Election banners have become a leading campaign gimmick in the gubernatorial race. In response to criticism that the plastic banners are wasteful relics from the pre-digital era, some candidates have come up with ‘green’ alternatives, like shrinking banners or promising to recycle them after the vote is over.
But there’s little science to back up the idea that the banners can be recycled in an environmentally friendly manner. There’s also no law governing how they must be disposed of – leaving open the possibility that they will pollute the city and beyond.
An election banner of gubernatorial candidate Chadchart Sitthipunt
The election season is approaching, and you can see the signs of it everywhere, quite literally.
Just as the city is gearing up for the gubernatorial vote scheduled for May 22 – the first of its kind in almost a decade – the ubiquitous election banner has returned to Bangkok’s streets and sois.
The signs themselves have become a focal point of the battle for the Governor’s seat, as candidates try to outdo each other in their gimmicks. Some have decreased the size of their banners, freeing up space for pedestrians and reducing plastic waste. One said the banners will be turned into fashion handbags after the election.
While these efforts have earned praise on social media, environment watchdogs question their long-lasting effect. The election laws also say nothing about requiring environmentally friendly ways to process the waste caused by elections.
“There’s no rule that talks directly about that. The election law only says the election banners must all be collected,” former Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn said in an interview. “There is no agreed-upon rule about when they’re collected, what to do next. It’s solely the collective responsibility of the candidates.”
Election banners are typically made of large wooden frames and sheets of polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl. Under the voting regulations set down by the Election Commission, each banner cannot exceed 245×130 cm in size. The number of election banners allowed per each candidate is also capped at 3 times the number of all polling stations, of which there are about 650.
An election banner of gubernatorial candidate Sakoltee Phattiyakul.
The same regulation goes for the 300 or so candidates vying for the seats on the Bangkok Metropolitan Council.
“When you add up the figures, there’s probably about 100,000 election banners scattered around Bangkok right now,” Greenpeace Thailand director Tara Buakamsri said by phone. “That’s a big number.”
Based on his own calculation, Tara said each sheet of vinyl used in election banners weighs about 900-930 grams on average, which he viewed as a burden to Bangkok's already worseing problem of plastic waste.
He continued, “I think it’s interesting that the regulations issued by the Election Commission don’t take this problem into consideration. They are only concerned with the limit on numbers, but not on the material.”
Sign of the times?
In spite of their ubiquity, the swarm of signs advertising the candidates has often drawn complaints that they make pavements even more difficult to navigate. In one video that went viral on social media, a wheelchair user seems to be forced off the footpath because it was blocked by an election banner.
Some also view the banners as yet another eyesore in the city landscape, while others feel the massive use of plastic for campaigning is unnecessary in an era when the public’s attention seems to have already migrated online.
Alternatives to the standard election banners have been sought in the past. For instance, former Gov. Chamlong Srimuang famously used woven baskets and scarecrows in mo hom shirts as his campaign material when he successfully ran for office in 1985. The activist-founded Commoners’ Party employed similar materials during the 2019 general elections.
But it is former transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt who has made this a mainstream issue for the upcoming election, through his unique “slim” banners and signs. The gimmick proved so successful that even the incumbent Governor followed suit.
“Mr. Chadchart Sittipunt said big election signs get in the way, and that’s correct,” Gov. Aswin Kwangmuang told reporters on April 5. “I agree with Mr. Chadchart, so I’ll make my banners smaller, so that they won’t cause trouble to the public.”
Election banners in Bangkok.
Not to be outdone, rival candidate and ex-Senator Rosana Tositrakul announced she would focus on campaigning on social media instead of placing election signs in public spaces like other politicians.
“I have a fan club calling me to ask why they haven’t seen my Number 7 banners. I must apologise for having so few signs,” Rossana wrote on her Facebook page. “I don’t want to add more trash, and I don’t want to put up signs blocking the public right of way.”
The shift in attitude among some candidates probably reflects the fact that young voters – the generation that tends to be more environmentally conscious than other age groups – will likely play a dominant role in the upcoming election. Up to 4.5 million people are eligible to cast their vote on May 22, including almost 700,000 first-time voters, or 15 percent, according to media reports.
Probably to underscore this point, Chadchart’s campaign team has said his election banners will be collected and turned into fashion tote bags once the voting concludes.
“Due to the low number of banners, collecting them for reuse would not be a difficult thing to manage,” the campaign team wrote in an email.
Image provided by gubernatorial candidate Chadchart Sitthipunt’s campaign team.
Writing on the wall
Experts interviewed for this story sounded alarm at the notion that the plastic component in election banners can be simply recycled at will, however.
This is due to the fact that not all plastic wastes are created equal, said Navapan Assavasuntakul, one of the people who runs Chula Zero Waste, an initiative at Chulalongkorn University that promotes awareness about recycling.
She points to the difference in types of plastic water bottles as an example; while transparent, colourless PET bottles are ideal for recycling, tinted bottles pose a much bigger challenge since they are considered to be contaminated. It’s the same story for vinyl sheets printed in colour like the ones used in election banners.
“Most of the banners will either end up in refuse-derived fuel incinerators, or in landfills,” Navapan said, adding that the banners are made from PVC, which should not be burned because of its toxicity. “They cannot be recycled.”
A file photo of PET bottles collected from the sea in Thailand.
Another factor that complicates efforts to recycle election banners is their low-quality material designed for temporary rather than long term use, she said.
“These banners were exposed to sunlight, rain, and wind. They aren’t fit to be made into bags. They can’t be made into objects for everyday uses,” Navapan said. “You can see it in the fabric. It’s totally different.”
Even if they are reused as tote bags, they will only last for a while before disintegrating into shreds of microplastics, which may be more environmentally hazardous in the long run.
“In the end it is still an environmental problem. It’s not an answer” Navapan said. “Other people may think it works, but personally speaking, I don’t think it will.”
Tara, the country director for Greenpeace, shares the same assessment. Once they are printed, the vinyl sheets lose all of their potential recycling benefit and they’re immediately considered to be single-use plastic waste.
A promotional image for Freitag tote bags.
“They can’t be turned into bags or put into upcycling processes. They aren’t made from the same quality plastic as Freitag bags,” Tara said, referring to a popular brand of fashion tote bags. “No one uses these plastics for upcycling. It’s simply impossible to find a use. Eventually, they will have to be buried in landfill or put into incinerators.”
Both methods pose their own risks to the environment. The incinerators employed by Bangkok’s trash disposal system can still emit CO2, and they are far from a “clean” way to eliminate plastic waste, Tara said.
Dumping the banners in landfills, meanwhile, may end up adding more microplastics to the surrounding areas, Navapan said. It takes approximately 450 years for plastic waste like vinyl to completely disintegrate, or twice the age of Bangkok.
“To be fair, the people who invented plastics probably didn’t expect that we would go on using them in all kinds of ways like we do today,” she said. “So the only way to effectively deal with plastic waste is to reduce it in the first place.”
A lack of signposts
Voting in the gubernatorial race, like all other elections, is regulated by the Election Commission, or EC, who publishes a meticulous set of rules about what is and what is not allowed when it comes to campaigning.
Candidates cannot stage “entertainment” to draw the attention of voters, and alcohol cannot be sold on voting days, to name just two restrictions.
The rules also cover the size, number and location of election banners. For instance, they cannot be placed in or around public parks, phone booths, at a distance of less than 10 meters from bus stops, the Grand Palace, and the entirety of Ratchadamnoen Avenue.
Thai Sang Thai party leaders campaign in Bangkok on 31 March 2022.
But there exists only one rule concerning the fate of the election banners after the voting has run its course: the banners must be collected by the candidates or their agents right after the election day. If any banner is left hanging in a public space, cleaning workers from the City Hall will get rid of them, and the candidates will be fined.
Former Election Commissioner Somchai said he could not recall a single such fine being issued during his tenure, because election banners are highly sought after by private garbage scavengers, or saleng.
“Saleng usually collect them so they can sell the banners on,” Somchai said. “So it creates a situation where it’s mutually beneficial; the candidates feel it’s good for them because they don’t have to pay or collect them, while the saleng want the wooden frames and the vinyl to sell.”
“In reality, that’s theft, … but no one ever filed a complaint about it, as far as I know,” he added with amusement.
Sometimes, the banners are collected by staff from the shops that printed them, but many of them would eventually sell the sheets in bulk to saleng anyway, said Somchai.
The vinyl sheets are often bought by street food vendors who put them up as awnings to shield themselves and their customers from the harsh sunlight – a common sight in Bangkok. Many truckers also use the sheets to cover the goods they transport.
This free-for-all system may effectively clear the banners from pavements and roads, but the absence of regulations means it’s impossible to know how the material is handled when its use has expired.
In this 14 January 2019 file photo, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva participates in an election campaign in Bangkok.
No one would be able to tell if the vinyl is carted off to authorised incinerators and landfills, or simply burned by the roadside, or dumped into an empty field outside Bangkok where no one’s looking, said Tara from Greenpeace.
“Plastic election banners will be thrown away, eventually,” he said. “[But] we don’t know if they’re properly disposed of. It’s very difficult. There’s almost no way to know, unless you follow the garbage trucks and see where they go. That’s the only way to find out.”
Somchai the former Election Commissioner confirmed there’s no provision in the current voting laws that covers the waste treatment of election banners.
“If you ask them, I’m sure they won’t know anything about it either,” he said by phone.
An official at the Office of Election Commission of Bangkok said the cleanup of election banners is usually enforced by City Hall. She said the EC is not responsible for tracking what happens to the banners after the election is over.
When asked about the potential environmental impact, the official, who declined to give her name because she’s not authorised to speak on record to the media, said someone from the Commission will call back and explain in detail, but there was no further communication.
United under the green banner?
Both Navapan and Tara urge the gubernatorial candidates to focus on reducing the number of plastic placards and banners in the first place for the sake of environmental sustainability.
“I think there should be a common rule where everyone agrees on not producing too many signs,” Navapan said. She pointed to a practice in Chulalongkorn University, where banners made from PVC are still used for publicity purposes, but they are few in numbers and only placed at busy spots where it’s guaranteed many students will notice them.
Some candidates have already vowed to use as few election banners as possible. In response to an emailed inquiry, Chadchart’s campaign team said they aim to produce only 3,600 banners, a fraction of the quota allowed by the Election Commission.
“We will only install the banners in specific areas, … in a manner that does not interfere with pedestrians’ right of way,” and in communities where many residents do not routinely use social media, the campaign team said.
Rossana also said her campaign will ditch traditional election banners in favour of canvassing for votes on social media platforms.
An election banner for Pheu Thai Party in Bangkok.
“I believe that the banners in this era are on everyone’s phone, and I want to change society’s attitude about investing in a large number of election signs, which not only obstruct footpaths but also cause a large amount of rubbish,” Rossana wrote.
“We’ll help preserve the cleanliness of Bangkok and help reduce the amount of garbage at the same time.”
Tara suggested that election candidates can explore alternative methods for publicity, like relying on LED signs and environmentally friendly materials. He said the Election Commission should also consider amending its voting laws to promote greener practices in campaigning.
“I think it’s an issue that some people may not see as important,” Tara said. “But if our country becomes more democratic, and there are more elections, what are we going to do? I think a democratic system shouldn’t have to come with creating more rubbish, or more problems for the environment.”
Somchai, who served as Election Commissioner from 2013 to 2018, said he was inspired by election campaigns in Japan, where posters of different candidates often share the same space.
He said he proposed the model to the Election Commission for nationwide adoption, but the idea was turned down.
“I thought I was doing the candidates a favour by reducing their burden. They’d have to pay only for posters made from paper,” Somchai said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article quoted a representative of Greenpeace Thailand as saying that election banners in the upcoming gubernatorial election would involve the use of approximately 7,000 tonnes of plastic material. After the article was published, the representative said the figure was based on miscalculation. Prachatai English has subsequently removed the quote to avoid misunderstanding on 9 May 2022, 22.16.