Between sips of iced tea from a sweating plastic cup, Pen Odam, 20, admitted he doesn’t always recycle plastic, simply because he doesn’t see recycling bins in Phnom Penh.
“If we had a lot of trash cans around, it’s very good. We could divide our garbage into recyclables,” Mr. Odam said, wiping grease from his fingers. “It’s not that difficult.”
The Slaprea Food Festival over the weekend was created to give diners like Mr. Odam a taste of how deliciously simple it is to properly discard waste.
Slaprea, or “Spoon” in Khmer, was touted as a celebration of Phnom Penh’s restaurants and food vendors, but the secret ingredient was waste management, said Peterson Khim Rattanak, spokesman for the event.
“If we have a waste management festival, no one is going to show up, so that’s why we’re having a food festival,” Mr. Khim Rattanak said on Sunday.
Volunteer staff members guarded each of the waste bin stations and politely asked customers to recycle their empty bottles and cans.
“Some people pay attention, and some people just didn’t look or notice at all. They just go,” Mr. Khim Rattanak said.
The food vendors had a seat at the conservation table too: If they used biodegradable utensils and plates, they got a $20 discount on their vendor fee, which began at $45, Mr. Khim Rattanak said.
The Tourism Ministry supported the festival for its eco-friendly mission, and the data it will provide after garbage trucks do their dirty work, Mr. Khim Rattanak said.
Mr. Khim Rattanak did not have any results available yet, but had already noticed some trends. For instance, when hungry visitors took off their shoes and sat on the woven mats to enjoy their burgers or bao, they were more likely to pick up their crumpled napkins than those sitting at plastic tables, he said.
Choeung Sochenda, a Phnom Penh resident, said she loved the festival for its cleanliness and the variety of Khmer street food. As she spoke, her 7-year-old daughter, Vottey, slid a tube-shaped, fishy snack out of its plastic wrap.
“Don’t eat the pepper,” Ms. Sochenda said. Vottey ate around the spicy green pepper and put it in their waste pile.
“I think it’s good that we put our trash in the bin,” Vottey said, before taking a big bite.