Pioneering Sustainable Waste Management Model for Thailand: 4 Lessons Learned on How to Bring Innovative Ideas Tested in One University to Life Nationwide

January 15, 2024


Every country faces a big challenge when it comes to managing waste landfills, which continue to get bigger and bigger, serving a mass consumption society.

Thailand is no different from other countries.

The waste problem in Thailand has both environmental and economic impacts. According to the United Nations Ocean Conference, Thailand generates 26 million tons of waste each year, with about 50,000 tons ending up in the ocean, causing a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and affecting the country's ability to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts committed in a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

Solving waste issues is not new here; however, the increased amount of waste is telling us that we really need a new approach to this problem.

In response to this challenge, testing new ideas for waste solutions had happened in the South of Thailand, in one university, and its results became a model for other provinces across the country.

Through successes and failures of hundreds of small steps, here is our story and the 4 lessons learned on how to bring innovative ideas to life.

Watch the video to learn more about our journey!


Lesson 1: A Sandbox Area for Freedom of Solution Ideas.

Surat Thani, a southern Thai province, provided a perfect setting for testing solutions for waste management.

Surat Thani is a beautiful coastal city attracting tourists from around the world, with tourism having become one of the major sources of income for the province. However, the vibrant tourism in the province comes at the price of a huge amount of inorganic and organic waste. Not to mention, the city itself is close to the sea, and the context of its waste problem involves the issue of ocean waste.

To develop, test, and validate innovative solutions effectively, we needed a sandbox area with a relevant context for the waste issue, allowing trial-and-error and flexibility for thinking outside the box, and equipped with adequate capacity in terms of facility and personnel.

Surat Thani Rajabhat University (SRU) therefore became a testing area decided upon by the UNDP, practitioners, and local authorities. The university represents the wider community, hosting a population of approximately 20,000, and struggles with its own set of waste management problems.

Considered a distinctive demonstration site, SRU became our testing ground for innovative solutions, showcasing the potential for broader application and contributing to the provinces’ larger mission of sustainable development.


Lesson 2: Co-Creation is the Key to Innovate, Test and Revolutionalize Solutions.

To come up with innovative and responsive ideas, we realized that we could not and should not work alone or solely among experts. We must collaborate with every sector across the waste management cycle – from the general public to understand their lifestyles and behaviors in dealing with waste, to operational staff and authorities to unpack and develop solutions and policies.

Co-creation that challenges a top-down approach is the key to innovation and responsive solutions.

We, therefore, had worked with everyone involved in the university—management, lecturers, students, and operational staff—to have their pain points in managing or recycling waste reflected. Later, we had co-designed solutions together throughout a 6-month period of multi-level engagements, including questionnaires, in-depth interviews, and workshops.

All relevant stakeholders had come to a common direction: they wanted to go beyond the traditional waste management scope. Their shared goal was to enable people to recognize the underlying value in waste, understanding that waste could be developed into useful products such as compost and biogas. The collaborative spirit led to a number of initiatives that had also evolved through a feedback testing process – from 'Recycling Waste to Win Luck with Trash Lucky' to '30 Days Zero Waste Challenge' and 'Separate and Exchange Things.

The 'Recycling Waste to Win Luck with Trash Lucky' initiative encouraged active participation in recyclable waste separation by offering incentives through a reward system. Participants exchanged recyclable waste for points via a designed mobile app, enjoying both tangible rewards and the chance to win prizes. However, throughout the implementation of this initiative, we realized that apart from the rewards as an incentive, we still needed a communication campaign to encourage active participation, and that was when a competition campaign like The '30 Days Zero Waste Challenge' came in. During this campaign, students who were involved in separating recyclable waste earned points over 30 days, and the results of each faculty were announced by the end of the campaign, nudging them to change how they sorted their waste.

Then there was 'Separate, and Exchange Things' - an engaging initiative that aimed to get people excited to separate recyclable waste by getting a new thing in return. They handed out rewards in the form of everyday items, helping participants save some money while getting them to sort their waste differently.

The collaboration in co-designing and experimenting with incentives and campaigns led to strong and active engagement and a revolution of solutions, nurturing a collective sense of responsibility towards waste and its untapped potential. “We tried to find a method and initiated a project that could reduce our waste to zero. It was a fortunate opportunity that we were able to identify such a valuable partner as UNDP, who served as our mentor in the successful execution of this project. The progress of the project has been noteworthy” Asst. Prof. Dr. Wattana Rattanaprom, Acting President of Surat Thani Rajabhat University, reflected.


Lesson 3: Creating Ownership and Cultivating Mutual Benefits for Nationwide Ideas Scaling Up.

With a collaborative spirit, the impact of this project is clear, with tangible results that can be set as standard guidelines for other areas. The implementation of the waste management model in SRU led to a reduction of around 40-50 tons of waste and 33,086 kgCO2eq in greenhouse gas emissions. 

This model not only contributed to a positive environmental impact but also economic resilience, evident in the income generated through compost, vegetables, and biogas, along with a 40% reduction in waste management costs for the university throughout our 1.5-year period of project implementation.

The positive outcomes have been recognized globally, as evidenced by Surat Thani Rajabhat University jumping 183 places from the previous year, ranking 110th globally and 3rd in Thailand in the waste management category.  Notably, the university excelled in the waste management category, achieving a score of 91.67%, securing the 110th position globally and the 3rd position in Thailand.

While the project itself brings great results, but it is not only about the destination. The meaningful journey with all relevant stakeholders involved has established a symbolic relationship and ownership of the success that is strongly shared and felt by everyone.

SRU proudly shared the success of the waste management model with 38 other Rajabhat universities nationwide, inspiring other universities on how local actions can bring broader changes. This has led to a plan to replicate this model across the 38 Rajabhat universities. Furthermore, the lessons learned from this waste management model will be incorporated into a provincial development plan for 15 provinces led by the SDG Localization project of UNDP in Thailand.


Lesson 4: Education for Long-lasting Changes

Apart from considering the sustainability of the waste management model, UNDP and SRU recognized the importance of environmental and climate change education as another fundamental solution. To enable lasting changes, the waste management model at SRU is becoming an integral part of the university's curriculum.

Surat Thani's valuable lessons will not be confined to just one place; they are going to be replicated and adapted to other universities and communities. With the success of this project and the insights gained from its endeavors, we can steer the nation toward a greener economy and climate resilience that benefits communities across the country.

Want to learn more our innovative approach to waste management? Download our report.