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Entrepreneur aims to replace plastic straws with reeds

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A woman collecting chachot grass to make straws in Koh Kong province. SUPPLIED

Entrepreneur aims to replace plastic straws with reeds

Hai Socheat Vaddana’s passion for supporting handmade and environmentally safe products, as well as her mission to promote women’s employment in the Kingdom, inspired her to start making straws from chachot.

Chachot is a type of reed traditionally used to make mats or bags, and thanks to Vaddana it is now being used instead to replace plastic straws. Plastic is polluting the Earth’s environment to an unprecedented degree today and many scientists believe that it can be detrimental to human and animal health as it breaks down and enters our systems.

Vaddana is currently looking for female staff members to join her small handicraft workshop called Atikor Cambodia.

She began making straws from chachot after she left her employment with a private company and started studying businesses related to environmental protection. By the end of 2021, she had begun the initial stages of product design and by mid-2022 she had registered with the interior ministry as a social enterprise.

“At first I did not know how to make straws from chachot, but after quitting my job with a private company, I tried to find something I liked to do and I like to use handmade products such as organic and local products. Therefore, I thought that I wanted to do something environmentally friendly and handmade.

“I started with making straws. And due to a lack of capital, I started out researching and working alone. I saw reed straws being sold in our neighbouring countries and realised that in Cambodia we also have chachot, so I started researching some techniques,” said Vaddana.

The 39-year-old added that – on the other hand – she saw plastic waste in public places as a sign of all of the excesses that have led us to climate change, plus she also wants to create jobs that women can do because she wants to improve women’s abilities and options when trying to find gainful employment.

She gets her chachot from Shihanoukville, Koh Kong and Sre Ambel district. She’s also contacted the Creal Community in Kampot province who collect chachot from different places that are state land and this allows their people to benefit from it.

“After taking large and old chachot from the community, I clean them from the outside and inside because inside they are usually caked with some mud and then we cut them into the size we want,” she said. “Then we put them in the drying machine for about four to five hours. Once the batch is dry, we put them into a disinfecting machine along with a test from a Cambodian laboratory. Then we quality check them and package it according to the standards and store them in a place where there is no air or exposure to sunlight.”

The Kampong Chhnang native said that the straws that she was making were being sold mostly to shops and restaurants and it was still a relatively small number compared to the number of plastic straws being used.

She sells one box of 100 straws for 8,000 to 13,000 riel, depending on the size of the straws and the quantity that buyers wish to purchase.

She said that her product’s value comes from the fact that it derives from a local and natural raw material that does not harm the environment and is safe for consumers, while use of it can help reduce the use of plastic products because once disposed of the reed straws will biodegrade in about 30 to 45 days.

If kept in a dry place, they can be stored for six months to one year with no loss of durability or stiffness to them.

“We do not use any chemicals in our production chain. Our reed straws can be used with both hot and cold water. And its taste does not affect the taste of the drinks but it does add a plant-like aroma and makes it feel like we are closer to nature,” she added.

Overcoming hurdles

But she also said that each straw can only be used one time in most instances because when it is exposed to water it is then able to bend but does not begin to leak immediately, though after a certain amount of exposure it would.

Socheat Vaddana said there are some challenges she faces related to raw materials because this kind of reed is grown only in certain locations in the coastal provinces of Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong, so if the water level is high then people have a difficult time reaching those locations to collect them.

At present, some areas with the reeds are privately owned so the communities can no longer access them, which presents another difficulty. Therefore she now urges the community to try to cultivate in the areas where they live or in their backyards, because if there are not enough raw materials then it will be difficult to meet market demands.

“Only by wider cultivation can we improve the reed straws production sustainability. We grow them from six months to one year before the reeds can be used,” she said.

Because she has just started her business up this year essentially, she is concerned that she would encountered some challenges related to budget, staff and finding people with some of the skills or knowledge of various techniques that she needs.

Vaddana said she wants to contribute to efforts towards environmental protection and reduce plastic waste and its impact on biodiversity in order to keep the country clean so that people can live healthy.

She explains that she wants to make sustainable use of Cambodia’s existing natural resources for the benefit of the Kingdom’s people and reduce the import of products that local people can produce as well as improve the livelihoods of the community and particularly women.

“Market demand for our environmentally-sound products is still limited. I would like to see all of our people contribute to environmental protection around the city or help clean resorts to attract tourists and continue supporting Khmer products. We are helping with the reviving of the economy after being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.

Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said that he commends environmentally friendly companies for their products because people are now more aware of the environmental costs of using plastic products and have begun to change their behaviour, pointing to the use of environmentally friendly bags and baskets and reusable water bottles as some examples.

“We urge people to change their attitudes, reduce their consumption of plastics and choose natural products. For example, disposable products such as plastic straws are being reduced in restaurants and replaced by ones made of paper, bamboo or lemongrass,” he said in a previous interview.

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