A call to #BeatPlasticPollution in Cambodia

June 27, 2023

Phnom-Penh, 2023

©Ratha SOY

A global and local challenge…

World Environment Day 2023, celebrated earlier this month, is a global call to #BeatPlasticPollution. Plastic pollution is recognized as a global crisis that poses serious threats to our planetary environment and health. It also contributes to the worsening of other global crises, such as biodiversity loss and climate change. A recent report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, Turning off the Tap, tells us the social and economic costs of plastic pollution range between US$300 and US$600 billion per year.

This alarming problem is closely linked to surging plastic production and use, since plastic is convenient, cheap, and durable, and has become part of our everyday life. As a result, over 430 million tonnes of plastic are produced across the globe annually, one third of which is only used once. After plastic enters the environment as waste, it can remain there for hundreds of years, breaking down into microplastics that eventually enter our bodies through food, water, and air.

Plastic pollution is also visible in Cambodia. According to the Ministry of Environment, the volume of total municipal waste in Phnom Penh increased more than three times from 343,657 metric tons in 2007 to 1,058,500 metric tons in 2019 (MoE 2020). About 20 % of municipal waste is plastic. Single-use plastics (SUPs) such as plastic bags, straws, PET bottles and cups, are the main types of plastic waste found in landfills and waterways.

… requiring global and local responses and solutions

Addressing this global crisis requires joint action by all countries, and it is very encouraging to see that an overall sense of emergency to accelerate and scale up action has finally materialized. Last year, for example, 175 Member States of the United Nations Environment Assembly, including Cambodia, adopted a historic resolution to develop international legally binding instruments to end plastic pollution by 2024.

Cambodia is already playing its part by stepping-up efforts to tackle plastic pollution and promote a circular economy approach that focuses on the ‘famous’ 4Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reduce and Recycle. Through the Combatting Marine Plastic Litter project funded by Japan, UNDP has been a partner to the government and other stakeholders in advancing these efforts. Numerous measures have already been implemented, recognizing that the fight against plastic pollution and more broadly a transition to a circular economy require three key interconnected elements: a government that acts as a convenor and enabler for circularity; growth of circular businesses and market; and environmentally conscious citizens that are active agents of change.

1. Circular economy “enabling” government

From the enabling government perspective, Cambodia has witnessed progress in strengthening the regulatory framework to prompt circularity in plastic management. This could also include a future ban on certain types of single use plastic, as it is seen in a growing number of countries. The government is also exploring the introduction of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a policy approach that mandates plastic producers to bear the financial or physical burden for collecting and recycling their end-of-life products. In Vietnam, a mandatory EPR introduced in 2022 generated over USD 8 million per year for waste treatment. Moving forward, the government will need to further develop and implement enabling regulations and measures, mobilize financing and investments for scalable impact, and connect all actors in the value chain to create a circular ecosystem.

2. Circular businesses and market growth

From the business/market perspective, around 50 small and medium-sized enterprises already recycle PET bottles, plastic bags etc. in Cambodia. Other initiatives are led by social enterprises that actively engage local communities including informal waste pickers and provide them with income generation opportunities. One business initiative seeks to mix plastic waste into clay for brick production, while another is testing the mixture of plastic waste into bitumen (asphalt) production for road construction. Start-ups introducing innovative products as plastic alternatives are on the rise. Given that most of these initiatives still operate with limited processing capacity, further support is needed to upscale their activities and operations; this would include not only technical support (e.g., for incubation or access to technologies), but also easier access to finance and markets.

3. Circular economy conscious citizens

From the environmentally conscious citizen perspective, the Ministry of Environment has conducted awareness-raising activities to shed light on the plastic crisis and 4R solutions. The government has disseminated more than 100 videos, led creative social media campaigns, and carried out clean-up and outreach activities in schools and communities reaching more than 2 million Cambodians. Moving forward, it will be key to complement these efforts with larger investments in capacity building and skills development to create a well-trained workforce for the green jobs that will be created in both the public and private sectors.

To #BeatPlasticPollution in Cambodia, the three elements described above will have to go hand-in-hand and complement each other in an integrated and systemic manner. To cite the words of the UN Secretary General on World Environment Day 2023, “we must work as one – governments, companies, and consumers alike – to break our addiction to plastics, champion zero waste, and build a truly circular economy”.

Combatting Marine Plastic Litter” project is implemented by UNDP in partnership with the National Council for Sustainable Development and funded by the Government of Japan.