining via his plant-based Broccoli Revolution and socially conscious Na at Bangkok 1899 eateries.
Thais are food lovers and pandemic notwithstanding the food industry has boomed here in the past decade. But this growth too has created environmental issues such as food waste, the excessive consumption of energy and water in growing that food and, of course, the generation of large amounts of non-recyclable trash. When this waste is not managed and disposed of properly we are faced with tonnes of food in landfills, which creates a significant amount of methane, which itself is 20 times more harmful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
There has also been a rise in the country’s consumption of meat craze. Recent studies by the University of Oxford have shown that avoiding meat and dairy in one’s diet can reduce an individual’s personal carbon footprint by as much as 73 per cent. This is why a venue like Broccoli Revolution is very mindful of its contribution to preserving the environment. “It’s not about telling people to stop eating meat all together but showing them it’s important to find the right balance in order to limit your carbon footprint,” says Sakson. “Capitalism has created a global population driven by overindulgences,” he says. “I’ve been at fault with this myself in the past but now it’s about making a conscious choice. Significant amounts of natural resources are required to keep these industries running. Beef production emits more greenhouse gases than almost any other industry. Look at South America where much of the primary forest being cleared is given over to raising cattle.”
Sakson also runs Na at Bangkok 1899 known as a social impact venue. “Restaurants are one of the biggest creators of pollution,” he says. “We have to be conscious of that. At Na we are all about sustainable practices.” While the outlet serves as a vocational training centre for at risk youths, it also boasts zero waste policies. In addition to its strict no single-use plastic rule, Na works with SOS (Scholars of Sustenance), a food rescue foundation that collects surplus food to feed the poor. “We also have a composting and fermentation area and we implement upcycling programmes. Even our waste juice is used for indigo fermentation.”
Sakson sees Na as an experiment that can serve as a future model for others in the industry. “Food waste is such a huge problem” he says. “We want to keep raising awareness of it so we are working with SOS to launch a menu that will contain dishes made from surplus foods. The goal is to become carbon negative through what we make and eat here.”
Sustainability for restaurants means operating in a way that preserves or restores the natural environment while promoting social equity and enhancing the lives of people and communities. This is what Sakson strives to achieve with all his businesses. “Honestly, I have no choice but to worry about the environment when everybody I work with is affected by it, from struggling villagers and SATI Foundation kids to destitute communities around the country living among hazardous waste,” he says. “Everything is intertwined. This is why I am trying to create an eco-system that addresses both issues, one in which you can enjoy food whilst preserving the environment and ultimately help yourself and those around you.”
Raising Local Heroes
Around five years ago the discovery of a 10-kilometre-long drift of plastic trash floating off the coast of Thailand led to widespread anti-pollution campaigns and intensified people’s discontent with the country’s plastic crisis. And yet Bangkok is still drowning in the stuff, with authorities seemingly powerless to stop the tide. For many, the time has come to take positive action at a local level and one of those showing us the way is Trash Hero Bangkok leader Warawat Sabhavasu, or Bibb.
Trash Hero is a volunteer movement which began here in Thailand in 2013 when a small group of Thais and foreigners eager to do something about local trash set out to organise weekly clean-ups of grubby neighbourhoods. Since then the movement has gone global and the network now covers 19 countries including Myanmar, Singapore, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Holland, Georgia, Germany, USA, Australia and Japan. The Trash Hero mission is to bring communities together to clean up and reduce trash whilst educating the public on environmental values and the impact of waste.
It was a trip to a landfill on the outskirts of Bangkok three years ago that triggered in Bibb an urge to act. “It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you’re standing on an endless pile of rubbish—mostly household waste—knowing it has probably been there for years and will simply keep on accumulating,” he says. “Waste separation is almost non-existent here. There are scavengers putting up camps on this hazardous waste, trying to scratch a living by separating and recycling what bits of trash they can.” A free-diving trip to Bali later intensified his personal concern. “There was so much trash in the ocean. It was as if a tsunami had hit a 7-11 store and dumped everything on the beach,” he says. “You know, 80 per cent of plastic waste in the ocean actually comes from landfills. It somehow gets through canals and streams and ends up in open waters. We have to stop the flow before it gets there.”
As the leader of Trash Hero’s Bangkok chapter Bibb has organised countless clean-up activities, some involving upwards of 300 volunteers. “As a global movement we have been able to mobilise 360,000 volunteers and we have collected 1.8 million kilos of trash. In Thailand alone we have amassed 830,378 kilos of trash with the help of 121,502 volunteers, including 27,206 children,” he says proudly. “Due to Covid-19 a lot of our clean-ups have been curtailed. However, through various platforms we continue to pass on our message and raise awareness.” Social media has been one of Bibb’s key tools in his mission to tackle the country’s plastic crisis.
A keen diver with a passion for the ocean, Bibb was a caretaker of Mariam, the baby dugong from Koh Libong who won and broke the hearts of Thais in 2019. “When she passed away, eight pieces of plastic were found in her intestine,” he says. Mariam’s death was a wake-up call for Thailand and it deepened Bibb’s commitment to marine conservation. Consequently, in collaboration with social-impact fundraising website TaeJai, Bibb launched TaeJai4Ocean, which aims to restore mangrove forests in order to preserve marine ecosystems. “It’s basically a crowdfunding project to get people to donate money, 15 baht per mangrove tree. The target is to reach 100,000 mangrove trees,” he says. “One mangrove tree can absorb one tonne of carbon dioxide over the span of 20 years. Imagine what 100,000 mangroves could do.”
In December 2020, the athletically-inclined altruist decided to pursue a life-long goal inspired by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who once sailed a dinghy single-handed across the Gulf of Thailand. To highlight the country’s biodiversity crisis and raise funds for TaeJai4Ocean, Bibb and a team of five successfully kite-foiled 113 km in the late king’s wake across the Gulf from Sattahip to Pranburi. “It took six punishing hours but we managed to raise enough for 20,000 mangrove trees, which was a great start,” he smiles. The TaeJai4Ocean’s mangrove planting fund is open for donations until June 8, 2021.
See also: Trash Talking With Eco-Artist Wishulada Panthanuvong
Trash Into Treasure
After earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental policy from the London School of Economics, Dominic Puwasawat Chakrabongse pursued his passion for environment conservation with several NGOs around the globe. On returning to Thailand he was shocked by Bangkok’s overwhelming abundance of trash and decided take action. “I wanted to do something that was community driven and emphasised the circular economy,” he says. “That’s how Precious Plastic Thailand came about. It was born out of this effort to inspire and empower ordinary people across the country to change their perception of plastic and understand that it can be turned into something new and valuable.”
Precious Plastic offers a simple and fun alternative to plastic recycling using custom machines that grind, melt and transform your everyday plastic waste into a variety of useful products. It was established in Thailand in 2018 as part of a worldwide project initiated by Dutch Dave Hakkens in 2013. “The machines can be built very cheaply using inexpensive materials,” says Dominic. “The design is meant to be completely open source so anyone in the world can download the plans from our website and build a machine. That’s the beauty of Precious Plastic, it makes recycling accessible and affordable.”
Currently Precious Plastic is based at Ford Resource and Engagement Center where it receives most of its plastic from volunteers—including groups such as Trash Hero—and through donations either delivered directly to the centre or collected from drop-off points throughout the city. “We have partnered with a network of businesses including cafes and restaurants that serve as drop-off sites,” explains Dominic. Precious Plastic turns plastic waste, mostly bottle caps and take-away food containers—which have increased hugely in volume since the pandemic—into colourful bowls, plates, trays and pots and then sells them through outlets such as Ecotopia. “In the future we want the local communities to be at the centre of that so they are not only collecting and recycling themselves but also selling the products and reaping the financial benefits.”
“The biggest on-going challenges is changing people’s perception of plastic pollution,” he continues. “Thailand has shown its capacity for rapid change in terms of trying to limit the use of single plastic but we have always been confronted with this barrier of how to persuade communities that this is the right avenue to take in terms of recycling. It’s important to show people the benefits of this technology and the circular economy it creates.”
Prior to the pandemic Precious Plastic had organised workshops at several events such as Bangkok Design Week and the Wonderfruit festival. Although things are quiet at the moment, Dominic has plans for the future. Committed to fostering the circular economy among communities nationwide, he intends to introduce Precious Plastic to the Doi Tung region. “We are also working with charities to implement the machines in low-income neighbourhoods in Bangkok, as well as at temples. In 10 years’ time, we will hopefully have a nationwide network. And honestly, ideally our organisation will be irrelevant within 20-30 years,” he says. “By then I hope we will all have embraced a plastic-free society that makes recycling redundant.”
Positive Chain Reactions
In 2015 Arch Wongchindawest co-founded Social Giver, a leading social enterprise that partners with lifestyle brands to offer great deals to consumers and donate part of what they spend to charity.
It was while pursuing a management degree at Warwick Business School that Arch read 50 Facts That Should Change The World 2.0 and it struck a chord with him. “The book said that every day 700 million people go hungry and that made something change in me,” he says. “This perpetual poverty crisis made me rethink everything about the world we live in. I just knew I wanted to find a way to help.” The young man who dreamed of becoming a businessman went on to become, instead, a consultant for the UN Development Programme and UN Environment Programme (Asia and Pacific Region), helping to lead numerous fundraising projects for the UN and other NGOs. “A lot of the time, foundations are competing for funds,” he says. “I wanted to increase the pie so that non-profits don’t have to beg for donations. People spend a lot of money but only a small percentage of that goes to charity. What if there was a way to convert some of that money into something impactful whilst still enabling people to live life to the fullest? That’s how Social Giver came about.”
An animal lover, Arch is currently working on another innovative venture that focuses on nature and wildlife conservation. Called Wildchain, the project helps to restore not only populations of his favourite animal, the Northwest African cheetah, but also other endangered species. “Wildchain is similar to Social Giver except the focus is on turning entertainment and gaming revenue into opportunities for nature and wildlife conservation,” he says. Using the example of the popular Pokémon Go, he adds, “I thought to myself, how do we make protecting real animals as exciting as catching Pokémons on your phone? With Wildchain, through block chain technology we mirror real animal populations. It’s like adopting endangered animals but taking care of them as you would a Tamagotchi. You’re actually helping to raise funds for its real-life counterpart.”
A core mechanic within the game requires players to purchase a tree and plant it in order to earn a magic egg, which would then hatch. Every tree planted in the game equals a tree planted in the real world. The money spent buying items to create the perfect digital sanctuary will go to animal conservation projects for endangered species in Africa. “We have partnered with Eden Reforestation Projects in Mozambique,” Arch explains. “Climate change and increased frequency of droughts in Mozambique have severely affected farmers. Confronted with the risk of unemployment, people often wind up in illicit work including poaching. With Wildchain, people will be hired instead to plant trees and protect the forest.” A combination of Arch’s passion for social innovation and block chain technology, the Wildchain game is set to officially launch this October.
“It would be great to be able to reward people who work to create positive impact at the same level as those who are producing negative impact in today’s world,” he says. “We need a new financial system paired with a new consciousness that recognises that all the money people spend every day will create the world of the future. If you are buying from socially irresponsible businesses that destroy our planet, that’s the kind of future you will get but if you support mindful businesses that are, for instance, recycling and removing trash effectively, we might have a chance at a world better than the one we are living in now. We hold the power to change the world and one of the most powerful ways is how we choose to spend our money because money really does make the world go round.”
Cloak Of Responsibility
Another industry with major sustainability problems that impact our eco-system is fashion. This is why up-and-coming fashion designer Kamonnart Ongwandee is devoting herself to making sure these issues are widely known and addressed. As a student she studied fashion design at Chulalongkorn University and took a master’s degree in textiles from the Royal College of Art in London. “After graduation, I had the chance to work for a couple of fashion brands,” she recalls. “I remember coming across a storage room absolutely packed with left over or unused clothes. That, coupled with all the clothes on sale I would see at shopping malls, made me realise there was a lot of wastage going on.” Later, a backpacking trip to the rural regions of Thailand with the aim of learning more about traditional textiles opened her eyes to how little the villagers were earning and made her question the fairness of the fashion supply chain.
It wasn’t until the Rena Plaza fire in Bangladesh in 2013 in which thousands of textile factory workers making clothes for the fashion industry died, that things changed entirely for Kamonnart. According to the ILO, the fire was among the worst industrial accidents on record. The disaster awoke the world to the darker side of the fashion industry and shed light on issues of wage inequality, poor working conditions and the dire need to enforce fair labour laws. As Kamonnart became more and more interested in these issues, she began to learn about the industry’s environmental impact. Globally, the fashion industry generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases. “It’s responsible for 10 per cent of the annual global carbon emission,” she says. “This is the direct result of the production and manufacturing process.” Water is also an increasingly important issue. The United Nations estimates that globally, 80-90 per cent of wastewater is returned to the environment untreated. “The processing of textile uses a lot of clean water and releases toxic water into oceans and rivers,” she adds. “Moreover, polyester clothes make up 60 per cent of all clothes worldwide and the process of washing them discharges micro plastics that eventually get into our food chain. The list goes on and on.”
While studying in the UK the designer joined Fashion Revolution, a global movement which aims to create a more sustainable, socially and environmentally conscious fashion industry that stands up for the unheard voices of the fashion supply chain, not only to provide better livelihoods for them but also to explore solutions for the future. In 2018, Kamonnart sought to bolster the movement in her own country. “It was already established by a British woman but it was almost dormant and when she had to return home, she asked me to take over,” she says.
As the Fashion Revolution’s country coordinator, Kamonnart and her small team host panel discussions and documentary film screenings on fashion waste issues. To make the cause more engaging for the public, her clothes swap events enable people to exchange their old, unworn and unwanted items. “We want to foster conscious consumerism,” she says. “Eventually, we want to have an open-source educational programme where we put more and more resources online in the Thai language. That way anyone, particularly youngsters, can start his/her own fashion revolution in their community.”
Overall, Kammonart strives to introduce a new cultural narrative in Thailand and to promote more conscious shopping habits to mitigate fashion waste. “Every year, tons of clothing are sent to landfills and less than one per cent is recycled,” she says. “We need to foster a responsible approach to fashion that embodies greater social and ecological integrity.”
Related: Can Fast Fashion And Sustainability Co-Exist? We Ask H&M Thailand's CEO