On a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a seafood café is setting up for the evening rush. Styrofoam boxes are being ripped open, and the broken tops dumped in the street. Prawn-filled plastic bags are emptied into trays, and thrown out. In a few minutes a small mountain of trash piles up on the sidewalk.
As a rickshaw trundles by, the riders chuck an empty plastic drink container atop the heap. It is but one of hundreds of mounds of plastic that dot this rapidly urbanising city.
In April, the Guardian featured a shocking photo essay on the accumulation of plastic trash in the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville, showing mountains of plastics dumped on streets and beaches. But this plastic dystopia is not unique to Cambodia. And if we don’t act now and cut it out of our daily lives, we along with the environment will suffer irreparable harm.
We live in a world of plastic. It is an amazingly convenient material, cheap, light, flexible, and durable. Used for bags, bottles and containers, it is in our homes, on our streets, at our schools and in our workplaces. But that rampant use has come at a heavy price.
According to a 2017 article in Science Advances, the worldwide total volume of plastic has reached 8.3 billion tonnes, the equivalent of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers. Of this enormous amount, 6.3 billion tonnes have been disposed as waste.
In Cambodia, according to the ACRA Foundation, around 10 million plastic bags are used in Phnom Penh every day. Urban Cambodians use more than 2,000 plastic bags every year.
Around 90 percent of the world’s plastic waste ends up in the oceans. Most of it arrives by way of just 10 major rivers, one of which is the Mekong (Schmidt et al, Environmental Science and Technology, 2017).
Each year, eight million tonnes of plastic reaches the oceans, the equivalence of a full garbage truck every minute (Jambeck et al, Science, 2015).
The biggest problem is that plastic does not biodegrade easily. So it stays around for thousands of years. And slowly, it leaks chemical substances harmful for the environment, animals and people.
In marine areas, many mammals, fish and birds suffer from ingesting plastic or becoming entangled with plastic materials. Indeed, more than 90 percent of all birds and fish are reported to have plastic particles in their stomach. In this way, toxic chemicals accumulate and are passed through the food chain.
Since fish contributes more than 60 percent of the protein intake for rural Cambodians (World Fish 2016), this problem is very significant here.
For all these reasons, taking action to mitigate the harmful impacts of plastic is urgent.
So what can be done?
It is heartening that many countries have implemented policy measures to tackle the plastic problem. Last year, Kenya completely banned the production, sale, and use of plastic bags. Violations may result in imprisonment of up to four years, or fines of up to $40,000. Many other countries, including Bangladesh, Rwanda and China, are following this lead, putting in place either total or partial bans on plastic bags, or new forms of plastic taxation.
In Cambodia, too, new initiatives are emerging to fight plastic pollution.
In April, the Ministry of Environment introduced new regulation for the use of plastic bags. Major supermarkets such as Aeon and Lucky have begun to charge 400 riel ($0.10) per bag. The Ministry of Environment is also considering plans for jute bags as an alternative, and the school curriculum is being updated to help educate future generations on the harm caused by plastics.
One promising idea to effectively fight plastic pollution is known as the circular economy, which focuses on waste Reduction, Reuse and Recycling (3R). In a circular economy, waste is treated as valuable materials that should be reused or recycled, not only in order to reduce the volume of waste but also in order to generate new economic opportunities.
First of all, this requires polices that actively encourage a 3R approach to plastic waste. For example, the European Union adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan in 2016, which includes targets for recycling 75 percent of packaging waste by 2030 and making all plastic packaging recyclable by the same date.
The EU is also proposing a ban on the most commonly used single-use plastic products.
But making a circular economy take off also requires active involvement of citizens and the private sector. Even small individual acts, like bringing one’s own shopping bag to the market, contribute to lowering the amount of plastic waste. Businesses can ban plastic bags and encourage the use of biodegradable bags. The United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia has done so at its office. Hotels and factories have the opportunity to create networks of recycling and reusing materials, simultaneously saving money and decreasing waste.
In order to introduce lasting change, it is also critical to raise awareness about the problem. This can happen through education and information campaigns directed at people, especially youth, and the private sector. Finally, new approaches to good solid waste management are essential. Given the mountains of plastic we still generate this won’t be easy. But if we all commit to beat plastic pollution, we can make a monumental difference.
Nick Beresford is the county director for the United Nations Development Programme; Moeko Saito Jensen, senior policy adviser to the UNDP; George Edgar is the ambassador and head of European Union delegation to Cambodia; and Maria Sargren is the ambassador of Sweden to Cambodia.