And Thailand’s festival that honors rivers pollutes them
Bangkok Thais flocked to rivers and lakes on Friday to launch small floats decorated with flowers and candles at an annual festival honoring water deities, as many hundreds of thousands of floats ended up clogging and polluting the country’s waterways.
Within hours, workers began dredging rivers to hunt the offerings, as honoring the divinity proved increasingly environmentally dangerous.
The Loy Krathong festival allows believers to symbolically cast their misfortunes away from “krathong” and start another year of life with a clean slate. The festival is celebrated on the night of the full moon in the twelfth lunar month, which usually marks the end of the rainy season.
Convincing people to stop using harmful materials like polystyrene foam – Styrofoam – because their floats remains the priority because they cause the most harm to water and aquatic life, said Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a leading marine biologist in Thailand. The number of endangered sea creatures found dead on shore, believed to stem from Thailand’s ocean waste problem, doubled from 2017 to 2020.
Activists have observed a change in people’s behavior over the decades, citing increased awareness of the harm kratong causes. The total number of kartong collected in Bangkok has fallen from over 900,000 in 2012 to just over 490,000 last year, and there has been an even steeper decline in the number of Styrofoam floats, from 131,000 to just under 18,000 over the same period.
However, some conservationists are calling for a more radical solution.
“We need to revolutionize this practice, and allow the waterways ecosystem to be restored,” said Tara Bokamsri, country director of the environmental group Greenpeace Thailand. “We should not launch any buoys, because even if they are made of natural materials, their amount is beyond what rivers can normally handle.”
“We depend on clean water for our livelihood, and Loy Krathong’s goal should be to protect and rejuvenate our rivers without putting anything in them.”
Nopparat Tangtunung, a vendor at Pak Klong Market, which is popular for selling flowers, said sales of kratung materials have been slow this year due to the epidemic.
“COVID-19 is slowing down the economy, so people would rather save their money and float it online instead,” she said.
At the same time, kids aren’t interested in banana leaf floats, which are the main natural alternative to Styrofoam, she said. “They prefer fancy floats made of ice cream cones and bread because they can feed the fish at the same time.”
Such an approach is unhelpful, said Wigarn Simachaya, head of the Thai Environment Institute. “If you are floating somewhere without fish, those floats will cause pollution in the water. They are also difficult to collect because the bread absorbs the water and sinks in the river.”
“Plus, the sellers usually put chemical colors in those floats, which is detrimental to the water,” he said.
Wigarn said banana leaves are a better material than krathongs because they don’t degrade very quickly, and once collected, they can be used to make fertilizer.
“Doing a virtual Loy Krathong celebration is another good solution to avoid environmental damage, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak, but I don’t think it can satisfy people’s lifestyle, because they still want to enjoy the festival,” he said.
Late Friday night after people floated their attention away, municipal workers came out to catch a sea of buoys that drifted along canals and down the Chao Phraya before disintegrating and polluting the water.
Dozens of small boats traveled along the river, each carrying about a half-dozen people with hand nets like those used by amateur fishermen to collect kratong.
The boats then transferred their catch to a moored mother ship, where it was dumped into a large shredder, then compressed and transported away by garbage trucks to landfill at a landfill.
“We have campaigned for people to stop using Styrofoam and have received support from the public,” said Chatree Wattanakhajorn, a senior official in Bangkok. “Hopefully this year the numbers of styrofoam kraton will continue to drop and will be lower than last year. We will finish cleaning before 5 am.”
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