Plastic and Sustainable Development.
Updated: May 4, 2020
You may have read my previous blogs, or seen my photos on instagram about how beautiful Cambodia is and what I and my team have been doing here, but something that I have failed to bring to attention is plastic, and more specifically the waste management system here. Of which there is not one. In the 3.5 months I have been here, I have seen 1 vehicle collecting bin bags, and that was at the Temples of Angkor where they are very keen to preserve and keep tidy the biggest tourist attraction in the country. Otherwise the process of getting rid of waste is pretty simple, food waste goes on the garden, all other waste is generally burned and dumped in the local river or just burned and left on the side of the road. Even the schools burn their waste, much of it plastic, in multiple areas within the school grounds and therefore the students are regularly around burning plastic fumes. The first photo above is an example of a school burn pile less than 10 metres from a classroom. Single use plastic here is a part of every day life. If you want water on the go you have to buy a plastic bottle. If you want a cold drink, a lot of cafes pour it into a plastic cup with ice and then put that plastic cup into a plastic bag with a plastic straw. If you buy a pot noodle to eat they put that in a plastic holder with a plastic fork. And if it isn't plastic containers for food its polystyrene containers, which isn't good either. But there are simply not many other options, especially in rural community. Every day you have to consciously say no to all the extra plastic. It is a vast difference to countries such as Rwanda, where they have banned the use of plastic bags across the whole coutnries, and the drinks are in glass bottles which are constantly recycled and reused. Both are developing countries but they have very different outlooks on plastic use.
In 2019, when environmental issues are at the forefront of a lot of western discussion and thought, I was quite honestly astounded at the amount of plastic this country uses and discards. I knew their system may not be as advanced as a more developed country, but the fact that across the country they just dump their waste in rivers for it to flow out into the sea was more real than I expected it was going to be. Just before I left the UK, there was a march in London from which I interpreted the message to be that everyone being more vegan is key to climate action. I disagree. I think there needs to be more of an effort directed at the development of these third world countries in order for them to be able to effectively contribute to worldwide climate action. Poverty and the way of life here means some people are more worried about making money and feeding their families day to day than what will happen to the world in years to come when they are no longer here.
Learning about the SDG goals whilst I have been here has been a key aspect of my understanding of how international development work is key to creating a sustainable world. I believe that governments and large companies carry a lot of responsibility for creating a sustainable world, for example, Cambodia needs a waste system which can only be implemented by the government or by a large company, basically there needs to be money. However, by working or volunteering in international development you can help give local communities, who most need it, the voice to make local council's and then governments listen to what needs to be done. I had never heard of the SDG goals before I became a part of VSO ICS, but now they will be at the forefront of most decisions I will be making and I hope that we can see real achievements in 2020 and definitely by 2030.enable most local people to think about this. This is what I have observed anyway.
Whilst I have been in Cambodia I attended a Youth conference based on the Sustainable Development Goals. These are 17 global goals which replaced the Milenial Development Goals in 2015, to be what individual nations would work towards and try to achieve by 2030: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org.
1. No Poverty
2. Zero Hunger
3. Good Health and Well-Being
4. Quality Education
5. Gender Equality
6. Clean Water and Sanitation
7. Affordable and Clean Energy
8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
10. Reduced Inequalities
11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
12. Responsible Consumption and Production
13. Climate Action
14. Life Below Water
15. Life on Land
16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
17. Partnerships for the Goals
Cambodia has 18 SDGs, the 18th being to get rid of all land mines by 2030. At the conference, I listened to a talk from an Australian labour lawyer who is currently working in Cambodia. She was great and helped me to understand the situation regarding workers and wages within the country. In Cambodia, approximately 93% of the Cambodian work force are in 'informal work'. This means they have no social protection and no job security, basically like a 0 hours contract in the UK - no workers rights, no money if they are sick and that is a HUGE percentage of the working population. If you imagine 93% of the working UK population being in this situation then think how many people would actually have the time or thought process to think about climate change. The even sadder truth is that approximately 79% of Cambodians live and work in a rural environment which is being massively and devastatingly affected by climate change. Changes to the weather is affecting the crop and how the farmers can work. This means more and more rural families are getting into debt and are being made to go to "loan sharks" which here are generally the brick kiln owners. They get a loan to pay off their debt and are then in debt to the brick kiln owners. This means they are then forced to work in the brick kilns producing bricks to work off their debt. This includes the whole family, mum dad and young children, and there always has to be one member of the family in the kiln at all times so that the family do not try and escape and leave a member behind. This effects tens of thousands of families across rural Cambodia, and yet they are in no position, at the moment, to think about how they can actually have an affect on climate change and plastic pollution. The Cambodians who are lucky enough to have received a good education and who have been more exposed to western culture and knowledge are working hard to change this in their country. The people at VSO Cambodia who I have been working with are so passionate about environmental action and are keen to spread this work across our projects. It was my boss Santana who was the first person to say that we need to watch our plastic consumption. But they are only a small percentage and they are the best kind of people.
Marginalised youth inclusion and environmental change are the two biggest factors our work here revolves around. We are here to help the local youth have a voice, and to enable them to understand how they can develop themselves, their future and subsequently, their country. Through helping the youth to develop soft skills such as confidence, presenting and peer to peer education alongside marginalised youth inclusion we hope that they become pioneers and are able to use their voice to campaign for issues they believe in. Most young people here have phones and have some form of understanding that plastic pollution is an issue. This is at least the case for the youth we have met who form our youth clubs. But they don't know how to begin to tackle it on a nation wide scale. Our volunteering team especially, worked with youth in the schools and local community to tackle environmental issues. The previous cycle built plastic and can donation boxes in each of the 3 communities. These are to be used by the local self help group, a group for disabled members of the community, to be self sufficient and have their own business to make their own money. The idea is to sell the decent quality plastic bottles and cans to companies who re use them. This however does not solve the issue of the amount of plastic that cannot be recycled, like the iced coffee plastic cups and plastic bags which are used in their thousands every day here. Nor does it solve the problem that not everyone understands the point or the use of these donation boxes. So this is something the teams who come here need to develop within the community and further educate the youth and locals on the important on recycling. The initial understanding and want for change is clear but further steps need to be taken to come up with sustainable ways community members can really truly make a difference. This is something we have spent every week educating our youth clubs on and hopefully they continue to spread the message off plastic waste once we leave! One project our volunteering youth club worked on was using discarded plastic bottles they found on the side of the road to create a rubbish bin for the community. This was an idea the youth came up with and we were only able to make one bin, but the hope is that it inspires people to start thinking about their waste and to crete localised burning areas which are not near schools or youth so that the fumes can be avoided as best as possible. Until an actual waste system is put into place, something which is beyond the work that VSO ICS volunteers can do, this may be the best option.
I am lucky in the fact that my host family are very self sufficient, and grow or source a lot of their own fresh food. They also re use plastic bottles and keep them refilled in the fridge for us (we're SO lucky to have a fridge) so that we have cold drinks if we need them so don't have to keep buying plastic bottles of water if we want a cold drink.
I have no idea how the problem of waste management can be solved. Especially one on such a nationwide scale. I have saved pictures below to highlight the extent of the plastic and waste problem here. These are just from the 3 villages in my community. I will be collecting all plastic waste such as shampoo bottles etc that I use whilst I am out here and bringing it home with me where I know they can be recycled properly. I'm not pretending I'm an expert on this topic, but when you are lucky enough to experience and see other cultures it is so important to not only highlight the beauty and amazing experience you have but also the reality of a problem that is so so important and effects literally everyone, world wide. Having come from a developed country, we aren't perfect but we are lucky enough to have developed and have inclusive education and government systems in place which allow us to be able to make positive environmental changes. Cambodia still has a multitude of problems, inclusivity for all marginalised youth and members of the community is still very underdeveloped. The political system is complicated and there are massive problems within the employment sector regarding wage and job security. The UK is lucky that it can focus on specific problems, where as Cambodia has a lot of catching up to do in other areas before they are at the point that we are, where they can make more lasting and sustainable decisions relating to global development and environmental issues.
Learning about the SDG goals whilst I have been here has been a key aspect of my understanding of how international development work is key to creating a sustainable world. I believe that governments and large companies carry a lot of responsibility for creating a sustainable world, for example, Cambodia needs a waste system which can only be implemented by the government or by a large company, basically there needs to be money. However, by working or volunteering in international development you can help give local communities, who most need it, the voice to make local council's and then governments listen to what changes need to be made. This will not happen overnight of course, but one thing I have realised in Cambodia, which is probably a similar story in other developing countries, is that their youth are ready to take action and strive to improve this world. I only hope they continue to get more and more opportunities where their voices can be heard. I had never heard of the SDG goals before I became a part of VSO ICS, but now they will be at the forefront of most decisions I will be making and I hope that we can see real achievements in 2020 and definitely by 2030.
This is a topic that is impossible to ignore whilst you're here.