Thailand’s high season has a problem: haze.
The country’s PM2.5 Air Quality Index, which generally keeps to double digits during the off season, shoots up to anywhere between 100 to 160 from November to February, forcing tourists to cancel hotel bookings and grounding flights due to poor air visibility. The impact on public health is equally palpable, with a 2021 Greenpeace report indicating that smog has raised the risk of premature death by 13% in Bangkok.
Environmentalists have theorized a variety of causes of air pollution, including heavy traffic and cooler weather phenomena trapping air pollution closer to the ground. However, a 2021 ESCAP report has found that in the context of Thailand, agricultural burning and forest fires are the mainly to blame for the seasonal smog.
While some farmers have become more aware of the problems caused by agricultural burning, there hasn’t been much of an incentive to stop. Harvesting machines are expensive, and burning is the fastest way to rid themselves of rice stubble and indigestible rice husks.
One Bangkok-based brand is trying to provide farmers with just that incentive.
Sonite Decor, a brand of Sonite Surfaces, recycles rice husks to make home decor products. Pripun Visetjinda, marketing director of Sonite Decor, explained that in the past, many farmers were not educated about the environmental impacts of burning. While the government is now trying to educate farmers about this, it also helps to give farmers an economic incentive not to burn, she said.
“I think the Thai government has given them some knowledge already,” Pripun noted. “But to stop the burning, you need to help them create the revenue. Instead of burning, they can sell the rice husks to us.”
Sonite Decor’s trendy line of interior accessories includes cups, plates, bowls, vases, and plant pots, among other things.
Pripun said the idea for this decor line began in 2013 when the Sonite team worked with Starbucks Thailand. At the time, Sonite designers designed tables for Starbucks that recycled unused coffee grounds.
The team then decided to focus on rice, Pripun said, because it is the biggest agricultural commodity in Thailand.
“We eat it three meals per day. It’s a top three product in exports as well. We did the research and finalised that rice is the product we need to do,” she said, reasoning that the high export volumes would indicate a large amount of associated waste.
Currently, Sonite Decor is the only company in Thailand creating products from rice husks. The “Husk Collection” has received several accolades, not least of which is the 2021 Design Excellence Award (DEmark) for lifestyle products. A state-sponsored award to recognize outstanding product design, the goal of DEmark is “to promote well-designed Thai products in the international market.”
Still, there are challenges that Sonite Decor faces with their rice husk line. One is communicating and meeting with farmers, who are located far away. Sonite relies on middlemen to meet with the farmers, who are spread all throughout Thailand, and gather the rice husks from them.
“I think there are around 500 farmers in Thailand. We cannot coordinate with all of them. We need to have a community gathering farmers together, and then we can connect with that community.”
Sonite Decor plans to expand their sustainability mission by making products from other plant materials such as coconut fiber, as well as from ocean plastic waste. They also plan to make products from wasted bank notes.
For now, Pripun looks forward to further establishing Sonite Decor’s reputation, so that farmers know they can sell Sonite their agricultural waste products. She seeks to find more staff to help its development.
“Due to COVID, many people are unemployed. So we need to find designers to work with us. We need to find bloggers or maybe content writers to help us write stories about our products,” she said.
In an interview with MGR Online, the internet arm of Thai-language newspaper Manager Daily, Sonite Surfaces CEO Nithiphan Darakananda spoke to the rationale behind developing these products.
“In business, we must act for tomorrow, not just the present, especially in terms of adding value to products through innovation and design.”
The Husk Collection is just one of several recent Thai innovations to be recognized for its contribution to bettering Thai society. Others recognised by DEmark include fitness equipment that doubles as home decor, and chairs made from recycled rubber. These products demonstrate a broader commitment by Thai entrepreneurs to sustainable innovation, despite the setbacks of COVID-19 on the economy.