The Threat of Garbage

It’s Khmer New Year B.E. 2561 and we should choose a better topic to celebrate here. But I refuse to go to the Kep Beach to see the many visitors from Phnom Penh for a reason: garbage. At this very moment, while all Cambodians celebrate the new year with all happiness and cheh, cheh, cheh… all Cambodian beautiful spots are target of thousands of plastic, empty bottles, polystyrene utensils, all, spread everywhere by the happy Cambodian families celebrating with joy and love the Khmer New Year. Garbage on the pagodas, garbage along the roads, garbage on beaches and garbage on the national parks… practically every single corner of the country where a good road can reach for their vehicles.

Garbage at the waterfall

The beautiful waterfall of Cathien in Ratanakiri… You can walk behind the waterfall, on ancient caves carved by the stream. But even here you find plastic bottles… The people who let them, surely enjoy the beauty of the place, but their mind was too short to understand that they could bring their garbage with them and they preferred to let them here…

The lack of consciousness for the garbage management includes all Cambodians from every social group or background. It is well documented that many of the Cambodian rich families are made by illiterate people who never went to school either. But in the case those over-rich individuals could attend any Cambodian school, their remorse over littering everywhere would not be so different, because you can see teachers doing exactly the same: throwing garbage everywhere.

garbage at the wood

The table is ready… This picture is common in Cambodian national parks. Local visitors make their picnics inside the woods and then leave without any remorse.

Yesterday I drove 700 kilometers from Banlung to Krong Kep crossing all easter provinces like Mondulkiri, Tboung Khmum, Prey Veng, Kandal, Phnom Penh, Kompong Speu, Takeo and Kampot…. it is common to see garbage thrown through the windows of buses, vans, private cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes… A man was driving his motorbike with his wife behind and a little kid in the middle of them. The lady hold two  plastic cups of ice-coffee in her hands and, suddenly, throw them to the middle of the road without any shame. The ice-coffee sellers use to cover the plastic cups with another plastic bag, plus a sort of plastic handle plus the straw… too practical but a poison for environment.

The attitude of that lady is replicated everywhere in Cambodia: from Kampot to Ratanakiri, from Stung Treng to Banteay Meanchey… no place where Cambodians live is free of garbage just because one reason: Garbage is not a problem for Cambodians.

Garbage is a public problem and a responsibility of everybody. However, when a social responsibility is shared between 15 millions persons and nobody seems to take the lead, it keeps going without any real involvement of everybody.

Vietnam and Thailand are already in the black list of those ocean countries that throw more plastic to the seas. That is not precisely a medal. Probably Thailand and Vietnam seem to be cleaner than Cambodia, but it is because they are putting their dust under the carpet and, sadly, that carpet is the ocean. The plastic invasion on the seas are creating a slow and irreversible damage of the sea environment that put in danger the food human supply. Probably when all fish die out, we should eat plastic. If Cambodians do not take social responsibility over this issue, they will enter also in the black list of highly global polluters. However, the environment situation of the Cambodian sea and its islands is not properly exemplary and anybody who dives in the Cambodian coasts can witness the deep destruction of the Cambodian seafloor.

Bring your garbage

In a develop society, every person or group in outing, brings back home their own garbage. Teaching this tradition to Cambodians could be a great solution. 

Garbage does not mean also a destruction of the environment – all sort of animals eating plastic, getting sick and creating poison for the human consumption – but it is also a damage to the tourist development. So much efforts to attract foreign tourists to the Cambodian wonders but visitors cannot turn off their attention over the thousands of tons of garbage everywhere, including inside the ancient temples and national parks. Visitors from countries like Japan or Europe, where cleanliness is a social and common responsibility, cannot avoid to say the same: “So beautiful people, so beautiful country, but full dirty.”

There are three ways we can overcome this problem, but it needs the full agreement between public and private sector, mass media and education:

  • Law enforcement:  In a country where there are many experts in building laws for particular situations… I don’t think another law could be difficult. In countries like Thailand anybody can be fined just for throwing garbage out of the window of their car. In US some states have something called the Trash Police (I know… it’s not funny at all.) I wonder how much fines could be collected during the Khmer New Year celebrations with 15 million persons throwing or letting garbage on tourists areas (?) But laws for littering should include fines for a poor garbage management and excess of plastic bags.
  • Strict rules in schools: In any developed country teachers are model for their students. Schools must be cleaned and children are not obliged to pick garbage around, but not to throw garbage around… the other way.
  • Mass Media and artists: It is funny to see children from Kep and Ratanakiri dancing exactly the same  cheh, cheh, cheh video. All Cambodian children watch the same videos and follow the same movements. Well, here it’s a prove of the power of Media. How much investment of commercial firms for very professional TV announcements like Angkor Beer, Cambodia Beer, AnchorCrown… how many singers and comedians portraying the Cambodian daily life… Why they don’t speak about garbage management and clean attitudes? If in a Khmer music video a popular star like Keo Veasna drinks something, why the scriptwriter cannot include that, among the video story, he put the garbage on the correct bin? Be smart and be clean

But it is also vital the plastic reduction and the look for green alternatives for the Cambodians. Many people do not know that using a stroke is already a problem. Creating better practice like “Bring your Garbage back with you” could be great: If you go to a beach, instead to expect that the locals put bins at the place, bring the garbage back home (it is a practice of developed societies). Coming back to drink in glass cups or using the vegetable wrappings for food, could be a solution. Sadly, in the deep Cambodian traditions, all those green practices were already included and it is true that Cambodians did not invente plastic and they were not the ones who asked for it in the past. It was brought by those developed societies that opened this slow process of global environment damage.

Garbage at the mangrove

Garbage in a Kep Mangrove brought by the sea tides – curiously, many of this garbage has Vietnamese labels.  

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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X39xwdGtVXI) and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (http://www.colombia.co/en/culture/colombians-that-are-making-this-a-better-world.html).

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