Phnom Penh has a gargantuan garbage problem and sometimes it seems the capital is drowning in its own refuse.
As the city’s population has more than doubled since the turn of the millennium, the amount of waste the capital generates is quickly outpacing the city’s capacity to collect and process it.
In fact, only few areas within the Phnom Penh proper enjoy daily rubbish collection – in peri-urban areas, piles of uncollected waste are a common sight.
Despite the inconsistencies in rubbish collection services, the city’s only landfill is quickly reaching capacity, according to the Asia Foundation. Following the closure of the city’s notorious Stung Meanchey landfill in 2009, the government established a new municipal landfill near Choeung Ek. However, only a few years in, it is already bursting at the seams, and one particular kind of waste continues to be ignored – glass.
Cambodia still lacks large-scale glass recycling facilities, and as a result, even the city’s ‘street recyclers’ favour plastic containers over glass bottles.
“There is ‘market’ for aluminium, cardboard, and plastic bottles, where [street recyclers] can sell what they collect, in exchange for some riels – but not for glass,” said Brittany Sims, one of the brains behind Phnom Penh’s Farm to Table. “It can be discouraging for those who are actually aware of the issue, because there isn’t much solution to the problem, yet.”
Compounding the problem, continued Sims, is the fact that awareness about the importance of recycling among the general public as well as the city’s major contributor of glass waste – the food and beverage industry – is still lacking.
“This is a really big issue, and Cambodians are only just beginning to become aware of the problem,” she said.
“Recycling is a habit, and it takes a while to get used to the extra work that comes with recycling.”
Amy Baard, the F&B director for Farm to Table, concurs with Sims. “We have been offering our [bottle recycling] services for quite some time, but the progress is not as much as we had initially hoped for,” she said.
“Every now and then, we have to remind people over and over again about it,” she said. “The reaction to the growing problem of glass waste is rather disappointing – so the solution has to come from us as individuals.”
As part of their efforts to raise awareness about the growing magnitude of glass waste, Sims decided to link up with the organisers of Phnom Penh’s third annual Gin Jubilee. As the festivities kick off today, Farm to Table is collecting glass bottles from participating bars free of charge until Sunday. These will be upcycled by their staff into a variety of household necessities – from glasses and hanging planter boxes to decorative vases.
Sims then excused herself for a while before returning with two of her staff who came to our table with an empty wine bottle, a clamp, a candle, and a bucket of ice.
“The biggest hurdle to recycling, is to know how and where to begin,” she said.
The staff then began a demonstration. The bottle is secured on a rigged clamp and skilfully spun to etch
a circle around the circumference using a blade. Once etched, the bottle is heated with a candle for about two minutes before being dipped into a bucket of ice. Instantly, the bottle cracked along the etched rim, and after sanding the rims for a few minutes, a drinking glass is ready to be washed and used.
The whole process took less than 10 minutes and a single person could make many glasses from used wine bottles every day.
“This is obviously not the best solution, as ultimately the success of this movement lies in the hands of the industry’s movers-and-shakers,” said Baard. “Individuals like us can only do so much. Even with a team of staff that helps us with our upcycling projects, we are still producing more glass waste than we can manage.
“Ultimately, by partnering up with other industry players through the Gin Jubilee, we want people to drink more responsibly,” concluded Sims. “They need to start thinking, for every cocktail they drink, where does the waste end up?”