Plastic Bag Habit Proves Difficult to Break

Kuk Eng weaved through the wet market at Phnom Penh’s Phsar O’Russei on Wednesday afternoon with three plastic bags hanging from her fingers. In each bag were more bags holding individually packaged items—including shirts, vegetables and a guava.

“When you go to the market to buy something, you don’t bring your own bag because you get lots of small bags,” the 50-year-old said. “We buy one thing, we get a bag. We buy another, another bag.”

A woman carries beverages in plastic bags near Phsar Kap Kor market in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
A woman carries beverages in plastic bags near Phsar Kap Kor market in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Ms. Eng said there was no point in bringing her own bags to the market, as vendors were  happy to hand out a seemingly endless supply of them.

The average urban-dwelling Cambodian uses more than 2,000 plastic bags each year—10 times more than in the E.U. and China—while an average of 10 million plastic bags are used every day in Phnom Penh alone, according to a nationwide survey funded by the E.U. and conducted by the anti-poverty organization ACRA last year.

The damage done by plastic bags is widespread and costly, said ACRA project officer Mak Bunthoeurn.

“The government spends millions of dollars per year to solve plastic bag-related issues,” he said, with clogged drainage systems, health problems and lost tourism all attributable to the superfluous use of plastic packaging.

For example, street vendors regularly lose income during the monsoon season when clogged drains cause flooding and prevent them from working, Mr. Bun­thoeurn said.

“It also affects the health of the people because they use plastic bags in the wrong way,” he said. “They use them for holding hot food or liquids,” which causes toxic chemicals in the bags to contaminate food and drinks.

The government’s previous attempts to reduce the use of plastic bags—such as asking supermarkets to charge customers 500 riel (about $0.13) per bag and encouraging the use of banana- and lotus-leaf packaging—have been largely ineffective.

“We sent out letters and information about plastic bag reduction, but it did not work,” Heng Na­reth, director of the Environment Ministry’s pollution department, conceded on Wednesday during a workshop on a draft “prakas”—or legally binding directive—aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags.

The new rules, according to the ACRA study, will be far more effective than past efforts, Mr. Na­reth said. By banning the import, production and distribution of bags smaller than 30 cm in width and 0.03 mm in thickness, the government will eliminate a major part of the problem as it looks to meet its goal of a 50 percent nationwide reduction in plastic bag use by 2019, he said.

According to Mr. Bunthoeurn, encouraging wet market vendors to consolidate items into large bags will also help.

“Fifty percent of bags come from the wet market,” he said, add­ing that the majority of all plastic bags used in Cambodia would fall under the ban. “That’s why we want to promote the use of bigger bags, and at the same time we promote the idea of consolidation of items into big bags.”

Environment Ministry spokes­man Sao Sopheap said breaking consumer habits would prove challenging.

“It’s still a challenging goal to reduce use by 50 percent in a few years,” Mr. Sopheap said. “People are still used to and are still very comfortable using plastic bag.”

Uk Mao, a fruit vendor at Phnom Penh’s Phsar Kandal market, said consumers should be presented with alternate packaging options.

“In one day, I use 1 kg of small bags and 1 kg of big ones,” she said, sitting between piles of watermelons—with watermelon-sized plastic bags lying at her feet.

While Ms. Mao said using larger bags for certain items was a fine idea, she did not expect her customers to agree.

“Customers don’t want a big bag, because if you put a watermelon and a papaya together, the customers will be scared that the watermelon will break the papaya,” she said. “They have to keep them separate.”

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