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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Making an impact, bottle by bottle

Making an impact, bottle by bottle

Three Siem Reap business owners are driving a conscientious effort to reduce the amount of plastic polluting the city with an initiative to replace one-use plastic water bottles with refillable ones.

Cambodia’s tourists alone have the potential to leave behind 130 million plastic bottles annually, according to Christian de Boer, Dean McLachlan and Katrine Solhaug. The trio launched Refill not Landfill Cambodia last year, and began contacting other businesses to convince them to adopt or sell the aluminium containers and to host free refill stations.

Each bottle is plastered with the participant’s logo and a map of refill points.

“Smaller businesses got involved first,” says de Boer, a hotelier who has helped develop Siem Reap as a tourist destination.

Cas Gravett, a co-owner of popular café Sister Srey, says she got involved out of a sense of communal responsibility. “We all have the choice to make a change for the environment,” she says. “We jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this movement.”

It was when Phare, the Cambodian Circus, came aboard that the project started to come together. Phare – which has a 300-seat arena – is one of the most popular attractions in Siem Reap and puts on nightly performances.

The organisation ordered 15,000 bottles, which it will provide to its “A Section” guests, according to marketing director Craig Dodge. He adds that it will prevent the sale of hundreds of bottles each night.

The cause is gaining momentum fast: 41,000 bottles have been ordered and personalised through Refill Not Landfill, and over 40 companies are already participating, including the Amansara Hotel and Hard Rock Café. The team says the bottles should be in action within the next few weeks.

With the support received so far, they estimate eliminating the use of more than 175 million plastic bottles over four years, based on tourism projections.

The project reflects a forward-thinking outlook for Siem Reap’s plastic landscape. Last week, a draft law was passed banning small plastic bags and implementing a charge for shopping bags at supermarkets, which could be enforced within the year.

And other initiatives, like HUSK – for which McLachlan also volunteers – are dedicated to reducing plastic litter. The organisation collects litre bottles and turns them into building blocks for schools and community centres.

The Refill Not Landfill trio are committed to bringing change through their own businesses. McLachlan, who manages a tour company, has started providing aluminium bottles for its student groups. De Boer’s Jaya House River Park hotel, set to open in December, has banned all plastic bottles and will furnish guests with the refillable ones for free.

Solhaug, who runs a small guesthouse called Babel, promotes responsible travel and attracts likeminded backpackers who want their wandering footprints to leave as little impact as possible.

The guesthouse would have struggled to come up with the funds for the minimum order (500 bottles) alone, but they were able to crowdfund them through Facebook. Solhaug plans to funnel income from sales back into education initiatives.

“People do care. We just need to create more awareness,” she says. “Together we have to fight plastic pollution. There is no ‘Planet B.’”

What Refill not Landfill desperately need now is more participants and repeat orders for the second round of bottles.

De Boer is clear about where the issue begins: with the growing number of tourists descending on Siem Reap. He hopes that more hotels, tour operators and guesthouse owners will join in and set an example for the industry.

“What we need now is for the big companies and chain hotels to collaborate,” de Boer says. “This is a tourism problem. It needs to be driven by the tourist industry.”

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