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Phnom Penh's plague of plastic

Phnom Penh's plague of plastic

Standing on a huge, smoking mound of trash, Ban Ra, 37, divides his treasures

into piles. Cardboard, plastic bottles, scrap metal, sacks, cans - all can be

traded for cash with the middlemen at the foot of the rubbish heap.

Twenty-year-old Hun Ni has been working as a scavenger in the dump for

more than three years. Today he is collecting plastic bags. Not just any plastic

bags: a particular type of soft, clear plastic is the only kind worth any money.

For each kilogram of plastic he can make 150 riel. Ni estimates that in a day,

he can gather 50kg.

Kay Sun, 44, and his wife Nath Chanthoeun, 45, have

lived and worked beside the dump for 15 years. When they moved there, the dump

was a hole in the ground; now it towers over their home, a small, dilapidated

shack surrounded by rubbish. This is a dangerous place to work. Broken glass

protrudes from the black soil and scavengers have been run over by the bulldozer

driver, who failed to see them in time.

This is Stung Meanchey, the

Phnom Penh rubbish dump, and every morning, men, women and children comb the

muck for saleable items. Small fires spew noxious black smoke into the morning

air. Naked, muddy children clamber over the flotsam. Old clothes, vegetable

matter, hair dye sachets, a baby's sandal; the refuse of a city accumulates

here, a stinking man-made mountain growing higher every year.

By far the

most common items of rubbish are ordinary plastic bags. Pink, yellow, blue,

white, they carpet vast areas of this otherwise monochrome landscape with

impressionist daubs of pastel.

Since recycling companies started paying

people to collect plastic, says Sun, there have been fewer plastic bags around.

But more recently, numbers have increased again - because the companies pay so

little for ordinary supermarket bags (scavengers make just 50 riel per kilogram)

that people just ignore them. Other kinds of trash - bottles, polystyrene, metal

- are far more lucrative.

Like many cities worldwide, Phnom Penh has a

plastic bag problem. It's a recent phenomenon. Cambodians traditionally used

paper bags, or bags made from banana or lotus leaves. Plastic bags arrived in

the country with UNTAC in the early 1990s, and today they are imported from

Thailand or Vietnam.

Since they were invented in 1957, every plastic bag

ever produced is still with us, whether in solid form in the water or soil, or,

if burnt, as toxic chemicals in the atmosphere. In our rivers and oceans they

suffocate fish and other creatures. In cities like Phnom Penh, they block

drains, which contributes to flooding in the wet season, and traps dangerous

factory waste near people's homes during the dry.

Local NGO Cambodia's

Media Forum on Environment (CMFE) recently completed a study on the health

effects on people of plastic bag pollution.

"We found that people who

live in areas with lots of plastic bags have lots of diseases: sore throats,

headaches, and lung disease," says CMFE director Ek Visarakhun.

Over the

past few years, many countries have taken steps to minimize plastic bag usage.

In 2002, Ireland introduced "Plastax," charging 15 cents for every bag used at

check-out. The idea was not to generate revenue, but to act as a deterrent,

encouraging people to bring their own, reusable bags when they shop. The scheme

resulted in a 90 percent drop in bag consumption.

Many developing

countries, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Kenya, have also implemented similar

programs. In the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, anyone found using a

plastic bag could face a fine or even a prison sentence. Visarakhun believes

it's time Cambodia started addressing this problem.

"We don't have a

specific plan yet," says Pak Sokharavuth of the Department of Pollution Control.

"But we consider that it is one of our major environmental problems, and I think

that this year or next year we will consider ways to minimize the use of the

plastic bag. It would be a very good step for the Cambodian people."

But

what's good for the environment may not be so good for the Stung Meanchey

scavengers. If such schemes are successful, part of their livelihood will

disappear.

"Plastic is not the main thing," says Kay Sun, "but it is part

of the business. If there are no plastic bags, I will lose a part of my income."

It's something legislators will have to consider - but the sheer variety of

saleable junk in the dump means that scavengers should be able to survive such a

change.

In any case, for Ek Visarakhun, plastic bag usage in Cambodia has

reached such absurd levels that action must be taken.

"Now when I buy one

bottle of water at the market, they put it in a plastic bag for me!" he says. He

has several suggestions for ways to reduce consumption.

"We would like to

do as other countries do, and fine sellers who give out free plastic

bags.

"Many Cambodians are not clear about what looking after the

environment means. We want to explain the harmful effects of plastic bags to

people, and promote the benefits of using a basket for shopping. Now, every time

people shop in the markets, they come home with many plastic bags.

"We

want to work with the Ministry of Environment to distribute leaflets to the

women who shop there, and hang a banner in every market saying 'Use a family

shopping basket to reduce your environmental impact.'

"It is very

important that some action is taken. In Cambodia now we have peace with the

people, but we do not have peace with the environment."

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