From his childhood years helping family care for fostered animals, Sokh Chivorn forged a connection with nature in his Banteay Meanchey province home hidden by trees.
But when the 21-year-old moved to Phnom Penh to study at university, he saw the plastic bag-strewn parks and littered rivers, and realized the city did not revere nature as he did.
Now he is attempting to contribute toward changing those habits.
Shortly after he moved to the city in 2015, Mr. Chivorn joined EcoLife Cambodia, an environmental volunteer organization that has branched out into selling bamboo straws.
“People in my country mostly use plastic straws everyday, everywhere. It is because they are cheap and easy,” he said.
EcoLife’s bamboo straws, Mr. Chivorn said, reduce plastic waste and are safer for consumers, because they won’t release chemicals when used with hot liquids, unlike their plastic counter parts.
Amid the towering piles of litter that line Phnom Penh and Siem Reap’s streets, EcoLife is one of several social enterprises that have started working to reduce waste. So far, however, the efforts often attract only the well-off who have the means to buy consciously.
Kai Kuramoto is another social entrepreneur trying to make a difference. Since he first came to Cambodia, he became fixated on bringing recycled bags into the country as a way to cut down on rising plastic waste, he said.
Last year, he and a co-founder introduced biodegradable bags, partially made from cassava, under the brand Cleanbodia. Mr. Kuramoto said he found a supplier in Southeast Asia who was already manufacturing the product, which he claims degrades within about five years, a fraction of the time it takes plastic to degrade.
Mr. Kuramoto said most of the people he talks to in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh want to reduce waste and like the concept of his cassava bags, but he only makes his sales pitch to high-income restaurants and vendors.
“A majority of [people] understand the problem,” he said. “It’s just figuring what can we do to change it, what are the behaviors, how do we find new alternatives to what we’re doing and how do we find alternatives to be more environmentally friendly.”
Nevertheless, Sarah Rhodes, founder of Plastic Free Cambodia, said the market for environmentally friendly and waste reduction products was booming, with dozens of
new businesses entering the field.
Chhlat founder Gnem ChanChav’s idea was to introduce a reusable water bottle that’s more convenient and amenable to students. Users can roll up Chhlat’s flexible, silicon bottle for storage, and students find themselves mindlessly toying with the movable material, he said.
As a student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Mr. ChanChav went through at least two disposable plastic bottles a day, until he realized many students, like him, could be convinced to reduce their waste.
“We came up with [Chhlat] to target the students first, because they are the role models, people try to follow them,” he said.
After more than a year in the market and more than 600 bottles sold, Mr. ChanChav said students found small issues
with the product that he will fix by the end of the year, such as the smell of the silicon and plastic packaging on the new bottles.
But Mr. ChanChav won’t be able to resolve students’ No. 1 complaint: the price.
Few university students are willing to invest between $6 and $8 in a Chhlat water bottle when they can find an ice-cold water at a corner store for 1,000 riel, or about $0.25, Mr. ChanChav said.
Across the board, environmentally friendly products sell for higher prices than their plastic counterparts. A pack of 12 bamboo straws from EcoLife costs $15, compared to $0.37 for a 200-pack, while a 200-pack of Cleanbodia bags costs $4.50 more than the same size package of plastic bags bought at a residential market.
Some entrepreneurs anticipate a more favorable market for plastic-reduction products once the government passes a sub-decree requiring supermarkets to tax 500 riel, or about $0.13, for each plastic bag.
Mr. Kuramoto sees the plastic bag tax as a way to even out competition for his product, Cleanbodia, he said.
“[The sub-decree] would curb plastic use, but it would also help a bit, essentially subsidize our bags to make them more comparable in cost to traditional plastic bags,” he said.
Environment Ministry representatives could not be reached for comment, but Claudia Oriolo, former director for Fondazione ACRA, an Italian NGO that was working on a plastic reduction project until last month, said the sub-decree was never signed. She did not know why it had not been signed yet.
Ms. Rhodes of Plastic Free Cambodia praised efforts by the government to curtail waste, but she said the laws on paper are rarely enforced.
“Often we need to have a law to help us keep doing the right thing,” she said. “The laws are there and they’re great, but in implementation, there’s a real opportunity for the government to step in and make a really positive change.”