Volunteers in Kampong Khlaing commune of Siem Reap province’s Sotr Nikum district have been collecting plastic waste to use as a raw material for the production of bricks and clemence tiles.
The volunteers are hoping that, in addition to helping clean up the environment, the products made from this plastic will contribute to improving and expanding the infrastructure of schools and pagodas in their community.
The plastic waste used to make the bricks and tiles is collected from people living in floating houses on the Tonle Sap Lake who are participating in a project wherein they can exchange the plastic waste they have gathered for rice.
The plastic-for-rice exchange programme is run by the Tampaing Snong Russey Foundation and the project was piloted in June in two floating villages – Peam Ta Uor and Chong Bralay.
The foundation director, Sea Sophal, tells The Post that the primary goal of the project is to clean up the rivers and lakes in Cambodia for environmental conservation purposes, and enlisting villagers in these efforts and giving them rice in exchange for the plastic also helps them economically.
“I think that merely collecting the plastic waste from the water is not enough. We needed better solutions for the problem of what to do with the waste once we have it all in one place,” Sophal continues.
Sophal questions the logic behind pulling waste from the river only to bury it in landfills which he says aren’t good for the environment. Society is just hiding the problem rather than solving it in his view. That prompted the volunteers to introduce a complimentary programme that turns the plastic waste into building materials.
“I’d like to clean up all of the plastic in Tonle Sap Lake eventually but I began to think about what I could possibly do with all that plastic if I ever succeeded,” he says.
Sophal then asked youth volunteers in Chong Bralay village to brainstorm and come up with creative ideas for what to do with the plastic waste instead of harming the environment further by burying it or burning it.
“The plan that we are implementing not only helps clean the environment, it also works to improve the livelihoods of the Tonle Sap community by providing them with rice and building materials.
“We need to think about issues like public health, sanitation and toilets since the villagers’ plantations are growing on the water,” he says.
Sophal has plans to build more community schools and pagodas and more construction materials will definitely be needed.
The methods used to transform plastic waste into bricks and tiles or other materials has been tested and refined by more developed countries and Sophal is certain that it can be done in Cambodia.
The plastic they collect from the villagers is dried and then shredded in a machine similar to a huge blender and it ends up as a powder that can be mixed with other materials like sand or cement and molded into the desired form.
Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra tells The Post that the use of plastic waste in construction materials is a proven recycling method. He says the amount of plastic used in each brick is usually about 15 to 25 per cent, with the rest of it made from more traditional materials and using mostly the same methods as regular bricks or tiles.
He continues that another advantage to this method is decreased expenditure on raw materials and that if the technique is applied properly with the right mixture, the end result is no different than any other tile or brick.
“The impact is minimal compared to dumping or burning plastic waste in the environment. Burning plastic waste causes air pollution and throwing plastic waste into the water is obviously harmful. Plastic waste has a harmful effect on biodiversity as well. When it’s turned into bricks, it is easier to deal with,” he said.
Pheaktra encourages communities and private institutions or organisations to find ways to recycle their plastic waste for use as raw materials. He notes that recycling capacity in the Kingdom remains an issue, with only around 10 per cent of all rubbish recycled.
Yoeum Hor, 25, is an English teacher at Kampong Khlaing High School. His school was the first one selected to use the bricks and clemence tiles made from plastic waste in its construction.
Hor tells The Post that his high school was selected because it serves an area that includes floating villages in the Tonle Sap Lake.
Hor predicts that once the high school is completed and they have a courtyard and sidewalks built using bricks or tiles around the school, the mud and water in the street won’t be such a nuisance.
Hor says that having a brick-paved or tiled yard would also make it much easier for the nearly 300 students to play in there, which is nearly impossible right now because it’s always muddy and wet during the rainy season and nobody wants to go to class covered in mud.
“Fixing up the school grounds with tiles will make it easier for teachers and students. No more trudging through the mud to get to class in the rainy season would be great,” he said.
Sophal of the Tampaing Snong Russey Foundation tells The Post he has come to realise that in order to meet his ambitious goals he will need to scale up his efforts and bring in more community partners and possibly even business partners, as he outlined his plans.
“I hope that each community will have its own plastic grinding machine and be able to recycle their plastic into something useful. Even for a community that has no use for bricks, they can still help reduce plastic waste.
“What I’d like to set up is a deal with a big cement company to build a big factory and that’s where all the plastic waste can go after it is shredded.
“But we’ll need more technical assistance for that stage, and more money. People can’t work as volunteers forever and the people in these communities are badly in need of revenue for their families.
“This could be organised as a social enterprise or as a private company. However it’s done, the goal is the same and that’s to provide a way to improve the livelihoods of floating communities on the Tonle Sap Lake that also cleans up the environment at the same time,” he says.