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Sonnet in plastic

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by Andrew Biggs

I am sitting in a diner in the Southern town of Surat Thani, staring down at three toothpicks.

Other patrons of this morning restaurant may be looking at me, wondering why this big farang is sitting with his eyes fixed on three little toothpicks swathed in plastic.

It is a transitory moment in an otherwise hectic schedule; the realization that those three little toothpicks somehow sum up our obscene love affair with all things plastic.

Last night I wandered down to the riverside market in Surat, the one next to where the slow boats leave for Koh Samui and Koh Phangnan. I bought three different things from three different stalls; fruit, pork satay and deep-fried spring rolls. I was trying to be good but those spring rolls looked so delicious I could not resist.

Upon returning to my hotel room, I laid all the food out. I realized I had more plastic than I had food:

1. The fruit consisted of pineapple and guava. Each required a separate bag, along with the chili and sugar concoction I didn’t even ask for, but nevertheless received. Those three bags then were thrust into a bag so I could carry them. Total bags: 4

2. The pork satay came with delicious peanut sauce in its own little bag. So, too, did the cucumber in sweet vinegar. And of course, there were the three satays. Oh alright, six. All this into a single bag. Total bags: 4

3. Those deep-fried spring rolls — two of them cut up into pieces then covered in a sticky, spicy sweet sauce. It’s okay, dear reader, I have plans to go for a run tomorrow morning. Interestingly, this cholesterol-packed treat used the least bags. Total bags: “Only” 2

This double-digit plastic bag count is what kind of upset me (as did those deep-fried spring rolls, but that was limited to my stomach). My dinner resulted in 12 plastic bags being thrown into, and filling up, the hotel room trash can which, I was forced to realize, was a trash can with a bin liner. A plastic bin liner.

And now, the next morning, here I am at the Surat Thani diner, having asked the waitress for a mai chim fan so that I can delicately pick my teeth behind a well-mannered hand. I didn’t get the one. I got three. Each wrapped in its own plastic!

Since when did we start wrapping toothpicks in plastic? It was bad enough when straws got the treatment. I thought we were supposed to be concerned about the environment, and yet instead of finding ways to cut down, we instead search for things to further wrap.

Recently I went to Tops Supermarket, the one nearest my suburban mansion in leafy Samut Prakan. It was not a full shop, just some necessities like non-fat milk and leafy green vegetables and Smirnoff. I had about 12 items when I reached the sullen-looking cashier, who was sullen for reasons you are about to discover.

As she ran those dozen items through the register, she tossed them casually to the end of the counter. This in itself was jarring enough; normally she tossed them into Tops regulation plastic bags.

Then the horror; there were no plastic bags!

“What’s going on here?” I enquired.

Nong Sullen (pronounced Sul-LEN if you’re reading this column out loud to nephews and nieces) didn’t look up when she said: “Tops doesn’t use plastic bags anymore.”

To me, hearing that was like hearing some fantastic news, such as: “You just won the lottery” or “Oh look – there’s a full bottle of Absolut at the very back of the liquor cabinet behind the mescaline.”

Tops had stopped using plastic bags? What a triumph. Thailand ranks in the top ten countries in the world that uses plastic bags the most. This single executive decision by Tops surely would be enough to send Thailand tumbling right out of that top ten.

I felt like penning a letter to Tops, forgiving them for all their transgressions in the past, and warmly embracing the supermarket chain with a vow to be a loyal customer to the very end. There was, however, a small problem. The issue of my 12 grocery items being tossed unceremoniously to the other side of the cashier.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked the cashier, pointing at my purchases. She, too, pointed towards a single grey paper bag.

Just the one?

From what I could gather from Nong Sullen, each customer was allowed one grey paper bag to self-pack their groceries. This was somewhat generous of Tops, but what about those of us who didn’t just stop for a Pepsi and packet of fags? That sole paper bag was not going to be enough to house all my leafy green vegetables.

“That’s all you get,” the cashier replied.

Tops had changed its policy somewhat dramatically, with no large posters with big numbers counting down to their new policy day, or instructions on how to make alternative arrangements. No doubt our cashier had been bombarded with angry customers suddenly faced with the prospect of shoving the weekly groceries into a single paper bag.

“Can I buy another one?” I asked.

“No,” she answered, not curtly, but clearly a little tired of life, sounding like she wished my bottle of Smirnoff was passing down her throat rather than through the scanner.

Luckily I had one of my staff with me, who was able to carry the remaining leafy green vegetables that could not fit into the paper bag, so the trip was not entirely a disaster. But it wasn’t a good look for me, wandering through that shopping centre clutching kale and holy basil against my chest.

One day later I had to go into Tops again. To my surprise, the plastic bags were back!

Had Tops caved in to angry customers and relented on the non-plastic bags?

“It’s only no-bags on the 3rd of every month,” the cashier explained. She was a different one from the sullen girl of the day before, but I noticed Nong Sullen was stationed at another check-out and looked far more relaxed with her life.

That night I went on the internet. Tops apparently had a non-plastic bag day back in July that was such a hit, they decided to keep it going one day a month. Slightly disappointing news; I would have been happy to hear the no-bags rule was permanent. It is something we humans have to adapt to, if not sooner then later when the planet finally shakes us off because of our bad behavior.

But get this; Tops said it saved an incredible 500,000 bags on that no-bag day. This is a staggering statistic. It means that in any given month, 15,000,000 Tops bags are taken home and tossed away into the environment, no doubt ending up in land fills or in the stomachs of our sea life.

And so here I am, a single farang sitting in a Surat Thani diner, staring down at the three toothpicks wrapped in plastic on the table. I only asked for one. It’s a little like buying a bottle of water at 7-Eleven and receiving it in a plastic bag along with enough plastic straws wrapped in plastic to feed a poor family of five for a month, if indeed poor families ate straws. I’d retreat to my hotel room, but the cleaning lady hasn’t come yet and I can’t bear the sight of those 12 used plastic bags in the plastic bin lined trash can.

Twelve bags per meal? Let’s say all of us in Thailand are doing the same. That’s 816,000,000 plastic bags for a single solitary meal.

Hold the green leafy vegetables. I need to open that Smirnoff.

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