Stuff Thai People Like: Plastic Bags!

(If you haven’t had the dubious privilege of meeting me in person, or you just want to creep on more awkward photos of me and T-Bone, check out my freshly revamped About section)

It’s time for another episode of Stuff Thai People Like! Today, Thai people are diggin’:

Plastic Bags!

A bag throwing bags!

I have never seen plastic bags celebrated with so much vigour and intensity as they are in Bangkok. In Canada, “plastic bag” is like a four-letter word, but worse, because four-letter words are seen by many as being sometimes acceptable and/or witty, whereas plastic bags are evil incarnate. I usually carried reusable bags with me when I went shopping in Calgary, but sometimes I forgot. The cashier scanning my groceries would bark “Bags?”and I’d whisper “yes,” as though I’d just admitted that I enjoy beating puppies. This, of course, assumed that the store even offered bags – at my local hippy/granola joint, you couldn’t get a disposable bag for love or money.

Not a problem, because I have my own reusable bags

Bangkok is a different scenario altogether. I have never seen such a bewildering profusion of plastic bags in my life. They appear to be an integral part of Thai culture, and frankly, I’m not sure that Bangkokian life would continue to function if they were abolished. They are to Thailand what doughnuts are to Canada – a guilty pleasure that is secretly holding the country together.

Heavy on the guilt, not so much on the pleasure

The plastic bag is used in pretty standard fashion in grocery stores – the clerks may not cram as much into the bags as they perhaps could, but the basic principle makes sense. It’s when you start patronizing street vendors and convenience stores that the addiction really becomes apparent. I have purchased the following items from the convenience store on our street on separate occasions, and been given a plastic bag with each: A large water jug with a handle. One small packet of gum. One can of juice.

The street vendors take the love affair to a new and special level. For example, fruit vendors are ubiquitous in Bangkok – you choose the fruit, they hack it up for you. They then dump the fruit into a bag which is then inserted into another bag. The trick is to get away before they bag the bag containing your bag of fruit. Another favourite trend in vendordom is pouring cans of pop into bags for customers to drink out of. And I have rarely been sold an iced coffee and not been offered a special carrying bag for it – I guess the ol’ opposable thumb sometimes just isn’t enough.

All these bags add up

Witnessing this love for the humble bag is like watching a pregnant woman smoke – you feel a certain amount of moral/ethical responsibility combined with social awkwardness. I haven’t done a good job of refusing bags yet, because I don’t want to look like even more of a freak than I already am, but clearly I need to bite the bullet and just say no.

Maybe if I disguise myself they won’t notice that I’m a farang.

Joking aside, plastic bags are a serious problem in Bangkok. A 2010 article from The Guardian estimates that Bangkok goes through 600 000 plastic bags per day. I’m not sure where they are getting these numbers from, because I’m pretty sure that I’ve collected that many all by myself in the two months that I’ve been here. The article goes on to talk about initiatives that the government has taken to cut down on plastic bag usage, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed any signs of them.

As a visitor in Thailand, I am hesitant to criticize the culture, but I think this love affair has had its day. Swap that doughnut for some broccoli or something.

And save Todd from certain death

29 thoughts on “Stuff Thai People Like: Plastic Bags!

  1. My favourite use of the plastic bag in Bangkok was filling it with crushed ice and then filling the bag with orange soda and topping it off with a straw. We used to see workers carrying these in the streets drinking out of them on their way to work. I remember marveling at there not being more people walking around with a broken plastic bag and orange pop all over themselves. While we thought it was recklessly dangerous and we couldn’t help but also think it was wildly ingenious and it wasn’t long before we were looking for a place that sold orange soda in a plastic bag!

    • Hmmmm… I see you prefer “part of the disease” to the “part of the cure option,” eh Jer? 😉 I know what you mean, though. There is something about the idea of pop in a bag that is strangely appealing.

  2. MAI TOUNG PLASTIK KAH!!! I had my students teach me how to say “no plastic bag, please!” because 7/11 kept bagging my one solitary bottle of water every morning…and I would promptly throw out the bag at the garbage bin outside of the store. Next up: learn how to say “no straw, either!”

    • My problem is that I often have post ideas but no photos to go with them, so I am forced to come up with my own material. Luckily T-bone (secretly) likes posing for photos.

  3. Reblogged this on the moon or a hot air balloon and commented:
    As you may or may not know, I loathe plastic bags. I was a dedicated reusable bag enthusiast back in America, even going so far as to start my own reusable bag campaign during my final semester in college.
    I’ve never seen as many plastic bags in my life as I’ve seen here in Bangkok. It was the first thing I noticed, and there has been a draft entitled, “Bag the Bag Bangkok” sitting in my WordPress account for a couple months now that I haven’t had the motivation to finish. I wanted to research the bag statistics of Bangkok (of which I imagine there are very few and even fewer that are accurate) and the solid waste and recycling systems to present a fully-informed perspective on the matter. And maybe I’ll do all of that someday, but for now I think it’s sufficient to comment on the observable facts.
    The bag habit here is of a completely different species than the one I was fighting back in Athens; Ruth is right – plastics bags are truly a part of Thai culture. In Athens, the challenge was to get people to remember to bring their reusable bags with them when they went to the grocery store. “Recycle or reuse your plastic bags, and make bringing reusable bags a habit! Look! All of your friends are doing it too!”
    Here, plastic bags play such an important role in everyday life…It’s not just about the grocery store anymore – it’s every single food item (or otherwise) you buy on the street (and Thais buy most of their food on the street). Every meal will get bagged and tied with a rubber band, then bagged again. Hot and cold parts of a meal will go in separate bags. Even drinks get bagged, presumably because Thais don’t want to hold something so cold (could this really be the reason?). Unwrapping and recombining your meal when you get home is like opening a gift; it’s emotionally satisfying in a way that reusable bags can’t be.
    I wouldn’t even know where to begin in trying to eradicate plastic bags in Bangkok.
    How ironic that a plastic-hater like me is living in one of the most offensive plastic bag cultures in the world. It’s hypocritical and I hate it, but I have been sucked in to the plastic bag frenzy. I say “no” when I can, but many times there is no way around it.

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  4. Pingback: Stuff Thai People Like: Plastic Bags! (Reblog) « the moon or a hot air balloon

  5. Pingback: Stuff Thai People Like: Plastic Bags! (Reblog) « the moon or a hot air balloon

  6. I really enjoy reading your blogs whilst I am in the same area of the world. This one is particular. I was in Bali previously and was completely shocked by the amount of plastic bags I saw there, but the farther north you go the worse it gets! Thailand is insane for the plastic bag issue. I spent like 200 baht on 4 four small things and ended up with more bags than items it seemed like! And you quickly try to say no to a bag but instantly it is slipped in and shoved at your face before you can speak. Great subject that needs a billion times more awareness in this area of the world.

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  8. This is so funny Ruth. I am staying with a Sweedish friend in Mae Sot at the moment and we were discussing the same fustrations over the Thai addiction to plastic bags. I wonder if development and environmental education ( or lack of) have anything to do with it. It seems that growing up in the Western world we are taught that littering/plastic is bad for the environment and therefore developed a sort of inherent guilt whenever we see it in unnecessary mass quantities. However, I think as humans we are creatures of habit/following the norm/taking the path of least resistance. Burmese friend living here recently told me that he used to have a moral aversion to it but then after seeing so many people throwing them in the streets he proceeded to do the same and grew apathetic. I am working in a refugee camp for the next two months and am quite at a moral delemia about what to about not only the plastic bag phenomonom but the throwing of all trash and bags into piles that are eventually burned, maybe. Doing this in a city is one thing because I’m sure someone gets paid to clean it up, but this is in the middle of the beautiful Thai jungle that happens to be inhabited by Burmese refugees for the time being. I’ve been thinking about going around picking it up and maybe making signs but I’m sure that would smile politely and then laugh about it with their friends later. Sorry for going off on a rant ! Your blog is fantastic and inspiring!

    • Thanks for reading my blog! And I love the rant. I can totally identify with your Burmese friend – I also have a “moral aversion” to plastic bags, but I, too, have become apathetic. I’m not proud of it, but I often take the path of least resistance. It sounds like you’re going to be living/working in quite an intense situation. I think a big challenge is probably to pick your battles. Maybe garbage is one of them, maybe not. I’m curious to hear how it works out for you!

  9. I’m digging your blog Ruth! The easiest way to communicate that you don’t want a bag: mai sai tung (like tune with a ‘g’ on the end). Mai=no, sai=on the side, tung=bag. Sometimes stores will ask you ‘sai tung?’ so now you can give the retort that they’re looking for to ensure the smoothest transaction instead of a confused look while they continue to double bag all of your items. I’ve also found that with the fruit vendors, if you keep the outer bag and just reuse that for the fruit containing bags, there is less confusion and/or attempts to snatch the fruit bag away from the vendor before the second bag. Just proffer the second bag and they will quizzically accept it and use it.

    • Thanks for reading, Jaime! And I hope you don’t mind that I included the photos of the White House (you live in one of the most epic apartments I have ever seen!). And good call on the bag tips – I clearly need to be more proactive, even if it feels awkward. Then again, I am already plenty awkward, so what difference will a little more really make…

      • Don’t worry, you have free reign to post whatever pictures you manage to take of me or my surroundings. I never plan to run for office or for Thailand’s Next Top Model for that matter.

        • Thanks, Jaime! I just don’t want to do anything that would interfere with your chances of finally receiving a full tour of the the White House frescoes 😉

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  11. I have been here only 2 weeks and am already trying to start a campaign to end plastic bags. I figure if they could ban them successfully in India, it is possible here as well ;-)) I would love to be involved in the solution

  12. Hi Ruth, nice blog. Am an Indian living in Bangkok from past 7+ years. Having brought up in a nature rich village atmosphere it hurts me lot to see the pile of plastic on the both sides of roads especially on the vacant plots on both sides of Bangna-Trat. Thai people start their day with plastic even for drinking coffee. Whenever I go to grocery shop, I usually rearrange the grocery by using my own bag and return few bags to the person. Most of the time I get strange looks. Now I have got adjusted to it (khoey chin laew). It is the proper public awareness which is the need of the hour. Thai people are peace and nature lovers and once if they know nature never forgives probably they will reduce its usage. What our ancestors have left to us need to be preserved to our future generations in the least affected manner. Hope the concerned authorities in Thailand will realize soon and ban this plastic usage to limited usage.

    • Thanks for reading, Ram. You make some good points about the use of plastic in this culture – it is strange that such a peace and nature loving people use so much plastic. I have heard of some attempts to limit plastic bag usage, and I really hope they continue.

  13. Well it’s 2015 now and things surely are the same or worse. During my 3 months of travel in Thailand I have got a number of dirty looks when I refuse additional bags and straws. Being Canadian as well I can fully relate to the stigma we have applied to the unnecessary use of plastic (for the better I might add). I refuse to be apathetic about it though, dirty looks or not. I find the most puzzling part of this obsession Thais have developed is when you purchase a cup of coffee at the 7-11 and the clerk attempts to bag your cup of coffee. Logic be damned I suppose. Usually this is one of the prime times I receive a dirty look for refusing that my cup with a poorly fitting lid is bagged (it is also one of the few times that I give a look that says “wtf are you thinking?”). Enjoyed the post 🙂

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