During this time of hope following the election of Bangkok’s governor, allow me to share with you the story of a project that makes me optimistic about plastic waste management within the community.
Nang Loeng Plastic Bank was initiated by Julien Huang and Nok-Sunadda Huang, founders of a creative hub called Weave Artisan Society, based in Chiang Mai. Tempted by the opportunity to explore and solve social issues in a different context, the creators joined the Social Innovation Hackathon hosted by the British Council (Urban Studies Lab, and FREC Bangkok) in 2020, inviting people to work with the Nang Loeng community. This award-winning idea is now being implemented.
The idea is simple. Based on the real issues uncovered by Nok and Julien during the development stage, they invite people to drop used or unwanted plastic at the designated location and receive loyalty points. These can be turned into special rewards, such as homemade dishwashing liquid made by the local people in the community.
However, it is never easy to implement a social innovation or movement. It requires significant engagement, especially in a highly diverse and complex community like Nang Loeng, which is often reluctant to integrate with new faces. Let us hear from the team about how they overcame all the challenges that emerged.
A small chamber on the second floor of Ford Resource & Engagement Center was reserved for the interview, and various people attended. Apart from Julien and Nok, other attendees included Mae Daeng (Suwan Waoeployngam), Namo (Kornkamon Waoeployngam) and Nammon(Nawarat Waoeployngam), representatives of E-Loeng Creative Hub, and several members of the British Council.
The presence of those who live in the Nang Loeng area signifies the engaging, democratic, and inclusive working principles of the two project owners and their commitment to making the social innovation project a success.
“We would like to thank Mae Daeng, Namo, Nammon, and Palm (Tharinee Rattanasathian). Without them, it would be impossible to continue with our idea,” Julien stated, humbly mentioning the significant role local people play in this project.
“Nang Loeng is a complex community, and it is not easy for outsiders like us to blend in. But Mae Daeng and E-Loeng and their crews helped to open the door, connect us to the local people, and communicate with them, so they can see the value of what we are trying to do here.”
“We never knew if our design would be pragmatic or useful to the local community,” Nok added, explaining further their intentions. “Julien and I do not want to see our six months spent working on this project go to waste. We are committed to ensuring that the community here will gain the benefits.”
Although E-Loeng crews are locally based in the Nang Loeng area, and former competitors to Julien and Nok during the hackathon, Mae Daeng and her two daughters have been willing to help bring the idea to life. They support the newcomers in many ways, such as recruiting workers, offering workspace, and producing dishwashing liquid to use as rewards.
Why do they offer help when they can simply ignore the other team?
“These two are very sweet,” Mae Daeng explained simply. “I like their personalities which are different from other people who have come to our area. Many people tend to order us around or look down at us, but Nok and Julien are very humble. That is why we want to help.”
Having E-Loeng as a part of the project makes it much easier for Julien and Nok, who usually work in Chiang Mai and come round once or twice a month.
“A physical workspace plays an important role in driving the project forward,” Nok shared her opinion. “People who live in Nang Loeng have been involved in many similar projects to ours, but most of the time, they ended after a short period. Some were almost like propaganda. However, having a physical space within the market helps to remind people where to go to drop off their plastic waste or search for environmental information.”
Hence, with the kind collaboration of local people like the E-Loeng team, Nok and Julien have made it safely through the first barrier to the community.
Now that the Avengers have been assembled, it is time to deal with reality.
According to the local team, one of the most challenging aspects of any social intervention is the bureaucratic system.
“Working with the top-down bureaucracy is a real challenge. Our voices are sometimes not heard.” Mae Daeng stated, “We rarely get to do what we want. Therefore, local people often see projects like this as a waste of time.”
“People always ask, what do they get from this? They do not care about the environment or understand why they should clean plastic waste before throwing it away.” Mae Daeng continued, “It took us some time to communicate with them. If we were to invite them to join a workshop, I could not imagine anyone showing up, so I invited them for a meal (like a party) instead. Then I showed them some of the upcycled plastic bags we made. This made people feel more relaxed, and they became interested. That was how they began thinking about what to make out of plastic waste.”
“The reward scheme also helps,” Julien added. “Everyone wants the dishwasher liquid that Mae Daeng makes. We designed this project based on user behaviour. They want something useful in their daily lives. So, we offer one shot of the liquid for one plastic bag, a bottle for thirty bags, and a bottle containing the special formula for fifty bags.”
That was how they kicked off the project and engaged with the community. However, not all the plastic waste people drop off at the station can be recycled-another challenge for the two creators to solve.
“The station is full of plastic waste every day,” Julien told us contentedly. “People are starting to recognise that the plastic bank is a good idea. However, the shops located in Nang Loeng market are super diverse, hence the varying types of plastic waste. We separate them into bottles, bags, and caps, then pass them to our relevant partners. For example, the plastic bottle caps are passed to Precious Plastic, which operates within the area. We cannot handle all types of waste by ourselves-it is too costly.”
The cleanliness of the waste is another issue which needs to be managed. Demanding everyone to cleanse the waste before dropping it off at the station represents a significant behavioural change. Hence, the team has turned this challenge into an opportunity to create more value for the community.
“The three of us thought about finding someone to help Julien clean the plastic bags and then separating and storing them on the shelf,” Mae Daeng narrated. “We asked one of the teenage girls from the area to help. She was pregnant and addicted to drugs at the time.”
“The girl also wanted to stop using drugs and make some good friends. She tried her best to get to work early every day, and it made her feel valued. Julien and Nok talked to her until she recovered. Other teenagers in the community then wanted to work for us. Now we have several people helping us out, with Namo overseeing the station.” Mae Daeng elaborated.
Although they cannot place as many waste-collecting stations as planned due to the legal regulations, members of the local community are fully involved, both with labour and activities. Their hard work has now been rewarded.
Once the plastic waste has been cleaned, it is time to turn them into something valuable (upcycle). Nok and Julien’s first idea was to create at least one Instagrammable colourful canopy to attract tourists and add some life to the area. In addition, they developed designs for handbags and accessories using upcycled plastic waste, providing the locals with an opportunity to generate income while also inspiring them to be more creative.
Julien explained why the most crucial aspect of the design is that the production method must be simple and repeatable. “Everything we design must be easy-to-make, so the local people can learn to make it themselves. None of our products require the use of heavy-duty machines. A simple iron will do. While other projects need complicated tools for upcycling plastic waste, and although I am not blaming them, the cost burden would be too much for the community. We need something attainable.”
“Designers can dream about a certain design, but the locals will decide whether it is likely to work. There is always a gap between expectation and reality,” Nok added. “At the end of the day, designers are not the ones using the products, but the locals. We need to focus on the needs of the people.”
Despite their different backgrounds, both Weave and E-Loeng focus on the value they deliver to the community, not merely the profit.
“In attempting to solve the real problem, the aim is not to make money from these products, but to establish a waste management system,” Julien indicated. “So, we focus on building plastic waste drop-off points, not just building a canopy or bag. This is what the community needs.”
On the other hand, E-Loeng saw more value in the project from the locals’ perspective.
“In the beginning, I thought making a canopy was a piece of cake,” Namo laughed. “The canopy turned out to be bigger than I thought, but the process was fun. We did everything ourselves, from washing to patching the plastic bag into a canopy. After seeing the result, I wanted to do more.”
“If we established the project as a proper organisation, we could make more. Local people now recognise us as the plastic waste centre of the community,” Mae Daeng commented.
“Through this project, the locals have learned how to separate plastic waste correctly. They also became inspired and more creative, producing plastic bag designs with the potential to create beautiful upcycled products. This learner-centered education is relatable to the local people.”
Finally, E-Loeng is also developing its own project to deal with organic waste. Nammon shared that she wants to make fertiliser from the food waste in the community and grow their first urban farm, another project supported by the British Council. Hence, we can expect full-loop waste management, potentially leading to a small-scale circular economy.
It is not an exaggeration to say that people power is helping to improve the whole area.
“We want to inspire young people by making things happen through this small project, enabling them to see that they can do something too,” Julien concluded. “So, they feel empowered to start doing something, perhaps selling items online and shifting their mindset to seeing plastic as a resource rather than waste.”
“The biggest learning curve for me is that design can change society and create lifelong friendships. As mentioned earlier, we would not be able to do anything without our local friends. This Nang Loeng Plastic Bank is just the beginning.”