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Cleaning up the ocean, one bag at a time

Tesco Lotus customers are being asked to choose cloth over plastic

Nowadays, with more awareness of climate change and sustainability than ever, one would expect that humans are becoming more mindful in how they live their daily lives. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

According to Greenpeace, out of the 300 million tonnes of waste produced per year, around 10 million are dumped into the sea. Shamefully, 60% of ocean waste is produced by five countries in the Asia Pacific region: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and, unsurprisingly, Thailand. And we've been seeing clear effects.

Last month, Thailand's most pristine beaches and islands were threatened by a 10km-long, 100 tonne island of trash being swept through the Gulf of Thailand. What's shocking, though, is that the phenomenon isn't even new.

A convenience store taking part in Tesco Lotus’ ‘Lending A Bag’ campaign. Bags can be borrowed and returned on racks like these.

"During monsoon season when I was young, the trash on Phi Phi Island would come up to my shin," said Prasert Wongnam, deputy chief of the Ao Nang Tambon Administrative Organisation. "That's the truth."

Realising that every year Phi Phi island is threatened by an ever-increasing sea of garbage swept in by both tourists and ocean currents, Tesco Lotus earlier this month joined hands with the Department of Environmental Quality, Protect Phi Phi Group and local authorities to tackle the root of the problem by launching their "Lending A Bag" campaign.

The campaign encourages locals and tourists to borrow Tesco Lotus' cloth bag, available in select supermarkets and convenience stores. Once finished with use, customers can return the bags at the original spots. So far, Tesco Lotus has provided 1,000 cloth bags to the island -- and if you forget to return it, it's OK. According to Charkrit Direkwattanachai, Tesco Lotus' head of Corporate Communications and Sustainability, you'll end up using the bag for other chores anyway.

Anchalee Pipattanawattanakul, Oceans Campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, third left, Sakol Tinagul, directorgeneral, Department of Environmental Quality Promotion, fourth left, Prasert Wongnam, deputy chief, Ao Nang Tambon Administrative Organisation, centre, Wuttisak Tongkerd, chairman, Protect Phi Phi Group, fourth right, Charkrit Direkwattanachai, head of Corporate Communications and Sustainability, Tesco Lotus, third right.

For five years, Tesco Lotus has been running the "Say No To Plastic Bags" campaign, claiming to have saved as many as 100 million plastic bags throughout these years. And even though they do not have a Tesco Lotus on the island, they couldn't ignore the decay and waste-management problems caused by the sudden spike in tourists.

"If we look at ocean waste and ask ourselves if it affects us, many Thais would say that it doesn't," said Sakol Tinagul, director-general of the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion. "But we often hear news of sea animals consuming plastic bags, thinking they're jellyfish. This puts the animal in danger or kills it. And these plastic bags that we throw into the ocean -- they don't disintegrate, even the biodegradable ones. Marine animals will think the broken down plastic is plankton, so they eat it. So it comes back to us. We might have plastic materials in our bodies, as well. This can cause cancer and other problems. In the end, we can't escape it."

Chakrit admits, though, that changing people's mindsets will be a challenge. Early on in the campaign, customers would end up yelling at cashiers when they suggest they not use plastic bags.

"It's our fifth year with this campaign, and each year has its own gimmick to garner awareness. We can't stop using plastic bags in a day -- everything has to be triggered continuously. We have to tell people this is an important issue. I believe the more people listen, the more they'll want to reduce plastic use."

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