August 31, 2020 Cartoon Watanasirisuk

The Difference Between the U.S. and Thailand’s Sustainability Scenes

Cartoon Watanasirisuk is Verdical Group’s Sustainability & Business Development Intern. She is a student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she is pursuing a double major in economics and biology & society. Cartoon is currently staying with her parents in Thailand and taking classes at UCLA remotely.

Growing up in the capital city of Thailand, I’ve gotten used to the amount of cars constantly on the road and to the plastics that encase almost everything in the grocery stores. It wasn’t until I saw how self-sustained and natural my great grandparents’ lifestyles outside the metropolitan area were that I became aware of the difference between the older, less ‘developed’ or less westernized and the more modern ways of living. 

Picture sources: Post Today Newspaper, Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

1. Grocery stores

Thailand’s older ways of living and what remains of them today in districts far from the metropolitan areas, like that of my great grandparents, rely heavily on local products, often from nearby farmers’ markets and sometimes straight from their backyards. However, in bigger cities in Thailand today, the grocery stores are very similar to those in America, with perhaps even more imported products. The pattern seems to follow that as communities develop, they often trade self-sufficiency, including local sourcing and sustainability, for convenience, and as a result generate excessive waste. Synthetic materials, like plastics and chemicals are used to prolong the products’ shelf lives and foreign products are imported from overseas, creating larger carbon footprints from transportation.  

Picture sources: Amazon

2. Product Model

The difference between resource consumption in Thailand and the U.S. that stands out to me the most is the model of the consumer product market. Many products on the market in the U.S. are designed such that consumers are required to continue purchasing parts of the products to be able to continue using them (instead of a one time purchase). Products like Swiffer, for which consumers must constantly buy the single-use mopping pad refills, strike me as particularly wasteful. In Thailand, the general way to clean is with a cloth mop that can be washed and reused for months to years. The refill model generates greater revenue at the expense of the customers and the environment.

3. Transportation 

Another difference between Thailand and America regarding sustainability is the transportation system. Thailand’s traffic problems are mostly centered in the capital; Bangkok is more than twice as populated as LA (16,668 v.s. 7,544.6 people per square mile), and despite the accessible and continuously expanding rapid transit systems, there is perpetual traffic. Bangkok is more clustered and walkable whereas U.S. cities like LA are more spread out, making public transport in LA less favorable. Without the proper regulations to keep emissions from vehicles within acceptable standards, many old cars in Thailand run while visibly emitting harmful pollution.

Photo: Park Ventures Ecoplex, a LEED Platinum building in Bangkok, Thailand

4. LEED Rating Systems

Thailand is becoming more aware of the importance of sustainable development, and although public policies are slow to adjust, in recent years the private sector has been making substantial efforts to incorporate sustainability into their work. Such is the case for LEED in Thailand— though not yet widely used nor recognized in the general public, the LEED rating systems are being adopted more and more by the big real estate corporations in Thailand. As of September 2016, Thailand has 210 LEED projects, including 10 LEED Platinum projects.

5. Education and Awareness

Before coming to UCLA, and even during my first year here, I’d had very minimal exposure to the concept of sustainability and its importance. I was briefly taught in school that the planet was warming and that good citizens should practice the Three R’s. Yet the concept of sustainability and climate change seemed far from urgent and as distant as the science fiction film The Day After Tomorrow. It wasn’t until I started following the news, taking electives outside of my major, and talking to people passionate about sustainability that I started to see sustainability as something necessary and a responsibility rather than as a casual hobby someone interesting might practice.

To take advantage of being in California, where sustainability is prioritized, I joined organizations like the local U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) chapter, which offers sustainability-focused events. Verdical Group itself is hosting its annual Net Zero Conference on September 15th-16th. Covering topics on climate, carbon, energy, water, waste, and transit, the conference will include educational sessions from sustainability industry leaders. The conference is virtual this year, making it accessible to audiences outside the U.S. as well (including myself, currently at home in Bangkok).

According to data from the Worldbank, Thailand emits 4.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita (283,763 kt annually) whereas the U.S. emits 15.5 metric tons per capita (5,006,302 kt annually). Both countries have large rooms to improve their respective sustainability scenes. Thailand still needs more awareness of the sustainability issue, which hopefully will fuel the desire for change; it was only this year after sustainability gained momentum in Thailand that major grocery stores stopped giving out plastic bags at checkout. For the U.S., it seems the level of awareness that was initially needed to propel changes has been achieved, meaning bigger actions that go beyond spreading awareness are now possible, and crucial, in continuing the sustainability progress.

For individuals anywhere, consuming resources responsibly, doing our part to minimize waste, and educating ourselves to support those with the power to make positive changes are things we can do no matter the circumstances to improve sustainability.