Plastic waste is a problem because it contains toxic chemicals harmful to humans and animals. It also takes hundreds of years to fully decompose. Rubbish Youths, a group tackling environmental issues in the Kingdom, recently produced plant-based straws and is urging the public to use them.
Rubbish Youths member Chantha Rothey sits in her office holding a bundle of sticks that could be easily mistaken for plant roots.
Ms Rothey says these sticks are straws made out of “bobos plants”, or giant reed, which are similar to bamboo and easily found throughout the Kingdom.
She says Rubbish Youths came up with the idea of replacing plastic straws with the plant after collecting waste in the Boeng Trabek canal, where giant reed naturally grows.
“Giant reed plants are shaped like bamboo, but their shoots are thin and small, similar to plastic straws,” Ms Rothey says. “This plant grows around Hun Sen Boulevard and on riverbanks across the country.”
“Plastic straws have the most environmental impact as they do not easily decompose,” she adds. “If plastic straws get buried beneath the soil, their chemicals will affect fertility. The chemicals are also harmful to human health.”
Ms Rothey says the public should consider using the straws as an environmentally-friendly option.
“Straws made from natural materials have no chemicals or substances that affect human health,” she says. “They won’t cause abdominal distension or pain.”
“Besides, they won’t affect soil quality when they decompose,” Ms Rothey adds. “They can even be recycled into baskets or boxes for storing pens and other materials.”
“These straws can be kept for up to one month,” she says. “We do not put in chemicals to prevent it from spoiling.”
Rubbish Youths founder San Dara Vit says there are many materials able to replace plastic straws such as lemongrass and paper, but giant reed is generally more durable.
“Straws made out of wild grass or lemongrass can last up to only four days,” Mr Dara Vit says. “But straws made out of reed can be kept for up to two weeks.”
He says replacing plastic straws with reusable materials is one way of saving the planet.
“We acknowledge that using plastic for straws, bags and other things is easy for daily use, but these things negatively impact our planet and country,” Mr Dara Vit says. “We should join together, change our behaviour and use natural materials rather than plastic.”
Veat Reaksmey Chenda, 21, says she works as a teacher at the New Town International School in Kampong Speu province. Ms Reaksmey Chenda says she teaches her students to be environmentally conscious.
She says the straws she buys from Rubbish Youths are shown to her students.
“Plastic causes major negative effects on the environment and it’s a global concern that requires the participation of us all to tackle,” Ms Reaksmey Chenda says. “It is difficult and it takes a long time to get everyone in the country to be more environmentally conscious, but if every citizen begins to think about the environment, we will be able to contribute to reducing plastic waste.”
Production and community
Phat Oudom, 29, says the group first collects the plants before removing leaves and cleaning them.
They are then cut into multiple pieces 21 centimetres long.
Metal wires are used to make a hole and clean the inside of the plant.
They are then placed in a microwave to kill any bacteria.
“We only take plants that have the same size as plastic straws,” Mr Oudom says. “Sometimes we will need to cut them to make them more like straws.”
“After that, we clean the inside and place them in a microwave to kill all bacteria,” he adds.
Mr Oudom says one plant can be cut into five to seven straws.
A bundle of 25 reed straws cost about $2.50, but if a customer buys 500, the cost will drop to 100 riels per straw.
Mr Oudom says since they started producing reed straws in September, customers purchase up to 2,500 straws per day.
In addition to selling straws and raising awareness, Rubbish Youths also provides part-time work to five families living near the Boeng Trabek canal. The families can earn up to 40 percent of revenues.
According to the Environment Ministry, plastic bags can take up to 20 years to decompose, while plastic straws can take 500 years.
“Plastic seriously pollute the environment,” it says. “Some plastics are not biodegradable and cannot be recycled.”
“When plastic waste is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals that affect life,” it adds. “When people inhale those toxic gases, it will cause serious impacts on people’s respiratory systems.”
The ministry said the public must reject the use of plastic straws, bags and boxes as much as possible to reduce the amount of plastic waste.
“Use environmentally friendly and reusable bags, water bottles, boxes, glasses and cups,” it says.
The ministry is also preparing a sub-decree to ban the use of single-use plastic products in the Kingdom to reduce pollution.
When passed, single-use plastic products such as straws, spoons and cups will be replaced with environmentally friendlier versions.
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra says the ministry deems the use of single-use plastic products unnecessary.
He says through the sub-decree, the government is aiming to reduce plastic consumption.
“The sub-decree to prohibit the import and production of single-use plastic products aims to protect the environment and reduce plastic consumption,” Mr Pheaktra says.
Back at the Rubbish Youths headquarters, Mr Dara Vit says the group is looking into other innovations to replace single-use plastic products.
“Our main idea is to find natural materials that can replace coffee cup holders, plastic bags and cups,” he says. “Bamboo can replace plastic cups.”
Mr Dara Vit says the public has received the reed straws well and now it is time to look into saving the future for the next generation.
“I want to increase the production of these straws by creating a place to grow, harvest and recycle,” he says. “We will continue to improve this work.”