Not far from what is affectionately known as the “Stinky River” or “Tonle Crap”, the Boeung Trabek sewage canal notoriously choking with plastic rubbish, Sandy Kotan and her team at Only One Planet are working to wean people off single-use synthetics.
Based in an apartment on Street 390, Only One Planet, formerly known as EcoSense, is looking to help communities make biodegradable food packaging so Kotan can locally source environmentally friendly substitutes for plastic.
For now, Only One Planet owner Kotan has to import such goods, including food packaging made from sugarcane fibre, known as bagasse, and disposable wooden cutlery. However, she hopes they will soon be sustainably produced locally.
“Unfortunately, none of my products are currently made in Cambodia, so I import them from China. I hope to help someone set up a factory to make the bagasse products. I think it would reduce the price by 30 to 40 per cent if they were made here. “
Hailing from Arizona in the US, Kotan left home in 2001. The 55-year-old environmental entrepreneur spent seven years in Hong Kong and another seven in Singapore before coming to Cambodia in 2015.
“Cambodia is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited. I am sad to see so many forests gone, replaced by plantations and rice fields covered over with factories, but I understand progress is needed, and so do more jobs,” Kotan says.
Kotan is frustrated witnessing so many people accepting the easily available, cheap plastic offered to them without thinking about the negative effects on the environment and their health.
“I love Cambodia and its people, and I want to help them understand that plastic is not only bad for the environment, it is also bad for humans."
“Many studies show that plastic, and the chemicals from plastic, are in almost everyone’s bodies now … and nobody really knows how that will affect us,” she says.
Styrofoam contains styrene, a suspected cancer-causing carcinogen. When it is burned the smoke is very toxic and can get into people’s bodies – and not only through inhaling, it can also be absorbed through the skin.
In tropical countries like Cambodia, a further problem with the dumping of long-lasting plastic rubbish is even more acute, with Kotan concerned it is a culprit for outbreaks of deadly dengue fever.
“I recently read a report that said places with a lot of litter will have more problems with dengue fever – as the mosquitoes breed in standing water."
“This means if a plastic cup, or bag or box is left lying around, it will collect and hold water where more mosquitoes can breed. I think this is an important message this year, given the dengue outbreaks across the country,” she says.
But instead of telling people not to use plastic, Kotan believes it better to should show people what they can use.
Having seen the environmentally friendly packaging available in her home country, Kotan established EcoSense in 2015.
It later became Only One Planet with a mission to supply biodegradable food packaging and alternatives to single-use plastic.
“I am inspired by the young people making changes, and who aren’t afraid to be different by replacing their single-use plastic choices. I have met many people who are really working hard to reach Cambodians all over the country to help them understand just how harmful plastic is – both to people and the environment.”
Kotan says her eco-friendly food packaging products are all-natural. They are made of bagasse, the fibrous residue from sugarcane that biodegrades in just 45 days. The natural material is also microwave and refrigerator safe.
“The sugarcane bagasse line is all-natural and will biodegrade easily. There are no chemicals.”
“I test all of my products before I sell them, and many don’t make the cut, “ says Kotan, who is also president of the Rotary Club of Phnom Penh, which fosters fellowship and encourages high ethical standards to serve the community and work for international understanding.
“The boxes are all strong and sturdy, the silicone items are well-made and I have had an almost zero defect rate in either line. When Cambodians spend their money, they deserve a product that is honest and will last for a long time, “ she says.
“The disposable cutlery is all natural wood – so it will biodegrade too. For the reusable items, I chose silicone because it is inert. It is also very durable so the items will last a long time, and most are collapsible, which makes it easy for people to carry them around.”
Her business was awarded a Sustainable Development Goals fellowship last year by Impact Hub Phnom Penh, a community of creators and change makers.
She has over 120 restaurants currently using her boxes. In Phnom Penh, Eleven One Kitchen, Dai Khmer Refill Shop, Mere Cafe and Farm to Table all carry at least some of the silicone items.
In Siem Reap, her products can be found at Babel Eco Refill Shop, the New Leaf Eatery and Paris Bakery, who also sell the silicone items.
“By my figures, we’ve kept nearly one million pieces of plastic from the landfill since I started 10 months ago. I’m pretty proud of that,” Kotan says.
Now more and more restaurants and clients all over the country are contacting Kotan for her biodegradable boxes.
“It makes me very happy that customers are asking for something different to styrofoam. This is what will drive change – customers asking for alternatives and no longer accepting harmful plastics,” she says.
With this growing support, Kotan would prefer to promote eco-friendly products made in Cambodia, but she says she finds it hard to find steady supplies locally.
“I don’t plan on producing them but rather helping communities make the products. Some of the items I want to source are already being made here, but in a very ‘loose’ way. Nobody knows for sure where to get them, and sometimes they are made for just a little while and then the family stops.”
“I hope to help community organisations by providing a market for them so they can count on a steady supply of orders. Some of my restaurants really want local products but it is too hard to find a place than can consistently supply a lot of items,” she says.
“My next project is exploring whether we can make eco-friendly products in Cambodia through a partnership with CamConscious Tourism and the communities they work with.”
As well as managing Only One Planet and heading the Rotary Club of Phnom Penh, Kotan is busy helping organise events in Phnom Penh for the Plastic-Free July Challenge.
“Please take part in the Plastic-Free July Challenge. It is basically just about noticing how much plastic you use every day.
“For the first week, do just as you normally do, but keep every piece of plastic in a box. At the end of the week, you look in the box to see and think about what you use and come up with a plan to make changes so you can use less the next week,” Kotan says.
Though being 100 per cent plastic-free is a difficult task , she strongly believes that we all can all do a little bit, with all the little bits together adding up to something big.
“It is important to do this for Cambodia and its people. I am happy to help anyone who wants to learn more, or needs help to stop their plastic addiction!”
“Plastic is bad for everyone – except for the people who make money from it. It is killing everything else.”
Only One Planet, #9D Street 390, Phnom Penh, imports and distributes biodegradable food packaging and eco products in Cambodia. Phone: 097 852 6151; email: [email protected]; website: onlyoneplanetkh.com.