British Big Business in Cambodia and the Scourge of Plastic Bags


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.

trash1Absolutely 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.

trash5The strangest of the bunch has to be the Co-operative supermarket because in the UK, the Co-Op has a commitment to:

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.

Pedro Milladino

5 thoughts on “British Big Business in Cambodia and the Scourge of Plastic Bags

  1. Dave Reply

    Excellent read Pedro.Plastic bags have been a pet hate of mine for years.However,on my first visit to Cambodia it was a big shock to see so many all over the place.It would be a great accomplishment to clear Cambodia(and indeed the world)of these infernal man-made items.Will it ever happen?As you said,where there’s a will,there’s a way.It will take some monetary incentive to make it happen.How that will be achieved is open to question.
    Anyway,my next holiday to Cambodia is on the horizon.Just can’t stop my love for Cambodia.

  2. William Reply

    Cambodians litter all the time, from throwing a plastic drinks cup from a motorbike, to dropping paper napkins on the floor to dropping plastic bags all over the place.

    If I go to a shop and buy a can of coke, they put it in a bag! If I go somewhere to eat, they give me a plastic straw that I don’t use!

    Cambodians have no interest in keeping their country tide, they empty their bladders at every opportunity along the street, there are no litter bins or public toilets anywhere.

    Its all about education and government failure. (don’t blame Waitrose or Tesco’s, blame the Cambodian public and their government)

  3. WA Reply

    It seems most Asians are only able to keep only the inside of their own house tidy but don’t care about what is happening outside or what the outsiders or tourists have to put up with.

    If they continue to treat their environment and people in such a shabby manner, what is the point of them having their own country that they can’t even take care of properly?

  4. Stephanie Reply

    On my recent trip to and throughout Cambodia this was one of the number one takeaways I had. I couldn’t believe the mounds of trash, notably plastic bags, that were blanketing the country. I agree William in that the problem is with littering everywhere and there being a lack of public trash bins but you can’t generalize the entire population as being uncaring about their environment. Also there wouldn’t be SO much trash if they didn’t double and triple up on the plastic bags. I was baffled when I received drinks in plastic cups with a plastic bag carrier inside a plastic bag!

    It’s hard to say where the solution should start, sure there are large companies that ship in the plastic bags and make them available but it’s not only big stores their coming from. Even when I was in small villages buying locally produced goods and food/beverage they came accompanied with the plastic.

    Education and awareness are where it should start, I actually came across this article from a Cambodian friend who is a young, hardworking entrepreneur from a small village outside Battambang. I met SO many individuals in Cambodia with lofty goals for the future that I believe there are resources and people who can make a change to this problem, but as most of them argue it is hard with the corruption of the government….like them I’m hoping to see a change.

  5. Mike Reply

    sometimes the problem is the solution from a different perspective. I am currently developing a UDDT toilet that composts human waste into humus. The same principal applies to plastic bags.
    Number One> government gives a timeline to eradicate / ban plastic bags.
    Number Two> all the mountains of paper waste at dump sites are recycled into paper pulp for making waxed bags, thus killing 2 (or 3) birds with one stone.
    Note: did you know? plastic bags can also be recycled via a system called pyrolysis – we could actually reduce ‘bag mountains’ by 99%
    Check out my site and feel free to leave a comment or contact me

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