Thailand begins 2020 with plastic bag ban at major stores

Thailand, one of the biggest plastic polluters on the planet, has begun the new decade by banning plastic bags at what it describes as "major stores".

The country says it wants to work towards a total ban in 2021 in an effort to bring down the amount of waste and debris that makes its way to the sea.

The ban, part of an ongoing 20-year action plan, includes a halt on the use of micro-beads in cosmetics and will soon include plastic straws and cups.

Around 75 major retailers have stopped giving shoppers single-use plastic bags across 25,000 stores nationally, and are instead encouraging people to purchase reusable bags.

Thailand's minister of natural resources and environment, Varawut Silpa-Archa, was at a Bangkok store on New Year's Day, handing out cloth bags to shoppers to spread the message about the new ban.

He said: "Thailand was ranked sixth among the world's top countries that dumps waste into the sea".

"During the past five months, we were down to 10th... thanks to the cooperation of the Thai people."

In the first year of the country's plastic action plan last year, when consumers were encouraged to refuse the bags voluntarily, the number of single-use plastic bags was down by two billion, the ministry said, the equivalent of 5,765 tonnes.

Mr Varawut did say however the challenge will now lay in encouraging markets and rural areas to be part of the ban, which makes up around 40% of the single-use plastic waste.

Thailand's ban on single-use plastic bags comes only a few months after the country's famous dugong was found dead with pieces of plastic in its digestive system.

The animal - a type of mammal that is sometimes thought to be the source of the mermaid myth - had become nationally famous after it was "adopted" by the public when it was discovered alone, without its parents.

Mariam, as the dugong was known, was found to have "many pieces of small plastic clogged her intestines and caused inflammation, leading to blood infection and inflamed lungs," according to one of the vets.

In November last year, Malaysia, Thailand's neighbour, struck an agreement with the UK to send back 42 shipping containers of plastic waste, after it was sent there illegally.