Crossing over from Thailand to Cambodia, you don’t expect to see much change on the ground. When you type “Cambodia plastic pollution” on Google, the first story and images to appear are from Sihanoukville. Located in the country’s southwest, Sihanoukville earned the notorious reputation of showing ‘uncomfortable’ images of the country’s problematic relationship with plastic. While it is a fact, there’s a risk that Sihanoukville could become a default template for foreigners’ perception of Cambodia, which may not be the true narrative.
It’s 5 pm in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, and a seafood restaurant is prepping up to cater to a steady stream of customers that may walk in soon. Styrofoam vessels are yanked open by the service staff, their broken lids are dumped in the open on the street with wanton disregard. Plastic bags with shrimps and crabs are emptied out into trays and discarded. People, including tourists, walk by flinging their waste onto the heap. Within a few minutes, a pile of trash transforms into a small mountain on the sidewalk. This is a permanent feature in Phnom Penh’s urban landscape.
In broken English, the service staff at the seaside restaurant, who didn’t wish to be identified, said, “We dump outside, garbage trucks come, pick up. Sometimes no pick up.”
Phnom Penh – just like its immediate neighbours Bangkok, Hanoi, Vientiane – faces similar waste management challenges owing to rapid urbanisation, population growth, increase in income and consumption levels and lack of proper waste management systems that include improper collection, transportation, treatment and recycling infrastructure. Although municipalities do try their best to improve waste collection services, they are only provided sporadically and fail to cover the entire urban areas in cities.
Cambodia’s plastic waste problem, however, isn’t entirely comparable to its affluent neighbours, who are some of the worst offenders when it comes to ocean plastic pollution. But it’s fast moving in the same direction.
Cambodia’s waste management challenges
By 2050, the world is expected to generate nearly 3.40 billion tonnes of waste annually, increasing drastically from today’s 2.01 billion tonnes, observed a World Bank Report titled ‘What A Waste 2.0’. With the current consumption levels in Cambodia, much like in South and Southeast Asia, the forecast may just come true.
Just like Thais, Cambodians have a deep-rooted relationship with plastic bags. It’s hard to break up with the clingy habit as it’s a convenience that’s unmatched by any other product. Besides, they aren’t just a fragile packaging product, it’s a sign of Cambodia’s fast transitioning society, both economically and culturally.
According to ACRA Foundation based in Cambodia, retail activity generates the maximum number of plastic bags and waste. As per their report, an average Cambodian uses at least 2,000 plastic bags every year. Waste collection in big cities is managed by the private sector which collects and disposes of trash to designated landfills. The informal sector largely focuses on the collection of recyclable waste. Plastic bags are collected through both formal and informal sectors and are also form the major chunk of litter in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh generates close to 4.09 million tons of municipal waste per year. If you shift your gaze at the Dangkor landfill in Phnom Penh – where most municipal authorities deposit and treat collected waste from households, and industries – the waste management isn’t equipped to comply with global standards. What you generally see around are simple pits or large open space areas which are usually used as illegal dumpsites. Open burning of waste is also quite common leading to air pollution.
At present, CINTRI has been the primary waste collection service in Phnom Penh since 2002, although a contract has never been publicly released, complicating research into CINTRI’s responsibilities.
An autorickshaw driver in Phnom Penh said CINTRI’s cleanup efforts are mostly limited to main urban city areas, offering little assistance in the outskirts of cities. “CINTRI cleans up rubbish in our city, but if you go a little bit outside the city, they don’t clean every day. It happens maybe twice or thrice in a month,” said Bona, who has been driving a tuk-tuk for 15 years now.
Waste collection companies, from their perspective, have often cited infrastructural issues, traffic, lack of human resources and low pricing power as reasons behind their shortcomings.
Recycling system dependant on informal sector
Cambodia’s recycling system is heavily dependant on the informal sector, much like most other developing economies like India, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Nepal. In Cambodia, segregated waste is shipped to Vietnam and recycling doesn’t happen within the country as much. The global average for recycling is as low as 18 per cent, as per a report by National Geographic magazine. So we can imagine how little is being actually recycled.
The recycling system is currently led by informal street recyclers called ‘Ethchays’. Typically, Etchays earn around $7.50 per day from recycled waste, which translates to at least $200 a month, reveals Grace Smith, who heads a Phnom Penh-based NGO called Go Green Cambodia. This NGO was my #PledgeToPlog collaboration partner in Phnom Penh.
“The recycling system in Phnom Penh has been led by informal street recyclers, who either collect from the streets or buy trash from households. So far, this is the only recycling system that exists. In the long term, this system is not sustainable for a growing city, where more people are living in apartment buildings and more businesses are opening,” said Smith, who has been coordinating cleanups around the city for the past 3 years. They also work closely with the Ministry of Environment and are the official partner of the Ministry of Tourism on their Clean City project.
There’s been enough talk on exploring alternatives to single-use plastics and considerable interest has also been expressed to go back to traditional ways of living. However, alternatives such as bamboo, cane and leaves are hardly used in a rapidly urbanising economy. Experts are of the opinion that because people don’t demand such alternatives, these green alternatives will continue to remain relatively niche and expensive and their availability will always be a challenge.
Litter issue amplified due to people’s attitude, lack of dustbins
The problem of litter is also further amplified by the lack of public dustbins in cities, coupled with the infrequent collection of waste from low-income households across the urban landscape. “These are the families that have to forcibly rely on themselves to manage waste because most of the times garbage trucks find it difficult to make their way inside such localities. Which is why they burn, bury or throw away the waste in open areas,” said Lu Mouen, a local from Phnom Penh.
Of course, the problem of litter is also about people’s attitude towards waste. “Due to the limitation of the waste management facilities, accessibility, unclear legal consequences and awareness, such limitations shape the behaviour of people in Cambodia to care little about behaving positivity toward proper waste management. They wait for the government to address the lack of facilities,” informed Sovann Nou, country representative of Let’s Do It World, an NGO that conducts cleanup campaigns across the world.
Solutions to overcome challenges
Waste management is about infrastructure and systems, as well as social behaviour change. As urban cities grow in size and income, the problem of trash will become more evident each day.
“If people see value in waste, then segregation will be widely adopted by communities” is what the Switch Asia report titled ‘Cambodia’s Plastic Bag Ecosystem and Usage’, implemented by ACRA Foundation in Cambodia, had noted in their research.
Another way to tackle this mess, Grace Smith believes, is through making garbage collectors a part of a cooperative district in the city who will use waste to generate income for marginalised communities, while supporting recycling and waste management initiatives in Phnom Penh. “We will work with the existing street recycling communities helping them formalise the work they already do while developing a more sustainable, profitable model of recycling for Phnom Penh,” she said.
Public cleanup events, Sovann believes, can be used to generate massive awareness but that alone won’t solve the problem. “Cleanup campaign is a critical event encourages people, private and public sectors to come together to address national environmental issues. Cleanup activities alone will not solve waste problem, it has to do with law enforcement, better waste management facilities, and more education.”
Recognising the role of waste pickers in the waste management system, “formalising recycling practices will help many informal workers access the benefits of formal work, as well as raise their profile from a marginalised community to formal employers,” said Smith.
Another expat living in Phnom Penh found out a unique way to deal with plastic waste and also use it to save lives. South African national Nicole, who has been living in Phnom Penh since July 2018, initiated a project called “Eco bricks”, which is used to rehabilitate people who lose their homes during floods next to the river bed.
“Eco bricks is basically plastic bottles filled with dry plastic that can be used for building concrete structures. Children make them. We eventually give the bottles to the government to use in impoverished areas to support the entire infrastructure of areas next to river bank areas which are prone to flooding, especially during rainy season. There can be no bigger change if you can use the refuse around you to create something that will make a huge impact in this city and also change the lives of some people,” said Nicole.
This article is the third of a five-part series documenting the individual waste management case studies of India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal.