ASEAN Beat

How Cambodia Could Win a War on Plastics

There are some basic steps that could go a long way in helping the country address a serious issue.

David Hutt
How Cambodia Could Win a War on Plastics
Credit: Flickr/Paul Arps

Cambodia faces a monumental plastic problem, which is a subset of a problem with recycling in general. By one estimate, from 2015, urban-living Cambodians each use about 2,000 plastic bags annually, 10 times more than Europeans or Chinese, while 10 million plastic bags are used just in Phnom Penh alone each day. A recent photo-essay depicts the literal and figurative mess.

What the government has done, so far, is paltry at best and indifferent at worst. Following the example of other countries, a regulation passed by the Ministry of Environment last year means that customers now have to pay $0.10 for a bag. But this is only really applied in a handful of expensive supermarkets, where most people don’t shop at.

Recycling – at least collection – is currently monetized in Cambodia, but not at every stage. Come nightfall, hundreds of ragged, rubbish collectors, pulling wagons, roam the streets looking for trash to sell for recycling in what amounts to a mini-economy, though a heavily unregulated and unfair one. Many collectors are homeless and the poorest in society. Rare is one with any decent safety equipment, a concern given they are riffling around in trash barehanded. Children, accompanying their parents, work throughout the night.

Twenty kilograms of plastic bottles are sold for about $1.50, I am told, while the same weight of metals like soda cans and canned tins more profitable. A kilogram of tin goes for about $0.50 and a kilo of copper for roughly $3. But most collectors cannot expect to receive more than a few dollars for a whole night’s work, the only real source of income available to them.

Cambodia’s official unemployment rate (just 0.2 percent) masks the fact that much of the economy depends on “grey-market” labor such as this. Even the middlemen who buy the waste from the collectors, and in turn sell it to large processing firms in Vietnam or Thailand, don’t receive much more from their ventures. One new recycling venture in Battambang, for example, buys a kilo of plastic bags from rubbish collectors for $0.12 and sells them to traders in Thailand and Vietnam for $0.25 a kilo. Though that venture, a non-profit, has rightly received its fair share of applause, even its owner noted that he is “running a small-scale operation” and cannot deal with the problem single-handedly.

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There are some obvious solutions. The government could simply create a new recycling department, employ the current scavengers for a decent salary and put some money into building recycling plants in Cambodia, meaning that valuable waste isn’t shipped abroad and profits stay at home. As of now, the Cambodian government has shown a preference for other methods such as to contract out such messy work, with the refuse collection firm Cintri taking care of most public waste.

If that may seem like too Utopian an idea, the private sector or a non-profit firm could also take control of the situation as well. One could see a situation where firms could hire the collectors as employees with a regular salary and streamline operations so as to make exporting the recyclable waste to Vietnam or Thailand that much cheaper, and therefore more profitable.

There are more basic steps that could be considered as well. For instance, restaurants, cafe, offices and households could receive a small sum to sort out their waste in different piles to give them a financial incentive to recycle. Even a small amount could help encourage recycling and also speed up the process of trash sorting by incentivizing separation of waste beforehand. As of now, this practice is far from the norm in Cambodia.

Of course, these are just a few simple suggestions that could help Cambodia get serious about confronting its mounting plastics problem, and there are many more that could be contemplated. But it is high time that the country think comprehensively about how to incentivize a truly whole-of-society approach that involves people at every stage in the process, from the consumer to collector and recycling firm. Nothing short of this will do in order for the country to win its war against plastics.