When Cambodians discovered there were 83 shipping containers filled with rubbish disguised as recyclable plastic waste shipped from the US and Canada, they were outraged.
With waste management already a problem throughout the country, the last thing Cambodia needed was waste from another country.
“Cambodia is not a dustbin where foreign countries can dispose of out-of-date waste,” declared Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheaktra.
Unlike countries such as the US and Canada that can ship their waste abroad, Cambodia does not have that luxury and must deal with the issue head-on.
For decades, the global trade in recyclable rubbish saw rich countries in the West send their used plastic waste to Asia – especially China – to be recycled.
Often, the waste was contaminated with debris that couldn’t be recycled.
The model was simple – collect the plastic and export the problem abroad while maintaining a sense of environmental righteousness.
For a quarter of a century, China took around 70 per cent of the world’s waste, ranging from plastics, paper, glass and all sorts of metal and electronic waste.
However, things began to change in the global recycling system when China refused to continue its role as the world’s biggest recycling bin by banning nearly all waste imports.
The waste was quickly re-routed to Southeast Asian countries, which lack effective recycling plants and disposal laws.
Furthermore, many of these countries are already plagued by their own waste management issues.
No longer world’s dumping ground
Over recent months, several Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia have pushed back against the global recycling system, with many sending the waste back to its country of origin.
The message from the region was clear – Southeast Asia was no longer the world’s dumping ground.
However, the real issue remains – what are we going to do with all our waste at home?
From burning, burying and disposing of waste in an open dumps to private contractors such as Phnom Penh’s often criticised waste collection company Cintri, Cambodia has long had a waste management problem, which leads to environmental and health risks.
A 2018 report by the Ministry of the Environment showed the amount of waste produced was growing at a rate of around 10 per cent each year, led by a growing industrial and services sector, and population growth.
With increasing levels of urbanisation, Phnom Penh is producing approximately 3,000 tonnes of waste every day, while Sihanoukville is producing 600 tonnes, with Siem Reap producing about 400 tonnes.
Despite the problematic trendlines, a combination of the right technology and smart policy can help us tackle our waste management problems.
First, Cambodia should initiate a domestic waste sorting programme that requires households to divide their waste into recyclables, such as paper, plastics and cans, compostables and rubbish.
This would effectively reduce overall waste that ends up in landfills, but most importantly improve the quality of the environment.
Implementing the programme would require an extensive education campaign to ensure widespread public knowledge and support.
Second, the government should support the growth of waste recycling businesses.
Although Cambodia is heavily reliant on the use of landfills, we must be bold in our approach to the problem by exploring how we can end our use of dumpsites.
Historically, waste recycling has occurred informally, performed by manual labour.
With very few recycling facilities, many of the recyclable waste collected is sent to Thailand and Vietnam.
This provides Cambodia with a unique opportunity to foster the growth of this sector.
Lastly, governments need to implement environmental regulations that have legally enforceable targets to encourage industries and consumers to act in an environmentally friendly manner.
Legal requirements would encourage businesses to be creative in their approach to the design and distribution of their products.
For instance, cracking down on plastic packaging can be a solution to reducing plastic waste.
To encourage both businesses and households to sort their waste, governments can make it compulsory by penalising those who are not compliant.
Governments can create conditions to support recycling markets.
We need to rethink our approach to tackling waste within the country or risk living in a dustbin of our own making.
Darren Touch is a Schwarzman Scholar pursuing a Masters in Global Affairs at Tsinghua University. He recently graduated with a Masters in Public Policy and Global Affairs from the University of British Columbia.