Modern societies produce so much waste that it posed a great challenge for governments at all levels. What to do with all this waste? Western countries created landfills and even hills made up of garbage, trash, or anything that was broken , no longer used , obsolete and discarded – packaging, wrappings, food leftovers, old fridges, what have you.
Finally, in the 80ies and 90ies the green movement was born; scientists warned that our resources are finite; we cannot go on using things and discarding them after a short period of time (planned obsolescence comes to mind). The idea that many things, like packaging, old newspapers could be reused by recycling it made a lot of sense but obviously hadn’t been thought of before. We have to thank the green movement and so-called tree-huggers for the basically simple idea of recycling, whether it is plastic made from fossil fuels, paper and carton made from wood, or iron made from minerals. It also created a new industry that deals with the disposal, recycling, and re-use of waste.
Western Europe has made great strides in that direction. Germany is famous for their trash separation, where people have three trash bins – one for food, one for paper, one for glass. Apart from doing this at home, people deposit bottles, cans, and larger quantities of papers in large containers strategically located in neighborhoods. They even have a waste control police that spot-check home trash bins before collection takes place.  If they find stuff in the wrong bin, you can and will be fined. That may be an extreme and really over the top but it still is for the good of the people.
One cannot expect this kind of ‘awareness’ in Cambodia. Apparently the governments at all levels have seemingly forgotten about this problem. Normally, local administrations would be responsible for this, but given the size of Cambodia, even a national law would be desirable.
What is taking place in Cambodia with regards to their waste is simply intolerable. Yes, all developing countries, and not only them, look and behave in a similar fashion. People simply throw their garbage out the window; in better neighborhoods they have garbage bins, often without lids, and often enough they overflow after just a few days. Garbage collection seems to be according to some haphazard schedule nobody can really divine. Once the collection is over the streets look worse than before the collection – strewn with bits and pieces of trash that fell from the truck, or the trash collectors had missed the truck when they aimed and tossed a bag from farther behind – a feast for rats and some neighborhood dogs that scavenge trash for edible leftovers.
Roadside vendors simply put their trash on a heap next to their stall and burn it before they close. Burning is the preferred method in the countryside too. But before that happens it accumulates along the roads or behind houses for a while, smelling, rotting away, and attracting rats and other vermin. Even the cows forage the trash. Outside the provincial capitals there is no garbage collection whatsoever. Consequently, it will look like this in some places.


After a ‘concert’ in a small town

Along Hun Sen Beach on a good day

After a picnic along a highway

After a picnic along a highway

People simply don’t think about the health hazards that come with such open trash sites besides the environmental concerns.
My house is located right on a river about 800 m from the open sea – in between two fishing villages. The river bank is covered by mangroves, which are protected; it would really be a beautiful and serene area. But what the local people do to it is simply shameless. The many fishing boats discard their plastic cups, water bottles over board, which then wash up in the mangroves during high tide. In low tide that trash is scattered all over the riverbank. The dirt roads in the villages are also constantly covered with discarded plastic bags.
Plastic bags are the bane of Cambodia and one of the major causes of this environmental evil. Even for the smallest item shops put it in a plastic bag. They even serve cold drinks in them. Once people are finished with that they simply toss it out the car window, for instance. The other day at the restaurants in Pich Nil (halfway point to Sihanoukville) I observed a lady getting out of their Camry with such plastic bag in her hand.  A trash can was right next to it. That lady just dropped it at her foot. What was she thinking?
When I asked my former caretaker at my house what he does with our trash he told me he put it in the river, weighted down with some rocks. I asked if he ever thought about the environment. He just looked blankly back at me. But from then on he started burning it, plastic bottles and all. Personally, I am still wondering what to do with used batteries.
I had forgotten to instruct my new caretaker, and she promptly threw it into the woods near our house. Fortunately, we saw this and gave appropriate instructions. Of course, she didn’t know any better having lived in one of the nearby villages all her life. The irony of all this is that the town has an environment officer who lives in that same village. He complained about the new coal fired power plant near Sihanoukville (which is right on the beach with a long pier jutting into the ocean so that the cargo vessels delivering the coal can unload it). Perhaps he should look closer to home first.
Of course, there could have been a better location but that stretch of beach north of the Sokha and Tela depots with their piers had begun to be industrialized before with a paper mill and another oil depot. That power plant has been operational since July/August, producing 60 MWH. Amazingly, I have yet to see black or grey smoke belching from the pretty tall chimney. They must have installed some pretty filters. Could it be that they did have some good planners at work?
Between Sihanoukville and the Sokha oil depot there is a nice stretch of beach right alongside the road. It’s called Hun Sen Beach. You should see it after a holiday. The grass is practically covered in plastic bags and empty Styrofoam containers.  I am wondering how the prime minister can give his name to such an eyesore. If it weren’t for all that trash, this could become one more attraction for Sihanoukville, provided the people in charge will somehow manage to have the road repaired in such a way that it won’t be full of potholes after each rainy season. To their credit, they built a small park at the beginning of that beach, which looks sort of clean practically all the time. Maybe people did learn to use the trash cans they put there.
Mankind wasn’t born as environmentalists. But this is 2014 – the age of blazing communication streams, information spreading around the world in seconds, where Cambodian TV commercials show clean and modern neighborhoods. Even the soap operas show villages devoid of any obvious trash.  

When I see all this I am wondering why this does not sink into the Khmer consciousness. Don’t they want to make a better life for themselves that also includes a healthy and sustainable environment – not only a better material life with cars? 70% or so still live in rural areas where education is sketchy and it all has to do with education. Sometimes I think that the Khmer mind has undergone a severe change during and after the Pol Pot years. It did not use to be like this before the Pol Pot era according to accounts from people who lived then. Environmental education should be made part of the school curriculum. Although tangible progress will be some time in coming; after all, the parents ought to be the first ones to be educated. But Cambodia has to make a start unless the country does not want to submerge in trash.

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