Zero in on Plastics
by Devina Anglingdarma • 19 May 2022
Today, plastic consumption in Cambodia is synonymous with daily life, particularly the free plastic bags in traditional markets. In Phnom Penh alone, around 10 million plastic bags are used daily, according to Dr Yim Mongtoeun, an expert in solid waste management (SWM) from Cambodia.
Beyond the service sector, plastic consumption is a pervasive reality at all levels in the supply chain, especially single use plastic bags which are hard to recycle, he added.
These facts hint that plastic circularity implementation in the Southeast Asian country should be ideal, but Cambodia does not recycle its plastic because of the cost.
“It is cheaper to collect and pack the recyclables and send them to other countries. Even producers prefer to import by-products or semi-products from Vietnam, China, and Thailand than to make various plastic products themselves. And they don’t need to spend on workers and waste water coming from cleaning the recyclable plastics which that need to be treated,” said Dr Yim, who currently serves as the Deputy Head of the Department of Environmental Science, Faculty of Science, Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).
“Combined with a lack of waste management infrastructure, effective recycling of the plastic waste in Cambodia is nearly impossible. As a result, our waterways and green spaces are burgeoning heaps of plastic and garbage.”
Another issue of solid waste management in Cambodia is how the country’s electricity costs are higher than in neighbouring countries. Given that recycling is an electricity-heavy industry, this reduces the competitiveness of any Cambodian business in the field. Cleansing plastic waste materials, water consumption, and technology correspondingly require additional expenditure. Moreover, there are concerns regarding weak governance and law enforcement, which might have deterred investors from financing pilot projects for solid waste management in the country.
How Municipal Solid Waste Collection and Management Works in Phnom Penh
Dr Yim underlined how solid waste management is crucial for saving resources and protecting the environment, especially in cities, where solid waste predominantly generated.
“Tourism, attractions, and reputation of a country can be affected by the cleanliness of a city,” he mentioned.
He continued, “Improper management of solid waste can cause problems, such as foul odour, destroy infrastructures, and drainage clogging, which leads to water-disease transmission and Plastics and microplastics from leachate water could affect the seafood we consume and thereby affect our health.”
In terms of municipal solid waste management workflow in Phnom Penh, the law, regulations, and policies are under the authority of Ministry of Environment, but the control and monitoring are under the Phnom Penh city or other municipalities. Solid waste collection, transport and dispose is contracted between municipality of each province and private waste collector, while landfill or dump site is under the management, controlling and monitoring by municipality.
“In Phnom Penh, solid waste management is currently contracted by Khans (districts) to four main private contractors that are responsible for waste collection, transport, and disposal. Next, the municipalities control the dumpsite maintenance,” explained Dr Yim, who obtained a PhD in Environmental Science from the Okayama University of Japan, where he started his research on Phnom Penh’s solid waste management.
Introduced in July 2021, the new system has improved the public service. No more leachates are coming off garbage trucks, and the waste trucks in operation are visibly cleaner than before. With clear task assignments, private-public partnership empirically plays a vital role in preventing plastic debris from leaking into the ocean and cleaning the neighbourhood.
Then each municipality makes contracts with private waste-collection companies. In Phnom Penh, solid waste management is currently contracted by Khans (districts) to four main private contractors by Khansthat are responsible for waste collection, transport, and disposal. Next, the municipalities control the dumpsite maintenance while the in the past, monopoly service applied called CINTRI (waste collector).
Also read: Crossing The Border Without Passport: Where Our Plastics End Up
“The new system, the delegation of waste collection to Khan, was started in July 2021. One private company is usually responsible for four or five districts or khans,” explained Dr Yim, who obtained a PhD in Environmental Science from the Okayama University of Japan, where he started his research on Phnom Penh’s solid waste management.
“These companies are then responsible for the collection, transport, and disposal within those khans. Next, the municipal hall controls the maintenance of the dumpsite.”
Introduced in July 2021, the new system has improved the public service. No more leachates are coming off garbage trucks, and the pickup vehicleswaste trucks in operation are visibly cleaner than before. With clear task assignments, private-public partnership empirically plays a vital role in preventing plastic debris from leaking into the ocean and cleaning the neighbourhood.
Dr Yim believes that proper SWM could help recover some resources and protect the environment. One of his ongoing projects related controlled landfill design in Pursat and Kampong Chhnang provinces, currently nearly finished construction supported by Asian Devlopment Bank (ADB) and another study to create the first sanitary landfill in Siem Reap recently completed, which is supported the World Bank (WB) He works with national and international consultants to choose a suitable site for the new landfill. His team is mindful of the placement by considering nearby residential, cultural heritage, and school sites. Additionally, he has ongoing projects to improve existing landfills through rehabilitation efforts.
Challenges of Solid Waste Management in Cambodia
Cambodia does not have any controlled or sanitary landfill, only Dangkor landfill in Phnom Penh— a semi sanitary landfill when started in 2009 and later looks like open dumpster again due to poor management and rapid increase of waste. The mountainous amount of waste from over-dumping has caused leachate water to leak and flow directly into the canal or to the water body.
The government of Cambodia has tried to mitigate the issue of leachate water by providing landfills with proper liners and covering the landfill to prevent water pollution following the standard. The government received the loan from outside sources to improve environmental infrastructures in each town, including SWM and landfill.
The Dangkor Landfill, which is set to operate for eight years (from 2022-2030), is already at its maximum capacity. Dr Yim said that currently, there is around 3,000 tonnes of waste collected and dumped per day at the Landfill, where 83.3 percent of wastes in Phnom Penh is disposed, while the waste collection efficiency is still very low for the provinces at 40-60 percent.
Other challenges faced by the Cambodians include the limited waste collection service, rapid urbanization, rapid population growth, safe disposal sites, waste collection efficiency, and waste packaging.
Dr Yim pointed out how this country with a population of over 17 million has existing legislation and inter-ministerial declaration that regulate SWM and the discarding of municipal solid waste material. The government has actively tried to raise awareness and encourage behavioural change through the campaigns on social media, radio, and TV, and putting up an inter-ministerial declaration board by stating fines and criminal punishment for improper disposal in many places.
“But even with this government campaign, soon you will see a lot of waste near the warnings. Perhaps weak law enforcement and the lack of government implementation capacity are part of the problem. The government does not set up enough public trash bins while putting up the campaigns or irregular collection caused a heap of waste, so people do not know where to throw away their litter,” Dr Yim said.
“Furthermore, government bodies at the sub-national level lack experience, knowledge, and resources – including human capital/finance. These difficulties, in turn, result in the misidentification of core issues, mishandling of resource allocation, and a general lack of visions and action plans to rectify the situation.”
Also read: How Plastics Ingestion is Killing the Marine Life in the Philippines
Possible Solutions and the Importance of Befriending Plastics
Despite the problems, the outlook for fighting plastic waste in Cambodia is not all doom and gloom. New initiatives are emerging to fight plastic pollution. First, in April 2022, the Ministry of Environment introduced new regulations for plastic bags usage. Second, major supermarkets such as AEON and Lucky are now charging 10 cents per bag. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Environment are considering plans for jute bags as an alternative.
Dr Yim asserted that having an incentive or subsidy for plastic recyclers would have social and environmental benefits. But given the current shortage of plastic recycling facilities and the lack of infrastructural readiness to welcome recycling industries in Cambodia, his recommendation is to focus on reducing single-use plastics. He suggested that the way forward for Cambodia is perhaps to introduce eco-friendly plastic alternative materials which could replace single-use plastic products altogether.
Encouraging people to reduce their plastic consumption by offering a discount for those who bring their tumblers to shopping/cafes is another viable proposition. Not to mention, education paired with conscious behaviour change is essential to nudge individuals towards better waste management habits. In the bigger scheme, he proposes to increase the tax on plastic imports to encourage local investors to start up their business on recycling, especially plastic
According to Dr Yim, getting some of our resources back and safeguarding the environment with good SWM involves composting and recycling – especially when most solid rubbishes consist of food waste, followed by plastic litter. Composting could help fertilize plants to grow more food and trees that could help reduce CO2 emissions.
While recycling could save the planet by reducing the usage and processing of virgin materials. He followed up that successful recycling businesses can be very financially rewarding: “In Thailand, the people in the recycling business become very rich.”
Dr Yim reminded us that with effective instruments, living in good harmony with plastics is possible.
“Plastic is everywhere and in everything. Even our clothes are made of plastics. So, it is important to keep in mind that plastic is our friend, not our enemy,” he said.
Also read: Ocean Under Stress: The Insidious Effects of Microplastics on Our Coral Reef
All photos courtesy of Dr Yim Mongtoeun