Perturbed by the pollution that plague the capital’s roads, back alleys and waterways, a group of eco-warriors were spurred into action and are now spearheading a drive to clean up Cambodia. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Charles Fox.

Neat piles of more than 120 strategically placed bin bags sit in the side streets that surround Russian Market – a rare sight compared to the regular festering mountains of raw trash waiting to be collected. Small groups of people sweep the area armed with bags, gloves and pickers, collecting scraps of rubbish as they go.

This is the fourth instalment of Keep Phnom Penh Clean, an initiative launched by expats Grace Smith, Natalja Rodionova and Carol Milner, who wanted to clean up the country, cut down on waste and take steps towards eradicating the plastic problem that is rife across Cambodia through education. “It started small with the idea of how we can make a difference and do a service to the country we’re in,” says Smith.

Since hosting their first litter pick in April, which saw more than 100 people from 15 nationalities clear a kilometre stretch of the capital’s riverside in two hours, the event has quickly gathered momentum. Local businesses Mito Hotel, Bellevue Apartments and Mad Monkey have joined in, as well as and the Australian and US embassies, with the Ministry of Environment also throwing its weight behind the drive. The group worked with waste management company, Cintri, which collected the rubbish bags.

To date, the group has blitzed two stretches of Sisowath Quay, Chroy Changvar’s riverside and Toul Tom Pong. The last event attracted more than 150 people – about 70 percent being Khmer. The Keep Phnom Penh Clean Facebook page is a hive of activity, with information on green initiatives taking place across the country posted daily.

“We really wanted this to be a communal group,” says Smith, adding the ultimate aim is for Cambodians to head the project. “People have asked us if we can come and clean up their neighbourhood, and that’s exactly what we want; for the community to take ownership.” The sessions have also acted as an educational tool, with curious shop owners and local residents asking questions and, sometimes, joining the clean campaign.

While Cambodia is dogged with its own litter problems, pollution and waste are issues felt across the globe. Scientists claim plastic bags and foam cups take up to 50 years to decompose, having detrimental effects on the environment and wildlife.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an island of debris, mainly plastic and Styrofoam, which spans twice the size of Texas in the North Pacific Ocean – and the release of an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report in January that warned by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish are examples of the devastating effects of waste.

“Recycling is good,” says Charlotte Muckensturm, who is spearheading Phnom Penh’s first Plastic Free July – an international campaign that now runs in 85 countries. “But it is no longer the sole option. We need to look at consumption and reusing.”

As part of the drive, people are being urged not to use plastic this month. Awareness workshops will run in schools and other organisations to educate on all things environmental. Participating schools will collect any used plastic bottles, foam food containers and plastic straws used during July to highlight the issue of high consumption.

While it may be a long way off, Muckensturm’s dream is to see the Kingdom follow in the footsteps of other green countries. Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008, last month Sikkim in India banned the use of mineral water bottles and foam food containers, and Bali plans to enforce a plastic bag ban by 2018.

Already, a swathe of green initiatives are mushrooming across the kingdom, with Cleanbodia offering biodegradable cassava bags instead of plastic, Eco-Sense providing a replacement for Styrofoam food boxes in the form of containers made from sugar palm waste, and there are several suppliers of bamboo straws.

“We’re trying to fill the gap between the problem and the solution through education and awareness,” adds Muckensturm. “We can all do our bit; we just need to be conscious.”

+ Buy a reusable water bottle or food container.
+ Say no to straws and excessive plastic bags.
+ Where possible recycle, separate from waste and leave for scavengers.
+ Upcycle goods, such as turning a plastic bottle into a plant pot.