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Public awareness creation - A delicate task

Some fresh perceptions on Chiang Mai's perennial garbage crisis

by Bundit Na-Lamphun, Martin Weinschenk-Foerster and Ulrich StGrabowski

Garbage is threatening to suffocate the city of Chiang Mail A number of attempts to get rid of refuse have not only failed but brought local inhabitants up in arms as well. RISE-AT proposes treatment of garbage involving recycling as opposed to dumping in landfills or incineration. However, there are many obstacles, not the least of which being official administration.

Mention the word «garbage" to anyone in or around the northern Thai capital of Chiang Mai and one is likely to be met with either a cynical smile, an angry glare or outright suspicion. Since 1989, the issue has become increasingly emotive to the point where four separate communities have each come out in angry public protest against the local authorities.

The first such event took place at Mae Hia, a small village a few miles to the southwest of the city where garbage had been dumped in a simple landfill since 1957. The villagers were fed up with mismanagement of the dump that included not just broken promises to manage it better but stench, smoke and flies as well. They blocked access to it.

Taken by surprise, the Chiang Mai municipality was forced to use a number of small temporary landfills scattered around the city while it found and prepared the next «permanent" site in San Sai District to the northeast. This was better than Mae Hia in that the site was excavated and lined but no leachate treatment system was installed. Moreover, the whole search and development process took so long - five years - that before it was ready the temporary sites had already been exhausted. Hence in late 1994 mounds of smelly uncollected garbage could be found all over the city. This situation prompted a second protest by angry, ashamed residents over non-collection of the city's solid wastes.

In the event, a meeting of ASEAN's economic ministers at the city's premier hotel provided the impetus to clean up the streets. The Army and the municipal garbage collection service was mobilised. Almost overnight and before the VIPs arrived the city was clean. But the garbage had in fact been tucked temporarily out of sight to be moved as soon as possible to San Sail When that facility opened shortly afterwards the normal garbage stream, plus the backlog, plus wastes from a nearby industrial estate in Lamphun province, plus domestic wastes from outlying private housing estates all but overwhelmed it. It was soon accepting over 300 tons of garbage a day. At present rates it will be exhausted by the end of 1996.

Incineration "solution"

It was recognised from the start that San Sai would have only a short lifespan. Thus a search for a more permanent alternative began almost immediately. Incineration seemed the best option. But because Chiang Mai's garbage has a high "wet» - mainly organic - content, a dual-fuel lignite-garbage fired power generation plant was proposed to be built at Hang Dong not far from Mae Hia. Unhappily, the decision was taken by central government in Bangkok without consulting either the local authorities or the community, or for that matter studying the local situation in any great detail. Almost inevitably, the community protested in a series of violent disturbances in late 1995, citing as the reason for their protests the possible environmental harm from the power plant. The project is now shelved, at least for the moment.

But by this time, San Sai was showing its imperfections too. The impervious lining means that rainfall and leachate must be pumped from the site into tankers for transport and treatment elsewhere. When heavy rain overwhelms the pumps, or plastic bags block the inlets, the whole site becomes a filthy, stinking swamp. So again nearby residents protested. In May 1996, they blocked access to the site. The net effect is that within a few months, Chiang Mai will have nowhere to dump its garbage and, because it has alienated community after community, little prospect of finding a new site. Meanwhile, very little progress has been made in developing more technological solutions.

Decisions arbitrary

This brief chronology serves to emphasise a key feature of municipal government throughout Thailand, namely that most of the important decisions and the authority to implement them are still taken and held by central government. As a consequence, decisions tend to be arbitrary, only poorly researched, and imposed on the local community from above. Disempowered local communities meanwhile have neither the incentive nor the means to solve their own problems. They can only accede to the view from the capital which, while meant for the best, is not always very clear.

This was made very obvious when RISE-AT became more involved in the issue in late 1995. Noting that solid waste management is a pressing issue, not just in Chiang Mai but in a rapidly growing number of municipalities across the country, it initiated more baseline studies and the compilation of relevant information in cooperation with university researchers. The results of this work were discussed several times with municipal officials.


L'encombrement des darges a soulevlusieurs vagues d'indignation dans l'opinion publique et fait peser de surcroune menace grandissante sur l'environnement et la santublique. Un projet d'usine d'incintion des dets raccordne centrale thermique a rejetar la population riveraine en raison des nuisances qu'il pourrait occasionner. Le service d'information RISEAT s'emploie actuellement aire le point de la situation, aprquoi il deviendra possible de dlopper un concept diffnci'mination et de recyclage des dets.


En diversas ocasiones, los rellenos sanitarios colmados hen dado luger a protestas pas; adem representan un creciente peligro pare el medio ambiente. Los habitantes del luger rechazan asimismo por motivos ecolos una planta de incineracie residuos conectada con una central elrica. RISE-AT se encargarrimerodellevar a cabo una compilacie los datos efectivos, sobre cuyos resultados se proceder elaborar un proyecto diferenciado de saneamiento con un componente de reciclaje.

Inaccurate statistics

The studies undertaken in cooperation with Chiang Mai University make fascinating reading. The first substantive point is that official population and waste generation statistics are often quite inaccurate.

Therefore no reliable basis exists by which to estimate or predict waste management requirements. One subset within this lack of knowledge is that waste composition IS not reliably known either. Hence right from the start, the development of a realistic waste management strategy is Impossible. But in addition to these drawbacks, the studies found that for political reasons, garbage service fees are both unrealistically low and even then collected only on a voluntary basis. So even if one could produce a realistic plan, it could not be implemented for lack of funds. Not unexpectedly in such a situation, the garbage truck fleet is decrepit. Most of the 48 trucks are over 13 years old, must be repaired by their drivers when they frequently break down, and are often too large to enter the city's small lanes. Just about the only bright point is that two zones in the city are served by private sub-contractors with 20 additional trucks, but even here the garbage containers that are supplied by the municipality are often too big to be handled by garbage workers It is amazing that the City IS as clean as it is.

Against this background, any proposed solutions are necessarily of an ad hoc nature. Officially, three waste management alternatives have been considered - landfill, composting and incineration - each as competing alternatives. The most careful research urged landfill as having the lowest capital and operating costs, followed by composting and incineration as progressively less financially attractive. However, these alternatives ignored growing land scarcity (not merely a physical constraint but a financial one as well) with regard to the landfill option, as well as the only partial solution offered by composting and the air pollution associated with incineration. More seriously, the proposed solutions did not address shortcomings in the fee collection system or attempt to redress the underlying knowledgegap. They also ignored the possibility of integrated solid waste management, including waste separation and recycling.

Preliminary RISE-AT suggestions attempt to deal with all these issues. Because actual data is unavailable, they are necessarily indicative only. Yet they move the whole discussion of possible solid waste management strategies onto a higher plane. All the relevant aspects are considered.

Starting with population, RISE-AT's work accepts Transit Authority of Thailand estimates made in 1993. These figures put Chiang Mai's 1995 population at 693,330, which is more than double the "official» estimate of 256,069. If each person generates 0.34 kgs of garbage per day (against a higher officially assumed 1 kg) total waste generated is 256 tons per day, which is quite close to the actual quantities handled. The official estimate also gives 256 tons, the same quantity, but because the baseline assumptions differ, the two projections diverge sharply over time. The RISEAT proposal suggests that the city's population will grow to 0.88, 1.00 and 1.12 million by the year 2005,2010 and 2015 respectively, generating 325, 371 and 413 tons per day of garbage respectively. For the same dates, the official population estimates are considerably lower and officials expect that the amount of garbage per day would be only 282,305 and 361 tons in the year 2005, 2010, and 2015 respectively.

RISE -AT then suggests that the most probable composition of Chiang Mai's solid wastes is as follows (based on a recent survey):







Plastics and rubber


Organic material like food scraps


Textiles (cloth)


Ceramic, sand, stone


Other (sweepings, etc.)


If a considerable share of the organic fraction is available for processing and if a combined anaerobic/aerobic composting system is applied, it would thus be possible to dispose of the large organic fraction of Chiang Mai's wastes at a low net cost of less than 300 Baht per ton while producing energy (methane) and compost at the same time. The remaining fractions would then become available for recycling. Concerning the organic share, a combined anaerobic/aerobic composting system could start with the huge amount of biomass material from hotels (e.g. food residues) and the vegetable/fruit markets; largely unmixed organic material, which is easily collected at the source. Thus for the beginning, the waste collection system and behaviour need not be changed for each individual household, but the main fraction of organic material could be easily collected and treated in an environmentally sound way instead of being dumped at the landfill.

Garbage contaminated

Recycling already occurs in Chiang Mai but mostly at low recycling rates - plastic 6.5 %, paper 16.5%, glass 22.9% and metal 80.0%. The main problems are that garbage is not separated at source and is therefore contaminated, and waste picking by both private scavengers and waste collectors and landfill workers under contract to the municipality is more tolerated than encouraged.

As a result, only the most easily resaleable items are recovered. If on the other hand waste picking was encouraged, it would in combination with some form of biocomposting system open the way for integrated solid waste management. Assuming 8090% of each *action becomes available for recycling and that 50-95% of it is recycled, over half of the initial total waste stream could be recycled. The balance would then go to sanitary landfill at much lower costs than incineration. The reduced quantities of material would of course extend land fill life. In this way, all wastes would be handled at least cost and for least environmental impact.

But as always, the problems to be overcome are more than just technical. If one looks at the present state of solid waste management in Chiang Mai, it is crippled not just by ignorance of the technical issues but by poor fee collection and public alienation, both of which are rooted in low public awareness of the issues. As long as people are unaware of what is at stake, it is easy for them to take an unsympathetic and even hostile stance towards government initiatives while simultaneously being content to avoid paying collection fees. In such a context, it is easy for politicians to perceive the need to pay as a barrier to their re-election. They therefore tend to forgive nonpayment. But no money of course dooms the whole exercise.

For these reasons, and as a means of contributing to informed public debate, NGOs and RISE-AT focus on public awareness creation, primarily through the Thai and Englishlanguage print media. They often point out for a specific fraction of the total waste stream what would be the best approach for that fraction within an assumed integrated waste management package that may or may not be presented as well. Unhappily, given the urgency of the situation, this approach though vital, promises to take a long time to accomplish its goals.

At odds with administrative structure

Moreover, in such a situation, dissemination of an integrated approach to solid waste management based on appropriate technology can be seen as opposing the existing centralised administrative structure in Thailand. Bangkok elite, living and working in their environment, can all too easily assume that what is appropriate for Bangkok must necessarily also be appropriate for Chiang Mail Thus if high-technology incineration is the only feasible approach in Bangkok, why not apply it to Chiang Mai too? In this view, incineration can seem to be such an obvious choice that no further discussion is needed.

NGO involvement

Unhappily, this approach has produced not merely a flurry of competing proposals from incinerator suppliers, at least one of which has become a contractual obligation, but any opposition to it from whatever quarter can easily be seen as obstructive. Such a confrontational stance becomes even easier to adopt in view of the past history of protests, and the lack of power, influence and interest of local authority. Thus in these circumstances, public awareness creation becomes an extremely delicate task that must be handled with great tact.

On the other hand, the long history of protest has also been accompanied by a growing swell of public awareness campaigns such that these activities can be viewed as positive contributions to the debate. Chiang Mai University organised the third and fourth National Symposiums on Environmental Technologies in Chiang Mai in November 1990 and June 1992 respectively. In September 1993 a a Clean up Chiang Mai" project involved thousands of people in cleaning up the historic parts of the city, an activity that was repeated in late 1994. At that time, the city's garbage collection crisis sparked action by several NGOs, the best known of which are the «We Love Chiang Mai Group" and "Walk for a Better Environment" which are close cooperation partners of RISEAT. The University has continued quietly to organise seminars on solid waste disposal technology, municipal laws in relation to the environment and other topics through 1995 and 1996. Very gradually through such activities, the authorities are coming to realise the need for a much more open, proactive, locally acceptable stance. Change is taking place. But it promises to be a long road and one which may still be difficult to travel.

Banana wastes application

Meanwhile, in another solid waste management development, the Solar Energy Research and Training Centre (SERT) at Naresuan University at Phitsanuloke, Thailand, in co-operation with GTZ/ ISAT has applied biogas technology to banana wastes. Villagers near the university peel banana stems to sun-dry the inner core, but the discarded peel produces a strong odour as it rots. SERT's solution has been to teach the villagers to feed the peel to biogas digesters. They now get methane gas for cooking and lighting instead of the odour.