One of Thailand’s buzzwords of 2022 has been “BCG” — the acronym used for the Bio-Circular-Green Economic Model.
BCG has become one of the guiding principles of Thailand’s national development, with roots leading back to the Thailand 4.0 policy conceptualised by the governments of General Prayut Chan-o-cha.
While BCG has been thrown around publicly for a couple of years, it became more of the “talk of the town” in 2022, with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit held in Bangkok last month.
Indeed, the meeting created plenty of controversies, not only for inducing protest from citizens and democratic groups but for it being accused of “greenwashing” by environmentalists.
Months before the Apec summit, an international group of environmentalists from NGO Ecological Alert and Recovery — Thailand (EARTH) and Czech Republic-based NGO Arnika Association came to Thailand’s heavily industrialised eastern region.
During their visit, they went to Khao Hin Son sub-district, Phanom Sarakham district, Chachoengsao province, to collect multiple environmental samples in areas surrounding electronic waste (e-waste) recycling factories.
Phanom Sarakham district is not a random choice. The district has been named by official government policies for the development of the recycling industry, a crucial engine of the “circular” aspect of the BCG model.
But to the locals of this district, “recycling” and “circular economy” have become synonymous with pollution. Poor regulations by government officials and weak environmental and factory laws have induced many such factories to disregard local communities and conduct harmful activities like the burning of e-waste.
In the small village called Nong Khok, in Moo 9, Khao Hin Son of Phanom Sarakham district, locals have long been affected by the foul smell from e-waste recycling factories.
A few years ago, international NGOs investigated one of these factories and observed its workers mass melting/burning circuit boards which belched out dioxin-laden, carcinogenic smoke over the dairy farms in the area.
The dioxin mentioned above is a member of a group of dangerous chemicals called Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs, which have the capacity to remain in the environment for long periods of time and to bioaccumulate in organisms.
Dioxins, and a similar toxic chemical known as furans, can cause a wide range of health issues, including cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive, and immune system problems.
It has also been linked by some research to cancer. One of the major sources of dioxins and furans is the burning of waste.
Arnika Association and EARTH returned to Phanom Sarakham this year, specifically to collect samples from the Nong Khok village, where locals still complained of foul smell from recycling factories in the area.
There the international research team collected samples of dust, sediment, and duck eggs from the village.
They would also travel to another farm near another e-waste recycling factory in Moo 1 to collect dust and soil samples. In this case, the factory appeared to have started operation without attaining the proper permits. Locals have complained of dust and foul smells ever since the factory went into operation.
Both sets of samples were sent to laboratories in the Czech Republic and Germany to test for complex chemicals.
When the Apec summit was being held, Arnika Association returned to Thailand and joined EARTH to announce the results of the investigation at Chulabhorn Research Institute.
The results showed high contamination of dioxins and furans at Nong Khok village in soil, sediments, dust, and, most alarmingly, in the duck eggs.
The contamination of duck eggs indicates that POPs have infiltrated the local food chain and, due to its longevity, it could have a presence in those who ate the eggs.
The level of dioxins and furans in the duck eggs was found to be among the ten most contaminated investigated sites where eggs were collected in Asia. It is the second highest ever found in Thailand, just behind a location near e-waste operations in Samut Sakhon province.
Another variation of the POPs chemical is polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PBDD/Fs), which research has stated to have similar health effects as dioxins and furans. The main sources of PBDD/F formation are during the burning of flame-retarded plastics.
The level of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-furans (PCDD/Fs) found in the sample of duck eggs from Nong Khok exceeded the maximum levels set in European Union (EU) by more than 24 and 14 times, respectively. Sources of PCDD/Fs are metal production processes, waste incineration, heat and power plants, and fly ash treatment plants.
Another POPs found in the village is a substance called Short-Chain Chlorinated Paraffins (SCCPs), which is derived from plastic waste containing additives such as flame retardants, paints, adhesives and sealants, leather fat liquors, rubber, textiles and polymeric materials.
The level of SCCPs found in Nong Khok was 5.5 times higher than the permissive level allowed by the European Union.
In Nong Khok, the research team found the results to be associated with industrial sludge dumped in the middle of the village; another indication of how Thailand’s waste management efforts are being compromised by illegal industrial waste dumping, which has been thriving in the country under the charade of the circular economy.
Companies hire people to simply dump the waste onto some empty land. This year, there have been 10 cases of illegal waste dumping; one case saw 10,000 tons of waste dumped in Rayong province.
In February, the research team also investigated an industrial waste dumpsite in Hat Nang Kaeo subdistrict in Prachin Buri province, where oil-like sludge had been dumped over a 15-rai area. Since the dumpsite is located on high ground and close to water sources, some of the locals experienced strange ailments that they believed were caused by the dumping.
The research team revealed that there were high levels of contamination of SCCPs at this dumpsite too.
The press conference held last week saw the participation of various government agencies, news media, academics, and local people affected by recycling factories in Thailand’s eastern zone.
Officials waver between maintaining that they are trying to — and have done a lot to — solve the problem while admitting their limitations.
Industry representatives questioned the NGO’s calls for stricter standards, stating that it may damage the nation’s self-sufficiency.
Local representatives from Prachin Buri and Chachoengsao provinces appeared exasperated while asking valid questions to responsible industrial officials and government agencies. Among the questions raised were: will any actions be taken to limit the contaminations? Will these polluting recyclers receive any punishment? Will officials regulate them more stringently and respond effectively to local demands?
These are the questions that the policy-makers of BCG must answer, or it will never escape the marks of greenwashing.