Anyone hanging out along Sukhumvit yesterday afternoon, or at Asiatique mall in the evening, might have noticed the odd spectacle of a man wearing a suit made of plastic bags, 600 of them to be precise.
The Plastic Bag Monster project, which took place on Earth Day, aimed to call attention to the tragic overuse of plastic bags in Bangkok. According to organizers, Bangkokians use approximately eight plastic bags per day — the 600 on the suit represents three months’ usage for the typical citizen.
In a viral 48-second clip taken during the day, the monster is seen lumbering into a 7-Eleven on Charoenkrung Road. He walks around, looks at the goods, lets people see him, spies a tray of bananas individually wrapped in plastic, and walks out in disgust.
Inside the suit was Geoff Baker, 34, a passionate environmentalist and high school politics and world history teacher. He was accompanied by members of the student-run NGO he leads, Grin Green International, which has “the sole purpose of ridding Bangkok of its addiction to plastic waste,” he told Coconuts.
If you’ve spent time in Bangkok, the land of smiles and double-bagging, you know how important this issue is. Street food is often served in a plastic bag, secured with a rubber band, and placed inside another plastic bag, coffee from street carts is also placed into a bag (presumably for those on motorbikes, but completely inexplicable for the rest of us).
When I bring cloth bags to Villa Market, the staff tries to put my items in plastic before they go into the cloth bags, saying “to protect your bag, madam.”
Though I appreciate that they’re trying to be kind — and that awareness of the issue is not high — the tragic overuse of plastic bags in Thailand, and much of Southeast Asia, is cruel to the environment. According to Ocean Conservancy, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam may be responsible for up to 60 percent of plastic waste in global seas. A report by the Bangkok Metropolitan Association (BMA) has said that more than 600,000 bags are given out in the city every day and it’s common knowledge that each bag takes 1,000 years to decompose.
READ: Bangkok’s Bad Habit: Plastic Bags
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the staff at 7-Eleven paid no attention to the Plastic Bag Monster and went about their business serving customers in the store. Said Baker: “I was wondering if management would say something, but nothing happened.”
Bangkok Foodies founder Samantha Proyrungtong shared the video on her popular Facebook page shortly after it went live. “When they sent me the 7-Eleven video, I felt the reaction to the single plastic-bagged bananas was not only genuine, but powerful,” she said. “How many of us had this same reaction, Thai or foreign, and yet who is doing anything about it?”
She speaks the truth, and that’s part of the reason Baker helped his students found Grin Green.
He said the organization started about four months ago and is staffed by innovative, driven students. They already have a website and are building resources and relationships, including with influential institutions like Greenpeace, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), and the Thai Environment Institute. Baker said that all have been keen to work together on initiatives and campaigns.
Baker explained that his group met yesterday afternoon at Phrom Phong BTS, then walked through Benchasiri Park, and Asoke intersection, the skybridge, and the surrounding areas raising awareness of the issue.
They held posters and campaigned outside Sukhumvit’s many plastic bag suppliers, including 7-Eleven, Villa Market, Tesco, and Family Mart shops. They did the same in Siam before setting up a booth at Asiatique in the evening, what Baker called one of the only Earth Day events in Bangkok.
He said they got great feedback from Thai people, many of whom saw the group and clapped or yelled out “Wan Lok!” (Earth Day). He said they got lots of questions about their project and that the students could quickly answer in Chinese, Korean, Thai, and English.
Student DG Yun, who coordinates public relations for the group, said that the best response to their plastic bag protest came from a vegan American woman, who said she was trying to cut down her plastic bag usage and asked if she could buy them food or drinks to thank them for their work. The most unexpected response came from a Chinese man at Asiatique who wanted to try on the Plastic Bag Monster costume himself.
To build the getup, Baker and his team members collected the 600 plastic bags from school, family, and friends. The creation took about five hours over two days.
Check out a time-lapse video of the students making the plastic bag monster suit:
Of actually wearing the suit, Baker said: “It was super hot in there, especially during mid-day. I had to stay strong to motivate my kids from giving up and complaining.”
John Woodward, another teacher who joined the group, said: “Visitors to Asiatique focused on Geoff, and his mission, but it was more about the students and the fact it was a learning opportunity. It’s a student-run NGO and the kids had to learn everything from scratch and then go out and do it. That was inspiring.”
Le Jin Sun, a student volunteer on Grin Green’s marketing team called the experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with people about something she feels passionate about. Since she calls Bangkok home, she said it’s important to limit unnecessary plastic waste. “I have witnessed Bangkok turn into a plastic dumpster, I truly believe that action must be taken before it’s too late.”