Nearly one in twelve people in Thailand still die prematurely as a result of exposure to pollution, according to the Thailand Health and Pollution Assessment and Prioritization Program (HPAPP) . The main pollution risks in Thailand stem from PM2.5 particles, PM10 particles, and ozone gases . For instance, exposure to PM10 and PM2.5 can cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers, as well as increased mortality and morbidity, both daily and over time . According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), most of the population of Thailand is exposed to PM2.5 concentrations well above the WHO Air Quality Guideline for healthy air (5µg/m3). In 2016, this exposure to ambient air pollution caused an estimated 33,000 deaths in Thailand . Additionally, the cost of air pollution in the country is tremendous. Research conducted by Associate Professor Witsanu Attavanich, an environmental economist at Kasetsart University, estimated that the overall social cost generated from air pollution in Thailand was equal to 4.616 trillion baht in 2019 . Specifically, the social cost generated from PM2.5 was estimated at 2.17 trillion THB per year, almost 11% of 2019 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) , , while the social cost generated from PM10 was estimated at 1.88 trillion THB per year. At the provincial level, the research revealed that Bangkok has the highest social cost of air pollution . In Bangkok, in certain months of the year, PM2.5 concentrations can reach 8 times the WHO annual air-quality guideline value, severely threatening human health . In March 2023, PM2.5 particles were recorded to be at unsafe levels in 50 districts of Bangkok, with levels far exceeding the guidelines set by the WHO. This hazardous air pollution resulted in the hospitalization of nearly 200,000 people in just one week in Thailand, as a thick haze engulfed Bangkok .
Thailand is also experiencing challenges related to water pollution and wastewater treatment . In Thailand, municipal wastewater treatment systems remain largely insufficient, while wastewater management in industrial and agricultural sectors is often ineffective. As a result, surface and coastal water quality in parts of the country has deteriorated due to the discharge of effluents from the municipal sector, households, tourist places, industrial and the agricultural sectors. According to the Thailand State of Pollution Report 2020, of the 59 water sources and 6 still water resources that were tested: 2% were in excellent quality, 37% in good quality, 43% in fair quality, and 18% in poor quality. The top 5 water sources with the poorest water quality in 2020 were: 1). Lower Lam Takong River, 2). Lower Chao Phraya River, 3). Sakae Krang River, 4). Lower Rayong River, and 5). Kuang River. In addition, coastal water quality was recorded as: 4% excellent quality, 60% good quality, 27% fair quality, 7% poor quality, and 2% was in very poor quality . In particular, the trend of coastal water quality in the Gulf of Thailand remains in poor quality .
Additionally, Thailand like many countries around the world, is in the midst of a significant plastic waste crisis. To provide further insight into where Thailand’s plastic waste comes from and how it moves through the environment, in 2022, the World Bank published a first large-scale assessment integrating national waste generation and waste management performance data with actual hydrological conditions to estimate how mismanaged plastic waste is carried and discharged into the marine environment. The study aims to better understand how plastic waste travels from land-based sources to the marine environment by analyzing the material flow of plastic waste in five high-priority catchments (Phetchaburi, Mae Klong, Tha Chin, Chao Phraya and Bang Pakong) and three tourist hotspots (Krabi, Phuket and Ko Samui) .
For the high priority catchments, despite a high formal collection and recycling rate in Thailand (at a combined rate of 88.8%), remaining uncollected plastic waste and many unsanitary disposal facilities result in an estimated 428 kton/year of mismanaged plastic waste (MPW). Most mismanaged plastic waste that is available for wash-off to rivers and the marine environment (defined as ‘exposed mismanaged plastic waste’) is generated in rural areas (70.1%) which have lower collection rates and contain the most disposal facilities. Furthermore, despite high collection rates, Bangkok is also a significant contributor (18.4%) to exposed MPW due to the large overall volume of waste generated and thus uncollected. A large amount of uncollected waste in the Chao Phraya catchment is disposed directly into waterways. Across 4 of the 5 high-priority catchments (excluding Mae Klong), on average, 47.6% of mismanaged waste that ends up in the rivers is discharged into the marine environment. Meaning an annual average total of 9.3 kton/year of plastic waste is discharged into the marine environment from four high priority catchments (excluding Mae Klong). This is equivalent to a marine plastic footprint of 0.4 kg/capita/year. However, during particularly rainy years this may increase to 14.3 kton/year, while it may be as low as 4.9 kton/year in drier years , .
Concerning the 3 tourist hotspots, a total of 16.8 kton/year of mismanaged plastic waste is generated. Of this, an estimated 0.7 kton/year of exposed mismanaged plastic waste leaks into the environment, primarily from unsanitary disposal facilities in cities and from uncollected waste in the more rural areas. However, due to the lack of reliable hydrological data in the tourist hotspots, the study could not obtain reliable results for the transport of exposed mismanaged plastic waste to the marine environment , .
Air pollution in Thailand is caused by several factors including industry and vehicle emissions, and the burning of farm residues and forest fires , . Air pollution is often more severe in Northern Thailand, where agricultural biomass burning and forest fires are common . In Bangkok, factory emissions, vehicles, construction sites, burning of waste and crop residues and stagnant airflows during the dry seasons are major contributors to air pollution and toxic haze , .
The discharge of effluents from the municipal sector, households, tourist places, industrial and agricultural sectors, are contributing to water pollution in Thailand’s surface and coastal waters . Wastewater treatment has not yet been sufficiently developed in Thailand, and not all existing wastewater treatment plants are currently operational. In 2016, 13 out of 101 plants were non-functional, which the Pollution Control Department attributed to insufficient budget allocations for investment and maintenance of plants by local administration organizations. Ineffective wastewater management and enforcement combined with population growth and the expansion of economic, agricultural, and industrial activities, are further increasing the pressure on authorities to come up with solutions .
Similarly, population and economic growth in Thailand are contributing to increasing waste generation, especially plastic waste generation . According to the Pollution Control Department report, in 2019, plastic waste accounted for 12% (2 million tons/year) of the total waste generated in Thailand. Only 0.5 million tons of plastic waste was recycled. Some were disposed of in incinerators, but the rest were disposed of in landfills and accumulated in dumped sites. The COVID-19 pandemic also intensified the country’s plastic waste problem .
Key policies and governance approach
The government of Thailand has taken several actions in order to improve air quality in the country , including through the establishment of the 20-Year Master Plan on Air Quality Management (2018-2037). This Plan consists of 3 measures: (i) Prevention and reduction of pollution at the source; (ii) Enhancement of pollution control efficiency at the source; and (iii) Enhancement of pollution management efficiency . It also includes top priorities such as the Smoke Crisis and Wildfire Prevention Project in upper northern Thailand, the Air Pollution Health Risks Surveillance and Prevention Project, and an Environmental Watch Center for Chiang Mai’s Industrial Areas . Additionally, several other plans and acts exist in Thailand relating to the control of air quality and emissions, such as the Northern Haze Prevention & Mitigation Plan . Thailand is also party to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a legally binding environmental agreement signed in 2002 . The Pollution Control Department (PCD) of Thailand, under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, is responsible for conducting official air quality monitoring and setting national standards .
Since 1994, the Pollution Control Department has set up water quality standards in Thailand, which serve as guidelines for wastewater management in the country . The Ministry of Industry has also issued wastewater management standards to regulate the management and testing of wastewater from factories in line with international standards . Additionally, Thailand has formulated a 20-Year National Plan for Water Quality Management (2018-2037), which prioritizes controlling wastewater discharge into natural water resources , , as well as the 20-Year Master Plan on Water Resources Management (2018-2037) which includes water quality conservation as one of its six key focus areas . As part of this Plan, Thailand is mandated to construct 100 additional wastewater management facilities in the country by 2022. Further, the country has established the Water Resources Act (2018), which is the main piece of legislation encompassing work in this area .
Thailand also has several national policies, strategies and action plans in place to address plastic waste . For instance, the country has formulated the Plastic Waste Management Roadmap 2018-2030, which aims to move towards sustainable plastic management and serves as a framework and direction for preventing and solving the plastic waste problem. Underlying principles of the roadmap include Circular Economy, Responsible Production and Consumption, Public-Private Partnership, and Life Cycle Approach. Guidelines for operation under the roadmap are divided into three measures: 1) Measures to reduce the generation of plastic waste at the source, 2) Measures to reduce the use of single-use plastic in the process of consumption, and 3) Measures to manage the plastic waste after consumption by supporting and encouraging them to be reused. Additionally, Thailand’s 2nd National Waste Management Action Plan (2022 – 2027) aims to achieve by 2027: 80% of solid waste effectively managed, 60% of household hazardous waste effectively managed, 100% of infectious waste effectively managed, and 100% of hazardous industrial waste correctly processed in the management system. It also promotes the following principles: 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), Polluter Pays Principle (PPP), Public-Private Partnerships, and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) . In order to achieve zero waste, Thailand’s Bio-Economy, Circular Economy, and Green Economy (BCG) Model also aims to advance resource efficiency and sustainable waste management .
Successes and remaining challenges
Thailand has established several national policies, strategies, and laws to address pollution, which involve several institutions. However, implementation challenges often arise due to institutional fragmentation and a lack of inter-departmental cooperation . This lack of cooperation and coordinated actions amongst relevant government departments and agencies has resulted in pollution policies essentially being implemented in silos, limiting both enforcement and impact . Furthermore, insufficiently coordinated actions between relevant government departments, agencies and local administration is another very urgent problem to address, as local administrations are often at the forefront of tackling pollution. For instance, the main responsibility for waste management lies at the municipal level and not at the central level . Yet, as it stands, the development of pollution and environmental initiatives is still very much limited to the central government, as local government authorities lack both funding and capacity . Other barriers to pollution management in Thailand include limited powers given by the constituent legislation, the lack of financial resources, lack of sufficient and accurate data, lack of proficient personnel, and conflict between the government’s drive for economic growth and the need to protect the environment and human health , , . In addition to legal and policy challenges, public education and awareness raising regarding the threats and dangers of pollution are also needed in order to create an informed society, with the aim to enhance and further protect the environment and people from pollution .
Although there are still a number of barriers that need to be addressed in Thailand to facilitate effective, long-term improvements , the country has already made some progress in pollution management, as outline in Thailand’s State of Pollution 2020 Report. For instance, between 2019 and 2020, good water quality in the country increased, with the Upper Tapi River in excellent quality, the overall image of coastal water quality improved, the overall image of air quality in general areas was better, and the amount of solid waste in the country decreased . Additionally, the country has continuously highlighted its commitment to reduce plastic waste and marine debris. On 1 January 2020, the country imposed a 100 per cent ban on the use of water bottle cap seals, oxo plastic, and microbead plastic. The Government, in partnership with 90 retailers, ceased giving plastic bags to customers, which reduced the use of plastic bags by 228,820 tonnes. Civil networks in 48 areas also conducted waste cleaning campaigns on beaches, with over 114 tonnes collected by participants .
Initiatives and Development Plans
In 2021, Thailand and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) announced a new collaboration to identify solutions to reduce ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ (also known as SLCPs), as part of the CCAC’s Supporting National Planning and Action to reduce SLCPs (SNAP) Initiative. These solutions can help achieve Thailand’s climate change goals, while at the same time improving air quality across Thailand and protecting the health of Thai citizens. The Pollution Control Department (PCD) will work with international researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) to assess air pollutant, greenhouse gas and SLCP emissions across Thailand. Solutions to reduce emissions will also be evaluated to find priority actions that provide the largest benefits for air quality and climate change. The second component of the work will look at how to implement these priority actions in Thailand. It will assess what institutional reforms are needed, and where coordination between national and local government can be improved for these solutions to be effective .
The Government, in collaboration with other sectors, initiated the “Send Plastic Home” project to encourage recycling of plastic waste in the country. To advance the project’s motto of “You sort, We recycle”, 10 drop points were piloted in order to take clean sorted plastic waste from people’s homes to the recycling process, to promote the Circular Economy model in Thailand .
- Ensure effective co-ordination across all relevant agencies, at all levels of government .
- Thailand needs strong leadership, from the leader of the government and relevant political parties to command, support, and consistently monitor the implementation and enforcement of pollution-related laws and policies .
- Include pollution as a national priority in internal development plans as well as national development strategy documents .
- Provide greater power for local communities in the decision-making process .
- Engage private sector groups in policymaking processes to ensure their concerns are sufficiently accounted for .
- Create a policy framework for knowledge-sharing and the implementation of environmental programs .
- Develop data collection systems and support the creation of a centralized database on pollution .
- Technical and funding support is required for capacity building within all relevant agencies .
- Economic instruments and measures such as environmental taxes and incentives could be introduced to boost the effectiveness of the regulatory regime .
- Public education and awareness raising regarding the threats and dangers of pollution are also needed in order to create an informed society, with the aim to enhance and further protect the environment and people from pollution .
- Expand access to affordable health care and health insurance .
- Since the issue of air quality involves various sources of pollutants from different sectors, a national regulatory body with the overarching power to address all types of air pollutants and coordinate the action of different ministries is needed .
- Increase the number of air quality monitoring stations in the country .
- Improve vehicle emission inspections schemes and adopt other policies to reduce air pollution and generate revenue to fund protective measures .
- Thailand’s international climate change commitments could be better integrated with national objectives for reducing air pollution, in order to capitalize on co-benefits .
- Build new and strengthen existing wastewater facilities of Local Administration Organizations .
- Use wastewater management standards as criteria for business permits .
- The number of waste management sites remains inadequate. Basic infrastructure including the infrastructure for waste management needs to be further developed .
- Reduce transport of leaked mismanaged plastic waste (downstream in waste chain), initially focusing on areas at close distance from the coast. Opportunities include: installing trash racks in urban drainage systems, that are cleaned daily, and in irrigation canals just downstream from villages; promoting and expanding river clean-up initiatives such as the one managed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration in the Chao Phraya River; and monitoring plastic waste in the riverine environment as it is intercepted by trash racks .
- Reduce mismanaged plastic waste generation (mid-stream in waste chain). This may be achieved through: developing an efficient and coordinated waste collection system in rural Thailand; further improving urban waste collection; investing in well-managed final disposal facilities and upgrading unsanitary disposal facilities; and improving laws and regulations to support the implementation of measures, including enforcing separation at source, monitoring and controlling the operation of waste disposal, and capacity building of local authority staff in waste management .
- Improve data on solid waste generation and management. Once better solid waste management data is available, modelling to obtain reliable results for the transport of exposed mismanaged plastic waste to the marine environment can be further improved in the future by collecting hydrological data .
 Department of International Organizations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand (2021). Thailand’s Voluntary National Review on the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 2021.
 Attavanich, W., (2021). Willingness to pay for air quality in Thailand: An analysis of multiple pollutants. Research Paper No.15/2021. Department of Economics, Faculty of Economics, Kasetsart University.
 WHO (2022). The cost of clean air in Thailand. [Online]. Available: https://www.who.int/thailand/news/detail/08-06-2022-the-cost-of-clean-air-in-thailand.
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 APEC Secretariat (2023). Bangkok Goals on Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy. [Online]. Available: https://www.apec.org/meeting-papers/leaders-declarations/2022/2022-leaders-declaration/bangkok-goals-on-bio-circular-green-(bcg)-economy.
 UN Environment Programme (2021). Thailand and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition begin a major new initiative to reduce air pollution, improve human health and mitigate climate change. [Online]. Available: https://www.ccacoalition.org/en/news/thailand-and-climate-and-clean-air-coalition-begin-major-new-initiative-reduce-air-pollution.