This New Year’s announcement by Thailand’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpaarcha, that his country would be enacting a nationwide ban on all single-use plastics across major department and convenience stores has again reignited the debate among many of Cambodia’s anti-plastic campaigners on the current plastic usage in the nation.
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The legislation enacted by Thailand’s junta lead government, a key trading partner and bellwether nation for Cambodia, is the first step in an ambitious plan by Thailand’s Pollution Control Department.
In 2018, the department released a 20-year national strategy plan (2018-2037) for domestic plastic waste management, which will lead eventually to the banning of the seven major plastic items and types – cap seals, Oxo-degradable plastic, microbeads, single-use plastic bags, polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, plastic cups and straws.
While there has been no one calling on Cambodia’s Environment Minister Say Sam Al, to release such an ambitious and long term plan, CapitalCambodia spoke this week to businesses owners who are looking towards the ministry for more leadership in reducing the staggering levels of single-use plastic items and provide clarity for investment into the production of options for plastic products.
According to the United Nations Development Programme Cambodia in Phnom Penh alone, approximately 10 million plastic bags are used and 600 tonnes of plastic waste are created on a daily basis. The implementation in April last year of a 400 riel fee for plastic bags at major shopping centres and supermarkets appears to be having little to no impact on the Kingdom’s consumption levels.
Speaking in November last year to Khmer Times the Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra stated, “The ministry has agreed to draft a sub-decree to prohibit the importation and production of single-use plastic products,” Pheaktra said. “We are participating in the protection of the environment and we are aiming to reduce plastic consumption.”
CapitalCambodia spoke again directly to Pheaktra to follow up on his previous statement and was informed that the deal is still currently in the draft phase and could not provide any set dates or further information on the matter.
It is important to note that newly legislated Cambodian sub-decrees take a further six months after their initial implementation before they are enforced.
Although, while many businesses are waiting for the ministry to stop sitting on their hands on the vital environmental issue, a few environmental entrepreneurs have decided they will move ahead of Governmental lawmakers. Developing and implementing their own anti-plastic policies, in turn, creating a market niche that is proving both popular and profitable.
CapitalCambodia spoke with Soklim Srun, owner of Eleven One Kitchen in Phnom Penh, a restaurant that was founded 2014 with a vision to provide delicious and healthy Khmer food using alternatives to plastic in her restaurant whenever possible.
Through the proper training of local staff she and her team were able to essentially devise one of the first towards-zero-plastic policies and create a system that has now been adopted across both her stores creating a business she claims is 90 – 95 percent plastic-free.
Soklim stated her initial reasons for creating this vision was that she had grown tired of seeing the epidemic of single-use consumerism in Cambodia, a trend she claims has only been getting worse over the past 10 years. Reciting with passion examples of toothpicks with plastic coverings and single-use plastic straws that are just some of the restaurant trends that she despises. While for the first few years she admits the business felt the increased cost of supplies and struggled with the extra work that it would take to ensure the correct cleaning of reusable straws, crockery and cutlery. The initiative has now paid dividends from the predominantly Western demographic that come specifically to support the cause.
“The business receives tremendous trade from customers wanting to support the zero plastic movement we are trying to push and as much as the initial choice was environmental, it has become a great marketing tool for us to use” Soklim explained.
However, she fears that it will take many more years of education and even another generation of thinking before local Cambodian’s will fully embrace the zero plastic movement. Explaining that at present many Cambodians still perceive plastic as a safer and more hygienic option because of its single-use nature.
“It has been very hard to convince other restaurants to adopt the same practices as we have at Eleven One Kitchen and this is not just about the increased costs. Many of my friends have told me Cambodians simply won’t purchase products that aren’t plastic because they feel they are of an inferior quality and not as clean, which is simply not true.” Soklim laments.
Another zero plastic movement business owner who spoke exclusively to CapitalCambodia about their business is Kai Kuramoto, founder of Cleanbodia, a company that creates single-use bags made from cassava, a root vegetable grown throughout Southeast Asia. Cassava, being a natural fibre, allows the bags to biodegrade in under five years, whether it is in water, soil, or even buried in garbage.
Kuramoto says he created Cleanbodia in a response to addressing the plastic problem across the Kingdom after hearing stories from people who had visited and complained about how much waste littered the streets and streams.
Stating, “At the time, there were very few people doing anything to alleviate the consumption of single-use plastic. I figured I had no right to complain about the problem if I wasn’t working to help solve it, so I started Cleanbodia to provide a sustainable alternative to traditional plastic bags.”
Kuramoto explains his typical biodegradable single-use carrier bags cost $6 for a pack of 200 ($0.03 per bag), while the average plastic single-use carrier bag will cost under $0.01.
One of his main gripes with the Ministry of Environment has been the lack of subsidies that have been offered for investment in alternative plastic production in this nation. Even after the implementation of the 400 riel per plastic bag fee, there have been no offers to assist in the infrastructure to produce alternative plastic products here, Kuramoto explains.
“If my business was able to access an appropriate amount of capital for investment in factories within Cambodia, I could drastically reduce my transportation costs, minimum purchase and cost per unit. Ultimately allowing for the product to be sold at a more competitive rate compared with traditional single-use plastic bags,” he said.
It is not only assistance with investment that Kuramoto is calling for, stability through well thought out government policies, he says, would also give more companies the confidence to invest in the industry.
“There a variety of policies the Ministry of Environment could put into effect but it would be important to show their commitment to whichever policies they enact. Having a clear and detailed plan on how to implement, monitor, and collect data on the policy would show the private sector that the government is invested in finding environmental solutions and committed to long-term action,” Kuramoto says.
“There is such an opportunity for Cambodia to be a real market leader in this field and set the tone for Southeast Asia. I definitely support a ban similar to that of Thailand but it needs to be handled in a deliberate way where it has minimal effects on small business. I would love to see a focus on the innovation of eco-solutions and have Cambodia become a hub of green industry.”