Take a look outside of your house. Chances are, if you live in the west you will see a few plastic bags hanging in the branches of a tree or floating about along the street. The quantity will vary depending on whether you live in Switzerland or Southside Chicago. For decades an alliance of environmentalists and civic groups have campaigned for an end to litter, resulting in on-the-spot fines, bags for life, plastic bag tax, media campaigns and little pictures on all sorts of potential trash pleading with would-be litterbugs to recycle or responsibly dispose. A peek outside in Cambodia will drive people insane- it’s like trying to tally up grains of sand on a beach. Those lucky enough to live outside urban areas also get the added treat of impromptu toxic bonfires – I love the smell of burning plastic in the morning.
Anything and everything is dumped here, and with next to no monetary value, the plastic bag is king of the shit heap – unlike empty cans and plastic water bottles which get snatched up and sold to the folk with handcarts, weighing scales and a squeeky hand horn made from a washing up liquid bottle.
If, like some claim, Angkor Wat is an alien homing beacon built on lay-lines, then when the extra-terrestrials finally get around to visiting they may mistake styro-foam and plastic as varieties of common wild flora, like moss or stinging nettles.
Granted, we live in a poor country, somewhat lacking in basic infrastructure. With refuse collection confined only to the main cities, mountains of rubbish are more or less inevitable, and the plumes of noxious smoke that choke the air are the only way for folks to have a clean-up. Once I accidentally stumbled across Battambang Environmental Recycling Center, when exploring the countryside- it looked like the Great Wall of China, but made out of plastic and food waste, periodically set alight along the way. Friends of the Earth and tree huggers across the globe would have a fit if they saw it.
Whilst it’s easy to pass the buck to the government and blame ignorance, a great deal of blame lays squarely with Cambodian people themselves and their scant regard for rubbish disposal.
Absolutely everything comes with or in a plastic bag, from toothpicks to coconuts and cans of beer drunk on the spot. Liquids, whether they be sugarcane juice, iced coffee, soup or rice wine are served up in a ‘cup of bag’, inside an extra bag or three for good luck. After consumption the packaging is tossed out the taxi window, flung from a moto or dropped onto the street.
After floating around on the breeze for a while the offending objects come to rest in their thousands in roadside storm ditches and gutters, clogging them up ready for the monsoon. Who needs effective drainage when 12 inches of rain comes straight out of sky in a couple of hours? Issues of aesthetics and practicality don’t seem to bother the locals much, indeed the lassez-faire attitude toward most things from hygiene to traffic can be both a draw and drawback to living here.
Blame the government! Blame the people, but blame outside forces like Vietnam, China and everyone’s favourite former colonialists those pesky British for pushing this menace onto the plastic loving populous like opium on the Qing dynasty in the mid 19th century.
Whilst China has had a semi-successful bag ban in operation since 2008, it, along with commie enemy #1, Vietnam, still churn out the offending items by the billion and export them to the world.
How does Britain fit into this? Through business – namely the supermarket industry. Somehow, in provincial stinky markets and 2500 Riel stores, shoppers can take home seasonal veg, kitchen utensils and still flapping catfish in lovely carrier bags, printed with the logos of high-end retailer Waitrose, the supposedly ethically minded Co-operative and the actual beast from the Book of Revelations, Tesco.
Western oddities do wash up from time to time, like a motodop who wears an old British Gas uniform, and the Battambang Chinese Noodle Man who kneads and fries his dough all day long in a McDonald’s ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ work shirt. Obviously donated contents of clothing bank bins in European car parks sometimes end up for sale in Psar Somewhereorother, fallen off the back of the lorry of good intentions.
Waitrose, the pricier UK supermarket has recently gone into partnership with the Lucky supermarket chain in Cambodia, which could explain the sudden influx of green and white striped plakky sacks flooding the psars.
Tesco, the ‘supermarket that’s eating Britain’ tells consumers ‘Every little helps’. It is possible to live entirely by Tesco products, literally from cradle to grave- if they don’t sell it, they can loan you the cash to buy it- from groceries to garments, music to medicine, fuel to phones. They also have offices, Tesco International Sourcing in Phnom Penh, which buys rags and rice for their supermarket operation, although they won’t say whether they hand out bags to small time market sellers. Of course they also operate the Tesco Lotus chain in Thailand, which has a different design from the bags seen here, which are of the common UK garden variety. Interestingly Tesco Lotus began pioneering ‘No Bag Stores’ on Phuket and Koh Sumui after environmental concerns.
“Using packaging responsibly, encouraging packaging reduction, re-use, recycling and recovery from the waste stream whilst protecting the quality and shelf-life of our products. For example, we have reduced carrier bag use in our store by 65% compared with 2006.”
The ethical group, involved in a purchasing capacity within the kingdom also, according to their website provides:
“Energy-efficient cooking stoves in Cambodia. Energy-efficient cooking stoves reduce the amount of wood needed for cooking, which means less CO2 is released. The reduced demand for wood helps to protect Cambodia’s forests.
In 2011, offset monies helped to fund the construction and supply of approximately 10,800 stores, and will avoid emissions of 16,200 tones of CO2.”
Noble indeed, (if mathematically dubious), but what about the bags?
In the spirit, at least, of proper journalism I sent off a few emails to the respective multinationals to see where these offending items are coming from, and no doubt some temp in Slough on 6 pounds an hour, possibly an Eastern European, didn’t know/couldn’t be bothered to answer questions from Pedro in Cambodia. Maybe they checked the K440 website and decided to give it a wide berth.
Could the wider problem be nearer a solution? Personally, (this being a once in a lifetime statement) I’d like to see the “Nigerian” way. Once a month, residents of Lagos, Africa’s largest mega-city are forced out, pretty much at gunpoint, to clean up the crap they created. Sadly, any chance of ‘Environment Sanitation Day’ success in Cambodia has about the same chance as building a real snowman in Sihanoukville, in April.
Recycling is also a faint, pipe dream option- bags can be be used to power electricity plants (they are essentially oil products) and can also have a new life as durable building materials. Without the will and massive investment judgment day might be here sooner – the four horsemen trampling their fiery steeds through a polythene apocalypse.
However, those bastions of the green movement within the Cambodian government have mooted a version of the ‘bag tax’, where retailers will be forced to charge 500 Riel per bag ‘maybe’ sometime in 2015. Will this deter a population addicted to plastic? Unlike those carcinogen fumed early country mornings, I wouldn’t advise holding your breath.