Cambodia: Plastic-to-rice initiative transforms waste into bricks

Plastic waste is fed into a grinding machine in Siem Reap province. - The Phnom Penh Post/Asian News Network

PHNOM PENH, Jan 23 (Phnom Penh Post/ANN): Volunteers in Kampong Khlaing commune of Siem Reap province’s Sotr Nikum district have been collecting plastic waste to use as a raw material for the production of bricks and clemence tiles.

The volunteers are hoping that, in addition to helping clean up the environment, the products made from this plastic will contribute to improving and expanding the infrastructure of schools and pagodas in their community.

The plastic waste used to make the bricks and tiles is collected from people living in floating houses on the Tonle Sap Lake who are participating in a project wherein they can exchange the plastic waste they have gathered for rice.

The plastic-for-rice exchange programme is run by the Tampaing Snong Russey Foundation and the project was piloted in June in two floating villages – Peam Ta Uor and Chong Bralay.

The foundation director, Sea Sophal, tells The Post that the primary goal of the project is to clean up the rivers and lakes in Cambodia for environmental conservation purposes, and enlisting villagers in these efforts and giving them rice in exchange for the plastic also helps them economically.

“I think that merely collecting the plastic waste from the water is not enough. We needed better solutions for the problem of what to do with the waste once we have it all in one place,” Sophal continues.

Sophal questions the logic behind pulling waste from the river only to bury it in landfills which he says aren’t good for the environment. Society is just hiding the problem rather than solving it in his view. That prompted the volunteers to introduce a complimentary programme that turns the plastic waste into building materials.

“I’d like to clean up all of the plastic in Tonle Sap Lake eventually but I began to think about what I could possibly do with all that plastic if I ever succeeded,” he says.

Sophal then asked youth volunteers in Chong Bralay village to brainstorm and come up with creative ideas for what to do with the plastic waste instead of harming the environment further by burying it or burning it.

“The plan that we are implementing not only helps clean the environment, it also works to improve the livelihoods of the Tonle Sap community by providing them with rice and building materials.

“We need to think about issues like public health, sanitation and toilets since the villagers’ plantations are growing on the water,” he says.

Sophal has plans to build more community schools and pagodas and more construction materials will definitely be needed.

The methods used to transform plastic waste into bricks and tiles or other materials has been tested and refined by more developed countries and Sophal is certain that it can be done in Cambodia.

The plastic they collect from the villagers is dried and then shredded in a machine similar to a huge blender and it ends up as a powder that can be mixed with other materials like sand or cement and molded into the desired form.

Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra tells The Post that the use of plastic waste in construction materials is a proven recycling method. He says the amount of plastic used in each brick is usually about 15 to 25 per cent, with the rest of it made from more traditional materials and using mostly the same methods as regular bricks or tiles.

He continues that another advantage to this method is decreased expenditure on raw materials and that if the technique is applied properly with the right mixture, the end result is no different than any other tile or brick.

“The impact is minimal compared to dumping or burning plastic waste in the environment. Burning plastic waste causes air pollution and throwing plastic waste into the water is obviously harmful. Plastic waste has a harmful effect on biodiversity as well. When it’s turned into bricks, it is easier to deal with,” he said.

Pheaktra encourages communities and private institutions or organisations to find ways to recycle their plastic waste for use as raw materials. He notes that recycling capacity in the Kingdom remains an issue, with only around 10 per cent of all rubbish recycled. - The Phnom Penh Post/Asian News Network

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