They’re the Plastic Busters, Siem Reap-based entrepreneurial activists whose business is to set up businesses that will give the world a respite from plastic. The leader of the pack is Sarah Rhodes, and her organisation Plastic Free Cambodia, which she founded in 2015.
What started out as a part-time campaign about four years ago has transitioned to a full-time start-up, educating people in Cambodia and regionally on how to nix single-use plastic.
Sarah’s from Adelaide, where she worked in tourism marketing. In June 2014, she attended a training programme on climate leadership, facilitated by Al Gore. This led to her joining a month-long challenge, Plastic Free July, which originally launched in Australia in 2011.
In October 2014 she underwent a life change and moved to Siem Reap because of, “The desire to work for something more impactful in the sustainable tourism space, and more specifically encountering the NGO ConCERT Cambodia and wanting to work and learn from them,” she says.
She also focused on the Plastic Free July challenge, and this transitioned into running Plastic Free Cambodia full-on full-time.
“It began with interest from businesses in Siem Reap expressing their need to know more about why we should avoid using single-use plastic,” she says.
“At the time I launched the Plastic Free July challenge in Siem Reap, I was working four days a week, so the transition involved working two days a week on PFC.”
Now Plastic Free Cambodia is a nation-wide fast-paced outfit that provides advice, consultancy and expert training for businesses and organizations throughout Southeast Asia, runs education workshops, participates in environmental awareness events, provides speakers at conferences, organises training workshops, and a whole bunch of other stuff to inspire groups and individuals to reduce plastic usage.
And while Sarah is busy spreading the word, two other Siem Reap start-ups are marketing products that will replace the plastic that Sarah is convincing people not to use.
Siem Reap-based Chicago expat Kai Kuramoto heads Cleanbodia, which markets and distributes biodegradable and compostable ‘plastic’ bags made with cassava, bags which biodegrade in about 5-6 years.
Kai, who worked on the tech side of the meetings and conventions industry in the US, moved to Siem Reap in 2014.
“My wife and I wanted to live abroad and five years ago she got a job with an NGO here,” he says, “Which led me to career reinvention.”
In 2015, Kai travelled to Bali with his wife and was appalled by the plastic problems there. He then decided to start-up Cleanbodia, via Google.
“Our team got lots of feedback,” he says. “And Cleanbodia was up and running, distributing bags manufactured regionally.”
“I absolutely remember our first customer,” Kai says. “He was a young entrepreneur, named Zita, just starting a little project much like I was.
“He bought a few bio bags and I bought a few of his delicious cookies. As we have grown the past few years, so has his business which has been fantastic to see. I will never forget that Bang Bang Bakery was our first sale and our oldest customer.”
Kai points that out that he didn’t invent biobags – but he refined the product.
Biodegradable cassava bags were invented in Bali by biologist Kevin Kumala. Cheesed off that his surfing sojourns were marred by floating plastic detritus, he decided to do something and came up with “bioplastaic” bags made from cassava starch that will degrade in about 100 days in compost.
The bags will also dissolve in minutes in hot water and a video of Kumala drinking a dissolved bag in water went viral.
In 2014, Kumala and his partner started the Avani Eco Company with a factory in Java.
Cleanbodia’s bags, manufactured in a neighboring country which Kai prefers not to name takes about six years to degrade instead of Avani bags’ 100 days, but this is not a negative says Kai. The longer biodegradable timeframe makes commercial sense because bags can survive shipping, warehouse storage and other delays in usage.
Kai’s now keen to manufacture the bags in Cambodia and says, “We are currently working on the feasibility of setting up a facility and with the right partners, I am confident we can bring this to Cambodia.”
New kids on the block packing a range of plastic-replacing products is Siam Echo Pack, a company which also promises to deliver death blows to Styrofoam packaging.
This start-up is the work of British-expat Joseph Vaughan, an artist, English teacher, bicycling teacher, snooker aficionado, dance music producer and sign writer, and his partner Pim Sakunpram, a former concierge at Tara Angkor Hotel.
“We started approximately 18 months ago spurred on by the plastic problems here and contacts and knowledge Pim had acquired of the fantastic bio products being made in her home country Thailand which are unavailable here,” Joseph says.
Products include food boxes, plates, straws, bottles, gift bags and cutlery made from potato and corn starch, plus good old paper bags made from kosher wood sources.
Joseph says Echo Pack’s most popular product is, “Paper straws as they are utilising new manufacturing techniques whereby the straws can be used in hot and cold drinks and they hold their structural integrity.”
Joseph’s chuffed because they’ve sold over 100,000 straws and he, like the Siem Reap Plastic Busters featured here, and others in Siem Reap, are busy beavering away to bring about that ultimate goal – a plastic free future. Bring it on.