Sustainability Workshop

Singburi - Thailand

Only 360€ per week!

What if we could use the trash of today to power workshops where young people can work on the solutions for tomorrow!

Following this question, we developed our own take at cleaning the environment and recycling. We collect and sort trash along local streets and rivers, then extract valuable plastic and use it to create new items. Along the way everybody can learn lots and lots about why recycling is so hard.

Culture
Learning
Leisure
Community Engagement
Physical Demand





Program Description

Between 1950 and 2015 a total of 8.3 billion tons of plastic were produced, only about 6% of which were recycled. More than half was discarded into landfills or the environment where it will need more than 400 years to degrade. A 2015 OECD report only lists 2 out of 34 countries not using landfills for Municipal Waste Management anymore, namely Germany and Switzerland.

Yet, the high recycling quotas reported for many developed countries rather refer to recyclables being collected, not actually recycled. Much of what gets collected needs to be sorted further by hand. Therefore until 2017, about 56% of the world’s plastic waste was shipped to China. Since in 2018 China imposed stricter regulations on importing contaminated waste, other Southeast Asian countries have filled in, mostly Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

More than 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into the ocean every day, killing more than 100,000 marine mammals and more than one million birds every year. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in oceans than fish. But besides the effects on the food chain and thus our health, recent studies have also shown negative impact of microplastic on Prochlorococcus, a species of bacteria doing photosynthesis. These microbes are responsible for about 10% of the oxygen we breathe and are of similar importance to us as rain forests. The chemicals leaching from plastic seem to reduce their growth and their ability to produce oxygen, thus adding a substantial factor to the rising CO² levels, worsening the climate change crisis.

A problem as global and interconnected as this, can not be solved on a local level. It needs an entire generation to build awareness; Starting with the realization, that the only effective way to reduce plastic pollution is, not to buy plastic items in the first place. This program strives to to add to such awareness, teach about the global waste management systems and their challenges, create a sense of worth of plastic in local communities and conduct research on small scale, low cost recycling.

Your Typical Day

While supporting the sustainability workshop, you will help us collecting trash and turning it into new items. We expect you to work Monday to Friday, up to 8 hours per day. In addition, we may ask you to help us out on weekends or evenings on an as-needed basis, as far as this fits with your itinerary and weekend travel plans.

You will get to know and work in the entire recycling process starting with collecting trash and ending with manufacturing new plastic items.

Depending on your knowledge, experience or duration of stay you may get more involved in our research and machine building projects.

The Recycling Process

The program is based on our sustainability campus on the Thai countryside. All facilities are built from clay and wood, following traditional techniques. The campus is home to our sorting station, storage facilities, the recycling workshop as well as our research lab. Our work follows a set procedure:

Step 1: Collecting

We head out into the neighbourhood, to local rivers, into closeby villages or the nearest town to collect waste along streets, canals or rivers. Much of the waste along streets gets carried into a canal by the wind, then washed into a river and finally makes its way into the ocean. Thus any item we collect is likely one less item that gets into the ocean.

While collecting we already sort into recyclables and waste. The latter one is disposed properly while we take the recyclables back to our sorting station.

Step 2: Washing & Sorting

For now, our recycling process can only handle the most commonly used kinds of plastic. Other recyclables we collect, such as cardboard glass or electronics, are handed to specialized recycling companies.

First we pre-sort the plastic. This also means taking apart items into their individual components. E.g removing caps and labels from bottles. Containers that are hard to wash on the inside are cut open. Next, all items are pre-washed to remove sand, food rests, algae and anything else that could cause problems later on when shredding the plastic.

Then the actual sorting starts. To be able to recycle the plastic, we need to carefully sort it by type. Different kinds of plastic, of which there are thousands, e.g. melt at different temperatures or are differently elastic. Sorting can be a real challenge as only some items are properly labeled as in what kind of plastic they are made from. We are working to develop a simple device that can help us determine the kind of plastic used, but while we develop and train it, sorting needs to be done by hand. This is no different from how Western waste is treated once shipped to Asia.

To help us recognize the various kinds of plastic, the central element of our sorting station is the example gallery. Every item we identify for the first time gets added. When we collect the same item again – e.g. a plastic bag of a certain brand, a coffee cup from a certain store etc. – we can use the example gallery as reference. At the same time we are creating a growing museum of contemporary plastic waste, displaying the variety of use cases and highlighting popular usages. A piece of art, one could say.

Step 3: Storage, Shredding & Washing

After determining the type of plastic, items of one kind of plastic get sorted by color and added to storage. Once we collected enough items of one kind and color, we shred the plastic into fingernail-sized flakes. These get washed extensively to remove any left dirt, stickers, glue (imagine labels glued to a bottle or box) and biological contamination (mold, bacteria).

After drying in the sun, these flakes go back into storage. Some kinds of plastic are hygroscopic, which means they will attract humidity from the air and get wet; Just like salt. That’s why we need to store these flakes in airtight containers.

Step 4: Production

Flakes of one type and one or multiple colors get melted in the injection machine and injected into a mould or extruded from the extrusion machine to create new items. Some items might end up with rough edges that need smoothing or unnecessary parts to cut off. In the end, all items need to be marked with the proper recycling symbols specifying what kind of plastic we used to make it easier later on to recycle them again.

Other activities

Creating Awareness

From time to time we want to approach locals, e.g. by hosting exchange events. People can hand in their plastic waste and we give them useful items we produced in the workshop in exchange. We hope this helps in creating awareness for the value of plastic as a resource and the fact that plastic trash still has value, as well as to encourage them to separate waste on a household level.

Updating / Extending the Facts Wall

Besides the example gallery, the facts wall is the second key visual to inspire people to think or discuss about recycling. Picture a room sized wall on which we keep painting more and more numbers and facts about recycling. Came across an interesting fact? Found a difference between recycling systems in different countries that made you ponder? Grab a brush, add it to the wall. Start a discussion about it with your peers. Share your experience or learn from theirs.

Working on Tooling

Our recycling machines and processes are constantly being improved. That requires lots of work for simple yet time consuming tasks such as polishing new moulds. But also creative or technical input is important. If you’re good at CAD design, embedded programming etc, please bring your laptop; From time to time we may need your help.

Our goal is to work out robust processes and simple to build machines, using only locally available parts. We’re building on top of the designs developed in the Precious Plastic project, adapting them to work with parts we find on Asian scrap yards or small hardware stores. Unlike the original machines, we’re less focused on crafting individual pieces of art but rather on increasing throughput while lowering cost for making moulds up to the point where locals could run profitable small scale production companies, running on plastic trash.

Filming / Photography

Sharing our results with the world is just as important as producing them in the first place. If you are good at producing visuals, we’d be excited to have you. If possible, please bring your laptop and camera to help us educate many more people about recycling and its challenges.

Current and Future Research & Projects

All of our research will be published open source and is meant to support other research teams, recycling or cleanup projects, but also small businesses across Southeast Asia and potentially Africa.

Differentiation of Plastic

This is our current main research project. Telling apart different kinds of plastic can be quite hard and not much research on the subject is public. Western universities are currently working on recycling robot arms, that – same as our example gallery – memorize common trash items and sort them automatically. A procedure that already hits its limit once items look alike, e.g. coffee cups of a major chain as there are paper cups and plastic cups that are visually similar.

Other issues for the robot arm are composite trash items. E.g. a napkin stuffed into a coffee cup, aluminium lids on yoghurt cups that are not fully ripped off or multiple items in a single (trash) bag.

The other popular approach is near infrared spectroscopy. First Western recycling plants already use it after shredding and washing plastic. Flakes are running down a massive slide. Individual shreds pass a scanner shining light at them and measuring the spectrum of light reflected from the plastic. Compressed air targetedly shoots out certain flakes.

Such machines are huge and cost hundreds of thousands of Euros. In a typical workflow each machine sorts out exactly one kind of plastic. The leftover flakes pass to another machine, then another, then another etc. This requires massive facilities and substantial funds. Which imposes an issue in Southeast Asian countries, where much of the trash of developed countries actually ends up.

That’s why we’ve set out to develop a new kind of detection system. Instead of analyzing the full spectrum of reflected light, we built a discrete spectrometer, focusing on few important wavelengths. The prototype seems promising. But before we can fully use it, we need to scan tens of thousands of common items to collect training data for our AI that later on will do the actual work.

There is not much research on the topic publicly available. Most developments have been done by commercial machine manufacturers. We assume that publishing our collected data can be of substantial benefit to the research community.

Our device, once fully working, should cost below 100 Euros to manufacture.The first version will be connected to any laptop or computer, later revisions should be standalone and portable. The device is meant to support recycling efforts in low income countries and cleanup projects worldwide. We are already getting inquiries and interest from the international recycling community.

Working with Ocean Plastic

The more time plastic spent in the sun, be it in the ocean, in a river or along a street, it starts deteriorating. This is a challenge for recycling it, as new object might be less sturdy and break faster. Even brands that currently claim to use Ocean Plastic e.g. for making parts of shoes, are often playing with terminology and actually refer to plastic that was on the way to the ocean, instead of having been removed from the ocean.

One possible solution we read about could be adding antioxidants to the plastic. We have not yet verified this yet. But given that our long term goal is to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean by incentivizing locals to use the plastic washed up along beaches, we need to test this extensively. The solution could lie in additives, adjustments to our recycling process or adjustments to the design of our products.

Making our Workshop Mobile

One of the best ways to direct attention to recycling and the worth of plastic it to show it to people first hand. That’s why we would like to create a mobile version of our workshop. That may mean modifications to our machines to make them easier to transport but also smaller versions of our example gallery and the facts wall, as both are essential to convey the extent to how we currently use plastic.

Recycling with Students

We would like to invite school classes or offer a holiday activity for children where they bring a few items of common household waste, we sort and clean them together and make them into new items. Preferably items that children use frequently. Our current idea is to make rulers, as kids need them in class anyway and it’s an item they use up to multiple times a day. What better reminder that plastic trash is not worthless.

And after all, one of the most powerful triggers to change the behaviour of adults, e.g. when encouraging them to separate trash on a household level, is to fascinate their children and let them do the convincing work 😉

We are currently working on low cost approaches to creating ruler moulds. This is especially challenging as these need to be very precise, unlike other objects.

Creator Spaces

Over the past two decades a myriad of studies and meta-studies have outlined the declining interest of students in natural sciences, natural history and engineering. But when we ourselves observed children and gave them simple tools and construction materials, such as wood, nails and hammers, pretty much all age groups produced surprising results. On the other hand, when quizzed about their favorite subjects in school, math or physics ranked low.

We believe that students get deterred from natural sciences due to the theoretical approach in schools. So we want to give them room to experiment, to build and to invent. First on our campus, later possibly at local schools where we want to create open workspaces outfitted with different tools and materials encouraging young inventors to try whatever comes to their mind.

A key component could be 3D printing. Plastic for a 3D printer needs to be of high quality and purity and its technically challenging to turn it into filament – essentially a long string of plastic – that then gets fed into a printer like garn into a sewing machine. This will be a challenge for us to produce, yet possible.

Access to 3D printers would allow them to construct and plan their inventions first on a computer and then create even complex objects in reality. Failed attempts run through our recycling process again and can later on be turned into new filament, teaching the idea of a circular economy from the start.

Effective recycling starts way before we dispose of something. It starts when an engineer first thinks of a new product and designs it to be easy to repair or to disassemble. It starts when materials in a product are clearly labeled and chosen with the recycling process in mind. It starts when decision makers greenlight offering spare parts and publishing repair guides or companies take back used products and re-use the resources to create new products.

Creator Spaces are meant to tackle both issues at once: Inspiring young people to become the engineers of tomorrow, while raising their awareness for sustainable design.

Creator spaces are a part of the program that, once established, needs to spread to as many different places as possible to indeed reach a whole generation. That needs a lot of helping hands supervising and guiding young creatives as well as a lot of recycled plastic to power them.

Alternative Recycling Methods

First successful attempts have been done to turn styrofoam into activated carbon and to use microorganisms to decompose plastic and turn it into useful substances. Interestingly, both of these stunning results were produced by teenagers, not corporations. Both show that there are many more possibilities to recycle the unrecyclable. We will research on both of these as well as other promising fields.

Non-Plastic-Related Research

We also would like to research on other areas of research consumption, that could affect our recycling process but are not directly related to recycling. Such as making solar collectors from old refrigerator parts. We could use the hot water when cleaning plastic flakes but also for other purposes, such as hot showers in our accommodation.

Aims & Objectives

  • Learn about recycling, the current challenges, why developed countries are not doing better than developing countries and what you can improve once you’re back home
  • Help clean along local roads, canals and rivers to prevent plastic from getting into the ocean and create awareness in the local community for the importance of cleanliness
  • Help us develop or produce new items from recycled plastic to create awareness in the local community for the worth of old plastic and inspire them to recycle
  • Develop our current workshop further or support or research

Schedule

Monday to Friday

  • Join our activities such as collecting, sorting, cleaning or scanning plastic trash.
  • Help us manufacture new items from old recycled plastic
  • Work on new machines, moulds or techniques

   Note:   This schedule can be changed and/or amended depending on weather conditions, local conditions and unforeseen circumstances.

Participant Criteria & Requirements

Standard Requirements

Minimum age:

Maximum age:

Minimum English level: Basic

CRB required: On Signup

Passport copy required: No

Resume copy required: No

Required qualification: None

Additional Requirements

There are no further requirements for this program.

Additional Equipment

Required

  • Sturdy shoes and long pants for when we’re collecting plastic along the river

Optional

  • Laptop, if you are good with CAD modelling, programming, photo/video editing etc

Location

You will be located in the outskirts of Singburi, an interesting town 142 km north of Bangkok. Singburi was founded under the reign of King Rama V through the consolidation of 3 small towns located on the bank of The Chao Phraya River. The three small towns, Sing Buri, In Buri and Phrom Buri, were then established as a single town on the west of the Chao Phraya River in 1895.

Your new home is set close to the village of Tha Kham, an extremely rural area that will give you the chance to experience the Thailand that very few get to see.

About the Accommodation

Your new home will be one of our 3 ‘Eco Houses’ near Singburi, central Thailand: Lemon House, Twin House and Brown House. They are all located riverside (River Noi – Little River) in the village of Tha Kham and depending on which house you are staying at, is about 8-15 km from Singburi (10-15 minutes by car). The 3 houses sleep from 30 to 72 people.

All houses have a communal area where you can eat, relax, meet fellow participants or use the free Wifi.

Although not directly on site, there are laundry facilities offered by locals which many of our participants take advantage of (this will probably cost you 5฿ per item, otherwise you can easily wash your clothes by hand.)

For participants desiring more comfort and/or privacy, families, couples, and more mature participants, we recommend upgrading to a comfort room. These rooms have more amenities and may be in a different location than the standard rooms, which means that it may be noticeably quieter.

   Note:   Important: A security cash deposit of 500THB is required for the key to your room. It is payable upon arrival in cash and will be returned when the key is given back at the end of your stay.

   Note:   No alcohol is permitted in any of our accommodations, but we are located within walking distance of a local shop and there is even a makeshift bar provided by the friendly locals in front of the accommodation.

Food Arrangements

Food will be provided with simple homestyle meals prepared by locals, which are typical to the region, based on whatever fresh fruits and vegetables are in season at the time. You can expect lots of rice and noodles, vegetables, and occasionally some meat will be provided as well.

While we do our best to accommodate you, what we provide for most meals is local cuisine. If you are a picky eater, have dietary restrictions, or if you think that you will not be satisfied with the local dishes provided, you might want to consider supplementing our menu with your own western type foods and snacks that are more to your liking. Weekly trips to the supermarket in Singburi are provided from our accommodation and you can use our bikes to ride to a few convenience stores on other days.

Please keep in mind that refrigerator space is limited and to prevent insect infestation open food items are not allowed in the rooms.

Facilities

There are ATMs and shops in the local village which, depending on the accommodation you will be staying at, is located between 5 minutes by bicycle to 20 minutes by foot.

There are restaurants and small local stores within walking distance of each of the accommodations.

Equally, Singburi has plenty to offer and there will be trips throughout the week into this city where you can find shopping malls, markets, restaurants and even a swimming pool!

Activities & Events

Tuesday Evening

Visit the night market in Tha Kham. Taste all types of Thai food, stock up on inexpensive clothing or just soak in the atmosphere of this small town!

Wednesday Afternoon

This is free time for most participants and we offer a trip into Singburi. You can choose to use the swimming pool, go for a Thai massage or take advantage of a trip to a shopping centre.

Wednesday Evening

You will have the option to attend a self-service BBQ for dinner (Thai style, of course!). This is a fantastic opportunity to socialise with all the other participants, eat great food and enjoy some music.

Thursday Evening

There is a trip to a shopping mall, where you can buy any essentials, snacks, western food (pizza shops, KFC, ice cream parlour, coffee shops etc)

Sights & Surroundings

Locally, Singburi itself has plenty to offer in terms of sites and attractions, ranging from its many Buddhist temples. There is also a swimming pool, two shopping centres and many markets.

You can also choose to travel to Bangkok during weekends. It takes 2.5 – 3 hours either by minivan or bus from Singburi . We provide detailed information about this each week.

Transportation

From this location we provide free transport to your next program at the following location(s):

  • Akha Village Chiang Rai
  • All around Thailand
  • Around Thailand
  • Hua Hin
  • Kaeng Krachan
  • Kanchanaburi
  • Mae Sot
  • Suphan Buri
  • Train Track Northern Thailand
  • Trunk to the South
  • Umphang
  • Udon Thani
  • Wang Nam Khiao

Quick Facts

Name: Kingdom of Thailand

Population: 67 million

Capital: Bangkok

Language: Thai

Currency: Baht (THB)

Time zone: ICT (UTC +7)

Country Information

From trekking in the beautiful mountains of the north to enjoying the glorious beaches in the south and  experiencing the hustle and bustle of the metropolis that is Bangkok, Thailand is certainly not a country that lacks variety.

Whilst it really is at the heart of Southeast Asia, bordered by Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, its cultural identity remains very unique. As the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid European powers, the Thai are proud to refer to themselves as ‘The Land of the Free’ and many tourists might also know it as ‘The Land of Smiles’ due to its friendly people.

Climate

The majority of the country is home to a tropical savanna climate which consists of wet and dry seasons of a roughly equal length. The climate can be divided into three distinct seasons:

  • Dry season: November – end of February. During this period, precipitation is at its lowest but so are the temperatures. This said, ‘low temperatures’ are of course relative and the difference is not in fact very different at all in the South. It is only if you will be visiting the northern mountains that you might need to bring some warmer clothes as temperatures can fall as low as 5°C. This period is, not surprisingly, the most popular time to visit Thailand and tourism peaks around Christmas and New Year as well as Chinese New year. Flights and accommodation at this time can be more expensive.
  • Hot: March to June. During this time Thailand reaches its hottest temperatures (as high as 50°C).
  • Rainy: July – October. This is when the tropical monsoons begin to arrive, peaking in September. Although this is indeed rainy season, it doesn’t mean that it rains non-stop. Storms can clear up very quickly, but when it does rain, heavy flooding is not rare.

Culture

A significant feature of Thai culture is its primary religion: Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is supported by the government and practiced by an estimated 95% of its population. Thailand not only boasts tens of thousands of beautiful temples, but you will notice that a lot of Thai people have miniature Spirit Houses on their front yards because they believe that the household spirits live in them and they make offerings to them to keep the spirits happy.

Another feature of Thai culture is the wai greeting, which is essentially a slight bow with palms pressed together in a prayer-like manner to show respect. This can be compared to the Indian namasté. Things to know about this:

  • The higher the hands in relation to the face and the deeper the bow, the more respect is shown.
  • It is made before formally entering/leaving a house
  • It can also be made as a sign of gratitude or apology
  • You do not make the greeting to those who are younger than you unless you are returning the wai.
  • The gesture is normally accompanied with the phrase “sawadee (krap/ka)” (“krap” if you are  male and “ka” if you are female)
  • A corporate wai (made by cashiers etc) can be returned with a smile or a nod

The major festival in Thailand is Thai New Year, known as Songkran. It is celebrated on the 13th-14th April of every year. It is a festival that concludes the dry season and involves a lot of water throwing!

Gastronomy

Thai cuisine is very nutritious and alongside its plentiful use of rice, it generally contains fresh vegetables and white meats like chicken and fish. Thai people love spicy food but do not fear if you do not, just say ‘mai pet’ when you order. However, the flavors are not only about the spice, as many people believe. Thai food can be slightly salty, sour and/or sweet, so there really is something to suit everyone’s palate.

Transportation

Transport in Thailand is very varied and there isn’t one ‘main way’ to travel. Buses dominate long distance journeys. Travel in thailand is cheap and even domestic flights are a worthwhile consideration for long distance journeys, especially with the expansion of low-cost airlines.

Taxis, tuk-tuks and vans are also common modes of transport, but tourists must be wary about being overcharged. If in doubt, always ask that the taximeter be switched on to avoid overcharging.

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