Each morning, millions of Cambodians start their day with the traditional Khmer meal of steamed rice with pork. People generally receive with their meal a selection of plastic items – a box, a spoon, and a small bag of pickles, all placed in one large carrier bag.
But this seemingly harmless daily tradition is indicative of a wider problem impacting Cambodian society – as trash piles up, much of it non-biodegradable, our city streets are increasingly rubbish strewn and our environment polluted.
Among the 3,000 tonnes of rubbish that Phnom Penh produces daily, plastics account for 18 per cent – just short of 600 tonnes – a consequence of Cambodia’s increasing reliance on the use of plastics in the day to day life.
As a result of its plastic problem, an informal economy has arisen. Waste pickers, known locally as echchay, sift through the city’s garbage each day looking for plastic, metal, glass and other recyclable goods that they can sell.
In a country largely lacking in formal recycling methods, echchay are in essence leading the recycling movement in Cambodia.
Waste pickers are a theme tackled by a Phnom Penh-based Portuguese photographer Miguel Jeronimo in his upcoming exhibition entitled Plastic Kingdom – Different Views on Waste and Ecology in Cambodia.
“These pictures are part of my photo series Invisible Soldiers. I focus on waste pickers, uncovering their hard lives earning a very low income, while at the same being the only ones cleaning up the streets and promoting recycling in Cambodia since the country lacks formal recycling mechanisms."
“I wanted to honour these people and talk about the discrimination they often face. They are ignored and invisible in their own city, almost like the trash of society,” Jeronimo said.
Plastic Kingdom – Different Views on Waste and Ecology in Cambodia will not only showcase Jeronimo’s own pictures, but it will address the wider theme of environmentalism in Cambodia through the work of both foreign and Khmer artists.
“I wanted to organise an exhibition that will showcase different views on waste and ecology in Cambodia, not only mine or from other foreigner artists but especially Cambodians to have a local perspective."
“It’s in the hands of this new generation to care about Cambodia’s environment. That’s why I chose the name Plastic Kingdom for the exhibition, and that’s why I’ve selected 14 local artists from all around the country out of a total of 22 artists exhibiting work.”
Also featured at the exhibition will be Crying Ocean, created by artist Nina Clayton, featuring paintings and sculptures created using plastic collected from the coast of Kep Province.
While the work of Cambodian artist Ket Monnyreak, entitled Global Warming, displays striking illustrations surrounding climate change, with graphic designer Sonich Touch’s work exploring the theme of saying no to plastics.
This is one area in which Jeronimo said he hoped the exhibition would have a significant impact, with Cambodia’s consumption of plastic bags strikingly high in comparison to many countries around the world.
“Fortunately people are already paying attention to this issue due to the flooding during monsoons caused by plastic and trash clogging the draining system, but it’s still a slow process from awareness of the cause and actual behaviour change.
“We hope with this exhibition be another drop in the ocean of what is needed for people to do something different,” he said.
Plastic Kingdom – Different Views on Waste and Ecology in Cambodia opened on November 28 at Meta House, Phnom Penh. The exhibition will run until late December and is free to enter.