“Your Trash is Our Gold” : Na Kaew Village, the Largest Waste-trade Hub in Thailand’s Northeast.

The trade of waste makes a lot of money for people in Na Kaew Village, Ubon Ratchathani Province. Recycling trash turns many local farmers into business owners. Na Kaew has now become the largest waste-trade hub in the region. But there is growing concern in the waste-trade industry. As people continue to generate money from recycling waste, Thailand might become a dump site of the world. 

By Songwut Julanan 

If you see trucks carrying large piles of plastic, iron, or paper in the streets of Ubon Ratchathani, Si Sa Ket, or other nearby provinces, chances are these trucks are going to Na Kaew village, the largest waste-trade hub in Northeast Thailand. 

Na Kaew Village is located in Khueang Nai District, about an hour drive from Ubon Ratchathani’s city center. Along the three-kilometer road leading into Na Kaew village are rice farms, salvage shops, and recycling facilities which buy all kinds of recyclables – from plastic bottles, glass bottles, water pipes to electronic appliances, car engines, and paper. 

A villager tells us that in the past, the main job of people in the village was rice farming. About twenty years ago, a few small-scale pioneers of the trade bicycled around the neighborhood, buying cotton, old boxes, papers, and other kinds of salvageable things.” They then sorted the junk and sold it to processing centers in the city.

From farmers to business owners

As the waste-trade business in the village grew, family-run businesses in the village became big factories, directly selling rubbish and recyclables to large factories in Bangkok and nearby provinces. Villagers saw it as a good opportunity and more people got into the business. It soon became the main source of income of the villagers in Na Kaew. 

An owner of a salvage shop who prefers to remain anonymous recalls the evolution of Na Kaew into a waste-trade hub. “At first, there were only one or two people doing business: there were just two shops,” she recalls.

“Then other villagers started to follow in their steps,” she goes on. “Some of the shops [started] driving out of the village to buy salvageables from other districts and provinces. People from Kantharalak District in Si Sa Ket, as well as people from Yasothon province, brought their junk to sell here, too. Sometimes we’d drive our truck out and buy four to five tons of trash.”

She explains that she had been a farmer and operated a small restaurant before deciding to work in a salvaging facility in the village. Later, she opened her own salvage shop. Currently, she has five employees, and she can earn more than 100,000 baht a month. 

“Since I started this shop, I make money every month. But when I was a farmer, I could only make money once a year,” she says. “Now I have workers to help separate and clean the trash before selling it. It depends on the type of trash. We sell cans and aluminum. The factories buy it and then melt it.”  

Aluminum can compressor

Trash trade helps village economies 

The trade in trash helps support the village’s economy and creates jobs for locals. Shops and factories typically hire local villagers for 400-500 baht per day, and sometimes more if they have experience. The employees work in the recyclables shop at the same time as they farm growing rice. Sometimes young people work in these shops, earning money during holidays and school breaks.

During my conversation with a shop owner, I turn to see one of her employees sitting in front of a pile of trash, focusing on his work. His hands are stained with engine oil, but as he dismantles  something, he’s humming along with a song being played. 

He says that because of this job, he doesn’t have to work far from home and his family. 

“I finish work at 5 p.m. Then I ride my motorbike back home,” he says. “I used to be a farmer, but when more and more villagers opened salvage shops, I [began] working in a salvage shop. I earn money every day. I start working at about 8 a.m.”

“My responsibility is dismantling or weighing the items that people bring to sell here,” he says. “When we take in things for resale, I help put them up onto the trucks and carry them down from the trucks to the factory.”

Smiling broadly, he says, “I’ve been here my whole life with my family.”

An employee in a salvage shop in Ubon Ratchathani dismantling things

In the hands of Na Kaew villagers, this junk is gold. It’s something that helps create jobs and support the local economy. 

The waste-trade business is still growing, not just in this village, but across the entire country. More and more people are beginning to see the value of others’ junk. In 2022, the recycling business grew by 19 percent compared to the previous year. 

Prem Pruktayanon, founder of Facebook page, The Three-wheel motorbike Uncle and the Lost Trash, explains that the growth of the waste trade business can reflect two main trends: there is more waste building up in Thailand – and more people are becoming unemployed.

“Buying and selling trash is an easy job. The cost is low. But it is a temporary job,” he says. “If more people did this work, it could mean there would be more unemployed people, or it could mean that there would be more waste in the country, and people would see that as an opportunity.”

A drop in waste during pandemic 

According to the Pollution Control Department, Thailand’s Northeast produces more waste every year. It created 7.2 million tons of waste in 2015, 7.3 million tons in 2017, and 7.8 million tons in 2018. The number dropped to 6.2 million tons in 2022 because the COVID-19 pandemic practically closed the border to foreign guests and cut back on economic activity.

Prem further explained that in the past, buying and selling trash was a local job. Recycling shops were opened in city centers or industrial districts due to the growing amount of refuse, as well as growth of waste-creating businesses in the regions. Recyclables were sold to factories in the central region and the east region of the country, depending on the type of waste.

Environment Problems 

Although trash helps create jobs and develop local communities, it can also harm the environment. Dust and smoke is emitted from recycling facilities. Some types of waste, a local villager tells us, cannot be destroyed and end up in landfills. 

The Pollution Control Department stated that in 2022, there were 862 waste disposal sites across Isaan but only 35 of them were legal. 

Meanwhile, one set of statistics show that the amount of imported plastic waste from 2016 to 2018 grew almost three-fold, from 836,529 tons to 2,265,962 tons. That’s equivalent to 423,544 twenty-foot storage containers of trash.

According to the Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) website, in 2018, Thailand was the top country for importing plastic waste, with 173,400 tons from Japan, 99,900 tons from Hong Kong, and 84,500 tons from the United States. 

Growing concern over waste imports 

Penchom Saetang, founding executive director of Ecological Alert and Recovery–Thailand (EARTH), explains that in the Northeastern region of Thailand, small business owners began junk-separation businesses in 2005. The business gradually expanded, remarkably becoming the second most popular livelihood outside the farming season. 

She further explains that the supply of waste does not meet the demand of owners of recycling facilities. Therefore, these business owners resorted to importing junk from abroad. Most of their imports come from Laem Chabang Port, Chonburi province.  

“We have an existing law that forbids waste imports. The law has been stringently enforced in the last two years, but some waste is still imported illegally,” the director says. Strict enforcement “could continue,” but  Penchom “wants to call on agencies in charge to stop the import of plastic waste, electronic waste, and industrial waste into Thailand because it will impact the environment.”

While their and neighboring communities can make money for their families by “turning trash into gold,” people in Na Kaew village all agree that development of this practice must not come at the expense of the environment and people’s well-being. To achieve this, collaboration between factories, people in the village, and the government is key.

Note: This feature is part of the Journalism that Builds Bridges (JBB) project, which is supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands, the Embassy of Finland, the Embassy of New Zealand, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).