A recent study endorsed by the UN predicts that by 2050 the overwhelming amount of plastics on the planet will actually outnumber fish in the sea. Plastic production will have tripled by the year 2040 if no action is taken to curb their use or manufacture.

Approximately 8.3 billion sqm of plastic waste is produced globally and more than 8 million sqm of that end up in the water and especially the oceans, which negatively impacts marine ecosystems, according to the United Nation Development Programme.

Cambodia produces more than 10,000 tonnes of waste daily and nearly four million tonnes annually. Of that waste only 65 per cent of it is organic and biodegradable and 20 per cent of it is plastic, according to the Ministry of Environment.

Approximately half of Cambodia’s waste is disposed of properly and buried in landfills, but the other half is either dumped into the environment – including water resources – or it is burnt, which creates toxic fumes that are dangerous to breathe and are just another form of pollution.

In light of this situation and with the environmentalist’s principle of “think globally, act locally” in mind, a young Cambodian woman and her team have made it their mission to do their part in saving the Earth by taking small steps within their own communities that they hope will spread to the rest of the Kingdom and help to mitigate Cambodia’s constantly growing volume of plastic waste.

A woman cuts plastic bags into long strips before weaving them into new items. SUPPLIED

Ladies Circles is a project focused on recycling plastics into materials that can be used in handicrafts by women in the community to improve their livelihoods and financial independence.

“The pollution and the increased use of plastic bags in Cambodia seems like it’s doubling every day. That’s what our people have to realise so that they join hands together to solve this issue,” the 21-year-old founder of Ladies Circles’ Man Erafasyra – also known as Era – tells The Post.

A former student at CamEd Business School, Era said she founded Ladies Circles with 33 other young women to help reduce and eliminate plastic use by transforming the waste into new products that can benefit women in their community.

She said that the group collects plastic waste with the intention of turning it into items that aren’t disposable and won’t go right back into the environment again. Instead, they are inventing products made from the waste that can be reused many times.

“We want to support needy women who have no reliable relatives and no family or adult children to feed them. We encourage them to do this job at home so that they can earn a living,” says Era.

Era says her ambition – beyond saving the world – is to bring a smile to the faces of the women her group is assisting and encourage them to give back to society by promoting a clean environment without plastic rubbish strewn about everywhere.

Products made from recycled plastic waste on display at an event. SUPPLIED

Ladies Circles hasn’t been slowed down by the pandemic and has continue​d their environmentalist and feminist missions despite the outbreak.

Right now, the project is working with five women in Siem Reap who are elderly widows with no support from any family and no employment available that is suitable for someone their age.

Era says that their project has been slow to gain local support because some people think that their recycled products are too expensive compared to the mass-produced items they find in the markets.

“Our recycled plastic products are not of much interest yet to local customers. Most supporters are international tourists or expats who love handcrafted products that also help communities,” Era says.

One of the products the women are making are charming woven baskets – similar to jute basket – but made from plastic bags that people just tossed out after using once. The recycled woven baskets are durable rather than disposable and it takes days to complete one of them.

Other products the Ladies Circles have come up with inclu​de saucers, placemats and cupholders as well as bigger ite​ms like vegetable baskets and laundry baskets, some of which can take between three and 10 days for the weavers to finish.

“Each product is priced from $3.00 to $65.00 based on its size,” said Era, who added that the most popular items are vegetable baskets, purses and bags.

She concedes that the products are more expensive than products made in a factory, but for those who share the ambition to reduce plastic waste the value comes from supporting the project and vulnerable women in their community.

“People should support Ladies Circles since those products are made by hands that look good and especially they help reduce plastic waste from our environment and provide benefit to needy women,” says Era. “We guarantee the quality of our products and part of the income goes to help needy women, communities and children in rural areas.”

About 30 to 40 plastic bags are required to produce each basket and they aren’t difficult to find in Cambodia, obviously. The end products are labour intensive, however, and it can take days to collect, clean, process and weave the plastic into its new form.

“Processing the plastic requires many steps from washing it several times cutting it into long strips for weaving into various products,” Era says.

Man Erafasyra with a cupholder and basket in her lap as a woman nearby weaves with long strips plastic. SUPPLIED

The plastic waste is collected from garbage dumps or donated from restaurants, hotels and shops partnering with Ladies Circles.

Production is often done to order based on customers’ demands and Ladies Circles sells the products online on its Facebook page.

“In the future, we will sell our products at partnered shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap,” she says, “aside from those products, I plan to make more attractive accessories for household decorations,” she says.

Era emphasised that her group’s efforts alone cannot possibly solve the plastic waste crisis in Cambodia and that said that that everyone needs to take action and consider it their obligation. She said that it is especially important that the Kingdom’s leaders do something to stop the importation and sale of all of this plastic to begin with.

Ladies Circles recycle plastic bags to help women in poverty. SUPPLIED

“When buying things we should not take plastic bags. We should all be using durable bags, not disposable ones and we should encourage everyone to buy their own non-disposable bags and vendors should charge more for plastic bags,” she says.

Though Covid-19 has negatively impacted the market for all goods – including recycled products – as well as shutting down international tourism, Era says that it’s time for Cambodians to show solidarity with Cambodians people and support locally made environmentally friendly products.

“We are trying to create a market and promote our project and our products to loca​l people in Siem Reap an​d Phnom Penh,” Era says. “I hope that the Cambodian people will support local products made by poor women. They can help in two ways by reducing plastic waste in Cambodia and contributing to helping their fellow Cambodians in need by buying products from Ladies Circles.”

For more details on how to help reduce plastic waste and support women in poverty by buying their handmade products, visit Ladies Circles’ Facebook page: @ladiescircles