One person’s trash is another person’s treasure – or so the old saying goes. In Phnom Penh that’s even more the case as the Etchai (recyclers) regularly look for recyclable materials in other people’s waste. Still, rubbish is usually something that most of us ignore, thinking it’s either not our problem or it’s likely to be picked up soon. That is until the junk piles up and either becomes an eyesore, reeking mess or home to vermin.
Anytime there is a major holiday in Phnom Penh trash collection comes to a stop. As a result, all of us living in the city have an additional obstacle to avoid on the streets – piles of garbage. Then come Monday or Tuesday everything is swept away, well most of it. Everyone can easily point to corners and pockets of the capital that are rubbish-strewn and never seem to get the attention of street sweepers or garbage collectors.
Trash waiting to be collected is a constant of most human settlements, the world over. In some places, some people have fun with it though. Francisco de Pájaro is an artist in Spain who makes true treasures out of other people’s trash. The works are generally found on the street, but because they’re partly trash they’re inevitably due to be destroyed once their collected.
Phnom Penh doesn’t have anything like that. What it does have is quite a bit of trash that has to go somewhere. The larger stuff, the piles and heaps of collected waste, gets carted off. The Etchai pick up anything valuable for recycling. But the little things – plastic bags, straws, gum, cigarette butts, etc. –tend to be ignored. Organic waste like coconut husks and palm leaves also often get left behind. All of it builds up though, and come the rainy seasons can cause quite a few problems.
The biggest problem is that trash left on the streets or in empty lots can and will block drains. That will lead to Phnom Penh’s newly updated drainage system getting blocked and damaged. Trash can also provide a home for vermin likes rats and cockroaches, make the city look bad, and can cause public health issues. Throwing our trash like we do onto the street is downright disrespectful to the city we all live in; placing our trash for pickup is not.
Phnom Penh isn’t the only city to face trash troubles. Beijing, China has for years been trying to overcome the massive amount of garbage its citizens generate. The city has become surrounded by waste – Besieged By Garbage that’s lead to a Mounting Trash Emergency. With a population of 20 million, greater than that of Cambodia, it’s not surprising that trash has become a problem for the city. With Phnom Penh’s growing population and already beleaguered infrastructure such troubles may not be far behind for the city.
Recognizing that the city needs to maintain itself and that such a job is not merely the purview of the Municipality of Phnom Penh or the sanitation workers it employs, Governor PA Socheatevong introduced a campaign to keep the city clean in June, right before the elections. The governor is right in that it is the obligation of all citizens to keep Phnom Penh clean, pretty, healthy and safe. However his implementation of a program to do so has been lackluster at best. It needs to be a year-round initiative that is not done with the hope of soliciting votes, but rather with a view to actually improve the city in the long run. The campaign also needs to extend beyond the roads to the waterways and other areas of Phnom Penh. After all, trash sitting in someone’s yard or leaking into the water supply is just as harmful as that found on the street.
To counter all this trash Phnom Penh can do four things:
1) Ban plastic bags – Plenty of other cities around the world, including cities in developing countries, have been moving to a more sustainable method of transporting goods. A lot of what is purchased in Cambodia is wrapped in an exceptional amount of plastic that more often than not ends up on the ground, not recycled. And while we’re waiting for the ban, each of us can do our bit by bringing canvas bags when we go shopping, and simply saying “no thanks” to all those plastic bags.
2) Fine people who litter – While it may seem a bit harsh, this would have the benefit of increasing revenue for the government while promoting cleanliness and a good environmental policy. If police can hand out tickets for traffic violations then they could do the same for dropping trash on the ground, as they do in Singapore. This should include vacant lots where garbage just builds up. Fine the owners and make them clean up the sites.
3) Establish a power plant that runs on garbage – Songdo, South Korea is one of the latest cities to generate its power from all the trash produced by its residents. Given that Phnom Penh is still suffering from regular power outages and Cambodia has been looking to coal as the solution, the trick might be to turn to trash.
4) More trashcans – If people have no option of where to put their trash, then they’re going to just throw it on the ground. Conveniently placed trashcans at street corners all over the city, not just in the few public parks, would help to alleviate the problem as well.
Do you have more ideas for how to keep Phnom Penh clean?