As the eco-friendly movement sweeps across the globe, an ever-growing army of eco-entrepreneurs and the government are unveiling innovative ideas on how to educate, and advocate change and consumption across Cambodia. Editor Marissa Carruthers looks at some of the work taking place. Photography by Lucas Veuve and Enric Català.

Soil is scattered across the table as youngsters cram handfuls of earth into cut-off water bottles. A neighbouring table displays rows of healthy seedlings sprouting from used cups and cartons. Elsewhere groups transform rubbish into the latest trends, make compost and recycled art, and learn how to be more environmentally aware.

This was the scene for the inaugural two-day Baitong Festival in Phnom Penh, which aimed to promote the country’s fledgling eco scene while spreading the environmental message. As well as hosting a range of green activities and workshops, it served as a platform to showcase some of the innovative eco-activities that are mushrooming throughout the Kingdom.

“There are a lot of exciting things happening in Cambodia right now,” says Peterson Khim Rattanak, of The Idea, which organised the event. “It seemed like the perfect time to have the festival.”

From organising litter picks, buying bamboo straws and toothbrushes and biodegradable containers, to breathing new life into waste, going green in Cambodia is becoming a whole lot easier.

Plastic Free Push

Waterways choked with plastic straws, bags, bottles, cups and Styrofoam – dubbed the Top Five Enemies by organisation Plastic Free Cambodia – and back lanes littered with mountains of waste that will take centuries to disappear are a common sight in Cambodia, a country where plastic is dished out at a rapid rate.

Research by anti-poverty organisation ACRA reveals the average urban-living Cambodian uses more than 2,000 plastic bags every year – 10 times more than China and Europe. In Phnom Penh alone, an average of 10 million plastic bags are used daily.

Pollution, litter and waste are issues that plague the globe. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an island of debris, mainly plastic and Styrofoam, in the North Pacific Ocean that spans an area twice the size of Texas. An Ellen MacArthur Foundation report last year warned that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. These are just two of the many examples of the devastating effect human waste is having on the world.

In a bid to help Cambodia cut down on its plastic contribution, a series of initiatives have been rolled out across the country, including Plastic Free Cambodia. It launched in 2014 to raise awareness about the detrimental use of the material, while encouraging individuals, businesses, schools and other organisations to lessen consumption.

Another project that is making a major dent in plastic consumption is RefillNotLandfill, which was launched a year ago in Siem Reap in response to the volume of plastic bottles consumed.

It encourages both visitors and residents to avoid purchasing plastic daily by providing refillable bottles and free water stations.

“Why we did this can be easily seen on every street, river and rice field in Cambodia,” says co-founder Dean McLachlan. “There is a major problem with waste management in general in Cambodia, but especially  with plastic.”

With Temple Town being a top tourist attraction – more than 2.2 million international travellers visited Siem Reap in 2016, according to Ministry of Tourism figures – the city seemed the sensible place to set up shop.

“The tourism industry is responsible for an enormous amount of waste,” says McLachlan. “Imagine every tourist visiting Angkor Wat each year consuming roughly six to eight 500ml plastic water bottles per day? It’s a horrific number to consider.”

In less than a year, 130 refill stations were set up across Cambodia, with a handful in Luang Prabang in Laos. About 80,000 branded bottles have been delivered to hotels, tour operators, cafés, restaurants, NGOs, schools and other organisations, with more being added by the week. It has even garnered interest in destinations less off the tourist trail, including Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri.

Waste Wars

Recycling in Cambodia is mainly restricted to the country’s street scavengers, who sift through festering piles of rubbish to collect cans, plastic and other items to trade for cash. The rest is sent to landfill, tossed away or burned.

Thanks to an increasing number of eco-warriors, the Kingdom’s war against waste has stepped up a gear as several awareness campaigns sweep across the country.

“The movement is really starting to take off,” says Srey Neang, co-founder of Eco Life Cambodia, an initiative aimed at promoting the country’s eco-business revolution. She cites Cleanbodia, which produces biodegradable bags made from cassava, and EcoSense Cambodia, which provides food packaging made from natural fibres, as examples.

“There are some really creative ideas starting to happen, and I’m glad because there are many Cambodians who are not aware of environmental issues.”

Neang, 21, teamed up with a group of like-minded peers and launched Eco Life Cambodia to promote eco-initiatives in the country, offer tips and act as a platform for others to introduce Cambodians to sustainable living. In January, the project received a grant to run a 10-month awareness campaign after winning a regional competition held by the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.

Environmental plight has also presented opportunities to help Cambodia socially. Rehash Trash was launched in early 2015 in Siem Reap as part of NGO, The Green Gecko Project, which helps under-privileged children and their families.

Wanting to empower often-abused female members in communities they work with, while addressing the litter that plagues the areas, Rehash Trash launched. The daily workshops employ women to transform roadside rubbish into stylish bags, accessories, baskets and other household items, providing them with skills and a sustainable form of income.

Today, 24 women attend, processing the more than 5,000 plastic bags they collect each week from around Siem Reap. “Sadly, plastic and trash is everywhere. Not only are we offering a sustainable form of income, we are also helping to clean up our environment,” says manager Kate Allen.

Other educational drives include a partnership between Exo Travel and Prek Leap National College of Agriculture (PLNCA) that is set to start in Phnom Penh next month.

The project is the brainchild of Exo general manager Pierre-Andre Romano, who lives on the Mekong. “My neighbours on the left are a very simple family, selling drinks on the street,” he says. “My neighbours to the right are a very wealthy family, with $1 to $2 million worth of cars parked at their house. At 6am every day, they both throw their garbage in the river. At 6.30am, their kids swim there before going to school.”

Realising a lack of environmental education across the board was a major issue, he teamed up with a nearby college to recruit 20 students to deliver educational messages to communities. A total of 235 applied.

Since then, Exo has spent four Saturdays training the 235 PLNCA students about the damage tipping rubbish into the river does to the environment, eco-system and natural resources, as well as health hazards.

In October, every weekend they will talk to residents, house-by-house, along the stretch of Mekong River from Prek Leap to Sokha hotel to share their newly-acquired knowledge and help residents find solutions.

“A more common problem is residents don’t really understand why they should throw their waste in a bin when the river is just there,” says Romano. “We want this project to be an example for communities living along the rivers in Cambodia.”

Sowing the Seeds

“Education is the biggest challenge,” says Neang, referring to the long slog ahead. While environmental initiatives are on the rise in Cambodia, this needs to come coupled with more hard-hitting national awareness campaigns, especially in rural areas.

During the last two years, UNESCO and the ministries of tourism and environment have partnered with the private sector to deliver a series of educational workshops in schools and communities.

At the end of August, the Ministry of Tourism launched website, Cambodia Cleanup, to coordinate volunteer waste collecting sessions. Litter picks must be registered on the site before being given the go ahead by officials. In February, the top teams will be rewarded for their efforts.

A law dealing with the mounting plastic problem has also been drafted, but is still to be reviewed by the Ministry of Justice before being given final approval from the Council of Ministers. It is hoped this will happen by the end of the year.

If given the green light, the sub-decree – which has been agreed by the ministries of environment, tourism, finance and interior – will ban the production and import of plastic bags smaller than 25cm wide and thinner than 0.03cm throughout Cambodia.

Supermarkets will also charge 500 riel for each bag. This forms part of the government’s pledge to half plastic bag use in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville by 2019, a spokesman for the Ministry of Environment said.

The global fight for the environment has given birth to a string of success stories. Bangladesh become the first government to enforce a strict plastic bag ban in 2002, after floods caused by the waste plunged two-thirds of the country underwater between 1988 and 1998. Several other countries have also enforced strict regulations, including China, which introduced similar proposals to Cambodia’s – a ban on ultra-thin bags and fees slapped on bag purchase – in 2008. Bali has pledged to ban plastic bags by 2018.

Strict enforcement on litter bugs has proved successful in Bangkok and Singapore, where those caught tossing trash are slapped with hefty fines.

Last month, Bangkok authorities launched a new clear up campaign, promising to hand over half collected fines to those who report people dumping garbage in public spaces and waterways.

Planting A Future

“If we all take small steps at home, it can have a huge impact across the globe,” says Neang, who has spent the last two years trying to rid her life of excess waste.

She carries a refillable water bottle – two in fact – rides a bicycle when she can, has invested in a decent rain jacket rather than using the common throwaway types, and makes her own shampoo and toothpaste from baking soda, salt and coconut oil.

“I’m not at zero-waste level, and sometimes it’s hard but you have to try,” Neang says.

Another green, and fun, trend that is gaining traction across the Kingdom is home gardening. Keo Malen, co-owner of Cambofarm on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, has transformed spare land at her rabbit farm into a tropical paradise, growing bananas, mangoes, Khmer herbs, chillies and a range of other vegetables.

“I enjoy growing my own food because I know what I am growing and it is safe to eat, and better for the environment” she says, adding it is not essential to be a green-fingered expert or have a large space to start.

Lina Goldberg, author of movetocambodia.com, recommends container gardening, especially for beginners and those with balconies. “Everything can be grown in a pot, as long as it’s big enough,” she says, adding herbs are a good place to start.

“Try a lot of things and don’t get too invested in any one plant,” advises Goldberg, whose Siem Reap garden is flourishing with basil, Italian parsley, marjoram, mint, lemon balm, tarragon, lemon verbena, tomatoes, beans, amaranth, aubergines and peppers.

Gardeners should also steer clear of trying to cultivate plants from foreign climes. “Embrace the herbs and vegetables that grow in Asia already,” says Angela Marie Vestergaard, owner of Kampot Seedlings, which sells plants and offers design and landscaping services. She suggests tomatoes, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, basil, long green beans, aubergines and chillies for balconies, adding it is possible to grow pomegranates, lime trees and bananas there with proper care.

Climbing flowers also introduce a splash of colour, with fragrant Rangoon honeysuckle, moonflowers and morning glory possible to grown in small spaces.

When buying seedlings, look for healthy plants that are not too long and leggy. Plants should then be left to rest for a day before being planted in larger pots with drainage holes.

In wet season, water can be collected from the rain for the plants, vegetables and flowers, and if bugs strike, Vestergaard suggests trying neem oil.

“When you grow your own, you know what you eat is chemical free and where it come from,” she says. “If you add the time and money, it’s cheaper to buy at the market, but the satisfaction of picking your own fruit or veggies is worth all the work.”

While a green Cambodia, producing zero waste remains hard to envisage today, the movement is undoubtedly picking up pace. And as awareness campaigns increase and more initiatives are introduced, hopes remain high that the country is creeping towards this goal.

“Small action counts, from printing less papers, turning the light off, biking, using reusable water bottles and eco bags, saying no to plastic, seeking environmentally-friendly products and recycling,” says Neang.

“Nature and humans should live and work alongside each other, instead of nature being destroyed.”