Every morning, before classes begin, the same routine plays out at the 22 preschools operated by the Human Development Foundation, a Catholic charity, for children living in disadvantaged communities around the Thai capital.
Youngsters in crisp white shirts line up in front of top-loading dial scales, carrying bulky plastic bags in their hands.
A teacher measures the weight of each bag and meticulously records it in a logbook. In the bags are empty plastic bottles and other pieces of recyclable waste that the children collected the previous day in their homes and around their community.
"We tell them how to sort plastic waste and they then go about retrieving recyclable items from rubbish bins at home and from the street," says Prapa Wisedrit, a kindergarten teacher who works for the charity and oversees the schools' recycling drive for their 2,500 students, who range in age from 3 to 7.
"Some of the children struggle with the big bags [of recyclables] they bring to school," she adds. "They take their task of collecting recyclables seriously."
One of those kids is Prom, a precocious 6-year-old who arrived with 6kg of plastic waste. "Yesterday I went to a football field and collected a lot of empty bottles. We need to reuse and recycle," he says, repeating a mantra he has learned from his teachers at the foundation's Mercy Center where he attends preschool.
"Reuse and recycle" is a lesson that most other Thais, young and old, would do well to learn too. Plastic waste has reached epidemic proportions in the Southeast Asian nation, which has one of the world's highest per capita rates of plastic pollution. Thailand generates upwards of 2 million tons of plastic waste each year, only a small percentage of which can be reused or recycled.
Most of the rest of the waste comprises single-use plastic items like flimsy shopping bags, which are handed out liberally by retailers from department stores to ubiquitous 7-Eleven outlets. Often shoppers in convenience stores can end up with nearly as many disposable bags, which come in various sizes, as the number of items they buy. According to a government survey last year, each Thai citizen uses eight plastic bags on average every single day, which amounts to around 200 billion plastic bags in total annually.
For every single bottled beverage they buy, customers also routinely receive a complimentary plastic straw, which itself comes sheathed in plastic wrapping. Small cups of yogurt come with complimentary plastic spoons wrapped in plastic. Even single pieces of fruit like bananas are often sold in sealed plastic packaging.
Most of all that cheap and disposable plastic ends up being trashed right after use, leading to ever-growing piles of rubbish that then often remain uncollected, especially in economically deprived areas. Such neighborhoods around Bangkok have piles of countless discarded plastic items, from empty water bottles to toothbrushes, littering streets and clogging narrow canals.
Father Joseph Maier, a Redemptorist priest, gestures at a canal covered in a thick layer of plastic waste that runs through his community of squatters in an inner-city neighborhood of Bangkok. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)
Father Joseph Maier can tell you all about the effects of toxic plastic waste.
A rambunctious Redemptorist priest from the United States, he runs the Human Development Foundation out of his Mercy Center in a poverty-stricken area of Klong Toey district where he has lived for nearly a half century, looking after "the poorest of the poor," as he puts it.
During a recent stroll in his community of squatters through winding narrow alleyways that worm their way through warrens of plywood and cinderblock shacks, Father Maier, 79, legged it to a nearby canal with a UCAN reporter in tow, greeting locals amicably along the way.
He stopped at a putrid stretch of water that lay beneath a thick carpet of plastic waste that covered its surface from bank to bank. "We cleaned this canal three days ago, removing 20 truckloads of garbage," the priest explains. "Now it's just as filthy as ever."
Another cleaning crew, recruited by the priest from the ranks of local men, will soon begin removing another 20 truckloads of plastic waste from the fetid canal.
Yet unless locals' wasteful habits change, such do-it-yourself cleanup efforts are bound to remain a Sisyphean task. The ever-increasing amounts of plastic waste will simply outpace locals' ability, or willingness, to clean them up.
That's why Father Maier and his largely Thai Buddhist staff have decided to teach children who attend the foundation's schools about the evils of plastic waste. The idea is to inculcate an environmentally friendly attitude in them from an early age. "We teach the children to use less plastic," Maier says. "They then go home and teach dad and mom and grandpa and grandma."
Many hard-up locals in his neighborhood have long been familiar with recycling, eking out a living as they do by scavenging for recyclables and selling them to recycling companies. The foundation's preschoolers are now helping some of these scavengers by collecting recyclable plastic items too.
"Some students bring 100 grams [of plastic recyclables], some bring several kilograms," explains Boonyiam Nianthong, a kindergarten teacher.
"More important, we teach them to be [environmentally] responsible. We teach the children how bad plastic is for the environment. We tell them: 'If you can avoid it, please don't use [disposable] plastic products. Reuse shopping bags and bring your own drinking cups to school.'
"It's impossible not to use plastic products at all, but gradually children can learn to use fewer and fewer of them."
The children are encouraged to pass such newly learned consumer behavior on to their siblings and parents.
"Some students chide their parents for wasting too much," says kindergarten teacher Sa-ad Puengwarin. "In the past, families simply dumped disposable plastic items into the trash. Now they tend to do that less often. Instead, a lot of them sort their waste and bring it to be recycled."
Many of the preschoolers also help with cleaning up their communities by collecting litter from streets. The students in the foundation's schools collect around 10,000kg of recyclables a year with some help from their parents and older siblings. In return, they receive certificates of achievement and a one-off financial reward of up to 9,000 baht (US$300) on graduation.
For many of the youngsters, their school's recycling drive has been good clean fun.
"I like collecting plastic," says Tonhom, a diminutive 5-year-old with a mischievous smile. "My grandma has a small shop," the girl adds, referring to her grandmother's plywood stall from where she sells snacks and refreshments to day laborers and other minimum-wage earners.
"After people drink Pepsi [and other beverages], I collect the empty bottles and bring them to school. I want to keep my home and my school clean."