Cambodia’s Excess Baggage

“I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to look out the bus window and see all the blue bags along the road and in the fields,” said 27-year-old Christopher Convery, who is currently backpacking for the first time in Cambodia.

A young boy plays among the garbage near Chamkar Mon district’s Phsar Doeum Thkov commune. (Siv Channa)
A young boy plays among the garbage near Chamkar Mon district’s Phsar Doeum Thkov commune. (Siv Channa)

“The place looks a bit ruined,” he said.

It is not a new problem. For years, polythene bags have blighted Cambodia’s countryside and littered its streets. Prime Minister Hun Sen has decried the nation’s propensity for littering, while the authorities have struggled to find a solution to the ongoing problem.

Ultimately, discarded plastic bags are an issue that just won’t go away. Street vendors, markets and shops continue to give plastic bags with every can of coke or beer. Green tea and the juice from sugar cane are often dispensed directly into the bags. And customers continue to discard them at their feet. Whether on the beach in Sihanoukville, in the ditches along national roads, or on the banks of the country’s waterways, discarded plastic bags are never far away.

“O’Russei Market alone uses hundreds of thousands of plastic bags each and every day,” deputy Phnom Penh governor Chan Sam An said this week. This is not hard to believe. Inside the market, vendors sell all manner of carrier bags. There are 60 kg rice sacks full of the thin blue bag variety, one of street waste’s biggest offenders, which can be bought in bulk for only 7,000 riel, or about $1.75 per kilogram of bags.

In 2010, Mr. Hun Sen lambasted the widespread use of plastic bags as a principle cause of flooding in Phnom Penh. Meetings were called, supermarkets were advised and appeals were made for the public to be educated about throwing away non-biodegradable waste that blocks the city’s drainage pipes. It spurred then-Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema to authorize police to fine people who they saw littering.

“Every day now we are issuing fines of up to 20,000 riel [about $5] to individuals and vendors,” said Em Sambath, chief of municipal public order, who added that fines total about 2 million riel, or about $500 a month, which goes into the municipal budget. He added that City Hall had also begun to put up signs along main walkways to educate people about littering.

It obviously isn’t working.

City’s streets, country towns, fields and beaches continue to gather the detritus of daily disposable-waste, while its effect on flooding in Phnom Penh continues unabated.

“The municipality has tried to spread information to the public about the dangers of using plastic bags because they do cause flooding by blocking drains during the rainy season,” Mr. Sam An said.

The government has made some progress in the past few years to reduce flooding in Phnom Penh, notably with a $350-million dollar drainage system funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Yet with one of the first big storms of the year last weekend, the floodwaters returned to Phnom Penh and the distinction between roads and sidewalks blurred once again.

“The current [drainage] project we are assisting will finish in 2015 and is still ongoing…[it] will take some time for the system to be fully effective,” said Seng Solady, program officer for JICA, “but we still consider garbage as a problem for Phnom Penh’s drainage system.”

The problem is not just littering, but also recycling. In countries like Cambodia, where municipal waste services are limited, waste pickers, or scavengers, constitute an invaluable service by segregating recyclable waste from biodegradable waste. However, plastic bags are not profitable, so they are left behind on the street after waste has been sifted through, and then it finds its way into the drainage system.

Cintri, Phnom Penh’s privately owned garbage collector, operates a waste separation recycling service, but vice chairman Seng Cham Roen said that plastic bags present a unique challenge.

“We must educate the public more through the TV to stop using plastic bags, because they are not easily processed or recycled, and they end up in the drainage system.”

He also said that City Hall and Cintri had established a joint committee to discuss ways to collect plastic bags.

It is also hard to ignore, that despite the debates about the environmental impact of plastic bags, they are in fact cheap, convenient and useful. It is estimated that worldwide, plastic bag consumption reaches about 1 trillion bags annually—almost 1 million every minute.

The environmental implications of such consumption are well documented: Each plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade and as they do, they clog and contaminate soil, waterways, and choke or poison animals. Worldwide, science and industry are seeking solutions.

In the short term, however, Phnom Penh’s drainage system is still suffering because waste collection and recycling services in the city cannot prevent the same issues faced by the older drains clogging by polythene bags.

Tourism is also potentially suffering, with all the discarded rubbish leaving a negative impression on visitors that Cambodia is a dirty place.

The government agrees that ways to reduce the use and misuse of plastic bags need to be found.

Providing reusable alternatives is one answer, but it is a not comprehensive one. “Lucky supermarkets have been selling reusable bags [for some time], however there is no noticeable change in the use of plastic bags by customers,” said Helene Tho, Marketing Manager at DFI Lucky.

Management at Pencil supermarket in Daun Penh district said they are planning to sell bags made from cloth to reduce the dependence on plastic, but said that foreigners would most likely be the biggest users.

Implementing a tax on plastic bags to encourage people to reuse is another answer. The Ministry of Environment is currently working with the Ministry of Tourism to get retailers to charge 500 riel for each plastic bag by 2015, according to Mr. Sam An at City Hall.

“It is only a plan so far, but hopefully this project will start by 2015,” he said.

Ireland, who pioneered the measure, has seen plastic bag usage drop by 93.5 percent since 2001, according to the Irish Department of the Environment.

Many environmental campaigners hark back to the recent past, when large green lotus leaves were used to carry goods before plastic bags were introduced, but Mr. Sam An insisted that lotus leaves are now consigned to history in Cambodia.

“We cannot use lotus leaves again because this is a backward step,” he said, adding that Phnom Penh and the Ministry of Tourism are looking for a partner to develop a new kind of bag that breaks down easier to replace the ones used now.

What is clear is that until a cheap and effective replacement material can be found to fit the same purpose, there is no single, easy solution to the problem.

“Now, people just throw away. But people need time, and over time as awareness is raised, people’s attitudes will change,” said Uch Rithy, executive director of the Cambodian Education and Waste Management Organization, an NGO that cooperates with local authorities to tackle the country’s waste problem.

“But there are many factors that need to come together to make the situation better—law enforcement, legislation and peer-to-peer awareness.”

While these things take time, JICA is wasting none as it seeks an immediate solution to the flooding that is still affecting Phnom Penh.

“We have [given] four vehicles to City Hall and conducted…training to use the vehicles so that they can clean the sludge accumulated in the drainage system,” Ms. Solady said.

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