BANGKOK — Can Khaosan Road kick its single-use plastic habit?

In an effort to reduce waste, vendors along Khaosan Road are being encouraged to phase out plastic and foam packaging. Launched by the Khaosan Road Street Vendors Association at a Tuesday event, the initiative aims to make the tourist haven plastic- and styrofoam-free within two months.

The Vendors Association is asking vendors to switch to paper or bagasse – but there are no penalties if they don’t comply.

Sanga Ruangwattanakul, the president of the vendors association and the man spearheading the initiative, wants the initiative to be a model for other Bangkok tourist destinations.

“This has to come from changing mindsets, rather than coercing vendors,” an association representative said.

Waste is a big issue for the 400-meter stretch of road. More than 69 tonnes of garbage was collected during the three days of Songkran in April alone. Besides the issue of sustainability, plastic regularly blocks the area’s sewage system, exacerbating flooding.

A manufacturer of eco-friendly packaging, who attended the event as a sponsor, claims that switching to sustainable packaging will both raise the public appetite for street food and promote food hygiene.

“I believe the initiative can raise the standard of our street food,” said Wimol Chantian, brand director of paper plate brand Fest. “Tourists will see that our country is becoming more environmentally conscious.”

The brand says that paper containers are able to withstand heat up to 100C, but pad thai vendor Ngaio Trakulsakda thinks otherwise.

“Paper trays can’t be handled when they’re holding something hot. I’ve tried,” Ngaio said, while serving pad thai in styrofoam to a customer. “Khaosan has a eating-and-walking culture. We have to wait until [the association] comes up with a solution for us.”

Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam
Ngaio Trakulsakda on July 2.

When told that styrofoam may not be suitable for hot foods since it can melt under grease, Ngaio said she has never encountered such a problem.

Amid the opening ceremony complete with a marching band, a fruit vendor stood firmly selling durias on styrofoam trays too – just a few feet away from the Vendors Association president who initiated the project. She echoed the concern that eco-friendly packaging is impractical.

Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam
“This has to be stopped now,” a police officer pointed at styrofoam trays while Wantanee Kumsathorn received samples of paper tray on July 2.

“Paper trays can’t be wrapped in cling wrap,” Wantanee Kumsathorn said. “And if I put pineapple in opaque paper cups, people will doubt whether the fruit is fresh, as they can’t see what’s inside.”

Another fruit and juice vendor, Darunee Juangthong, agrees recyclable packaging will not suit all foods, but feels she has no choice but to go along with the initiative.

Currently the ban is voluntary, but Sanga says it will be compulsory if participation is not satisfactory.

“Juices have to be in plastic bottles. What can replace that?” Darunee said. “They have to be covered with ice for freshness but paper cups will weaken if they’re soaked with water.”

Perhaps the biggest issue could be cost. A paper tray costs twice as much as a styrofoam tray, with vendors already burdened by the low-season and a stagnating economy.

Organizers of the initiative are hoping that promotions for eco-friendly packaging can help vendors change their habits. Fest has set up a temporary store in Khaosan to sell its products at a discounted price.

Sanga himself believes that the vendors can handle the cost.

“You sell pad thai for the price of 30 baht, while it only costs you five baht to make. An additional cost for the environment won’t hurt,” he said.

Merchandise vendor Sureeporn Meechoophan has broadly welcomed the bag-free initiative, while agreeing it may be a double-edged sword.

“Yes, it’s good for the environment. But without plastic bags, we can’t distinguish customers from shoplifters,” Sureeporn said.

Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam
Sureeporn Meechoophan on July 2.

Sureeporn notes that most farang already refrain from asking for plastic bags, while Asian tourists remain addicted.

As a long-time purveyor of sandals in Khaosan, she blames the lack of trash cans for the street’s flooding problem. Everyday, she has to set up a makeshift rubbish bag in front of her stall for tourists to throw their skewers and wrappers. Not a single bin can be found on Khaosan Road as officials fear terrorist attacks, according to Sanga.

The bag-free experiment in Khaosan comes hot on the heels of giant retailers like The Mall Group and Central Group announcing their own plastic-free schemes. While markets may claim to decrease plastic use during environmental awareness days throughout the year, initiatives are almost never enforced.

Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam
Wimol Chantian, brand director of Fest, fourth from the left, and Sanga Ruangwattanakul, the president of the vendors association, center, together with officials during the opening ceremony on July 2.
Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam
Styrofoam is still being used by many vendors on Khaosan Road on July 2.
Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam
Food containers made from paper and bagasse on display on July 2.
Vendors Balk at Khaosan Road’s Call to Ban Plastic, Styrofoam
Garbage piling up as there is no trash can on Khaosan Road.