Striving to set an example and educate others on proper plastic disposal, a student and his teammates dedicated over a year to collecting plastic waste from sewage canals in Phnom Penh, resulting in their environmental efforts gaining recognition among young people from ASEAN countries.

Hem Sophem, a 22-year-old student from the Institute of Foreign Languages at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, initiated his first plastic waste collection project. His team’s efforts earned the 2nd ASEAN Youth Eco-Champions Award.

The young environmentalists told The Post that this award recognises youth from each of the ASEAN countries who are actively engaged in environmental protection for a period of one to two years.

The program, occurring every four years, invites outstanding individuals, aged 18 to 25, excelling in environmental work in their respective countries to attend the award ceremony and receive recognition.

“The award does not involve rankings or monetary rewards, only a certificate of appreciation. My team and I will continue our efforts to enhance and protect the environment,” he said.

Sophem was chosen to participate in the programme by the Ministry of Environment.

The ASEAN-level award ceremony took place in Vientiane, Laos on July 23, motivating and inspiring him and his team to persist in protecting and improving the environment in Phnom Penh.

“The government and leadership genuinely value our youth group’s efforts, as we have invested our own time and money in society. Our government appreciates and supports initiatives like ours,” he added.

His plastic waste collection initiative has three primary objectives. Firstly, he aims to create beautiful public spaces and surroundings. Secondly, he serves as a role model for youth to care for the environment and has produced short videos reaching millions of viewers.

Lastly, he seeks to change the attitude of people who indiscriminately dispose of garbage in open spaces.

To be eligible for the award, the environmental ministry carefully evaluates and selects deserving youth, allowing them to attend the award programme.

He reminisces about the beginnings of his plastic collection initiative, which started at his university, rallying hundreds of fellow students from different universities, including those from Japan, Korea, and the US.

When free from his studies, he arranged a group to collect plastic in the canals of Phnom Penh during June 2022, regardless of the time, be it day or night, and sometimes he even ventured into the sewage canal alone.

In addition to collecting plastic from the city’s canals, he dedicates his efforts to creating informative and educational content on social media.

Through his videos, he aims to spread awareness and inspire a positive change in societal behaviour, from indifference to the environment to fostering a love for it.

Sophem points out his achievements and the recognition he received were not possible without the collective support and participation of other students.

His team remains committed to their work and continues to develop content on social media, focusing on environmental education and raising awareness about the natural environment.

Keat Rangsey, director of the department of environment in Phnom Penh, stated his understanding of the significant contributions made by the young man and his team, which serve as inspiration for the environment ministry, the department of environment, and the local administrations, leading them to support and encourage the team.

The Phnom Penh department of environment consistently encourages people to collaborate in preserving and cleaning the natural environment.

“We have invited the young man to join us in our further educational endeavours. His actions serve as a reminder that this work is challenging, and we are also promoting our clean-up campaign,” Rangsey stated.

He commended Hem Sophem and expressed his continued support for such environmental initiatives.

However, despite the team’s efforts, they have not been able to collect all the plastic floating in the canals, requiring the use of machinery to aid in the process and dispose of it at landfills in the Dangkor district.

“His involvement is commendable and serves as an inspiration for our people to avoid careless littering. Proper waste disposal is essential to prevent rubbish from flowing into sewage canals,” Rangsey said.

He further noted that plastic bags take years to decompose, with certain plastics requiring hundreds of years, leading the environment ministry and the environment department to launch a campaign aimed at reducing plastic waste.

He explained that his current initiative involves installing water purifiers in schools throughout the capital city, providing filtered water to tens of thousands of students, thereby significantly reducing the need for plastic water bottles.

In August, Prime Minister Hun Manet also extended his congratulations to Hem Sophem for receiving the 2nd ASEAN Youth Eco-Champions Award.