It’s hard to spend more than a few minutes in Cambodia without noticing the appalling amount of rubbish everywhere. There are plastic bag graveyards beside every road, rivers choked full of bottles and cans, and witches’ knickers in every tree.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country where people love the sight of discarded plastic so much. You can be strolling through an idyllic stretch of forest and find a lotus flower-filled pond with cows supping from the water, the late afternoon sun glinting away on the ripples, and there’ll be mounds of sun-bleached bags and other human waste blighting the scenery.
Go to a picnic area overlooking some beauty spot, and it’s as if each family has filled the car with every bit of rubbish they or their neighbours can get their hands on, and then chucked it on the ground.
And it’s not helped by the fact that Cambodians seem to use plastic bags for everything. Take the coconut – the perfect drinking device. I saw a guy hawking them the other day in a park in Phnom Penh. Whenever anyone ordered one, he tipped the coconut upside down and poured the liquid into a plastic bag and handed it to the buyer with a straw. When they finished, people just chucked the bags on the grass and then continued their journey in search of more plastic.
A week before that, a Land Cruiser sped past me. A KFC Variety Bucket landed at my feet. I gave a universally-recognised gesture, and there was a screech of brakes as he pulled up sharply at a set of traffic lights. I picked up the bucket and was about to throw it in the bin, when I saw the driver still waiting at the lights. I caught his eye and he opened the window.
“You’ve dropped something,” I said.
He looked confused and then saw his empty fried chicken bucket. I held it out towards him and he quickly became angry, shouted at me, and then sped off. He clearly saw it as his right as a consumer to throw his Variety Bucket wherever he pleased.
My Cambodian friends say it is simply a matter of education – and many Khmers also get frustrated at the sight of rubbish everywhere. Kids see their parents chucking litter about so they do the same and so the cycle continues.
There are messages on Cambodian TV telling people not to litter, and signs on walls telling people to respect the environment, but it makes no difference.
One Khmer friend told me: “When I see a person throwing rubbish in the street, I get so angry. I tell them they cannot do, and think they don’t know it’s wrong, but they just get angry and say ‘up to me!’ Many have no education and are ignorant, others just don’t care…”
There should be fines for littering. Cambodian police are very good at skulking in corners and hiding up alleyways jumping out on anyone who’s not wearing a motorbike helmet, so they would be just as good at catching litter bugs red-handed – if there was a bit of cash in it for them.
And it doesn’t matter how many green T-shirt-wearing workers they employ to clean up the mess, it’s impossible to finish a job that can never be completed. It would be far worse without recycling, of course, when there’s 100 riel or so to be had for each beer can or plastic bottle collected.
But there’s no money to be had in scavenging for plastic bags or takeaway containers. It’s such a crying shame in a country filled with banana trees. Why no-one has made takeaway boxes out of banana leaves is beyond me.
As I say, it must be bad because even the Cambodian government has noticed, and this week sprung into action to get the country tidied up in a bid to boost tourism. The solution? Fines for littering? Education programmes? Taxes on plastic bags? No, officials launched a “friendly competition” to encourage the Kingdom’s cities to clean up their act.
Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said the “Clean City Contest” would assess urban areas on cleanliness and waste management issues – with winners announced sometime in September or October (make that December at the earliest).
Officials also set a goal that each city dedicate at least a fifth of its area to parks and other green spaces – which will no doubt infuriate families who have been kicked out of their homes to make way for developments funded by land-grabbing foreign conglomerates.
Alex’s new book ‘Down and Out in Padstow and London’ is available to buy on Amazon for kindle.