The exponential rise in the use of plastic bags in Cambodia is a growing problem due to its adverse impact on environment. But the country is struggling to bring about a change in the public's plastic consumption.
Relatively affluent Southeast Asian nations like Singapore are often criticized for their heavy consumption of plastic bags. And they are regarded as amongst the worst offenders when it comes to oceanic plastic pollution.
Now, Cambodia too seems to be following in its richer neighbors' footsteps. The country's economy has seen significant growth in recent years and, at the same time, a huge expansion in the use of plastic bags.
In the capital Phnom Penh, for instance, each person consumes around 2,000 plastic bags annually, according to data released by Fondazione ACRA, an NGO. In contrast, the corresponding figure for the European Union stands at about 200.
Cheap and convenient
Plastic bags in Cambodia can be seen almost everywhere - from the market shelves to the walking grounds, freely lying on the streets and blocking the drainage systems. The reason for their popularity rests in their convenience, given that the bags are lightweight and easily disposable. They are also extremely cheap, thus offering a cost-effective means to pack and transport all kinds of solid and liquid stuff such as food and beverages.
A kilogram of plastic bags, containing approximately 500 of them, costs roughly around 5,000 riel (1.11 euros, $1.22).
Their consumption is also encouraged by retailers who, sometimes, do not hesitate to give extra bags to consumers even without asking.
To meet the demand for the bags, Cambodia imports them from other countries in the region such as Vietnam and Thailand. The total value of the imports was estimated at about $100 million last year.
Sao Sopheap, the spokesperson for Cambodia's Ministry of Environment, told DW that the main reason why Cambodians consume such a high number of plastic bags is because they are "convenient to use."
However, the consumption also has a side-effect, in the form of environmental degradation. Plastic bags are non-biodegradable, meaning they don't easily decompose and stick around for a longer period of time, like up to 1,000 years. And plastic waste usually ends up in the oceans, causing their pollution as well as endangering marine life.
But there are negative consequences not only to the environment, but also to public health. In Cambodia, many often use plastic bags to carry items like hot food and soup. But as these bags are made of chemical substances, it results in food contamination, thus posing risks to human health.
Still, there's a lack of public awareness about the issues associated with the use of plastics, particularly in rural areas.
Will they work?
To counter the problem, Cambodia has joined hands with several international organizations to design programs intended to raise awareness as well as the cost of plastic consumption in the country. The government says it plans to curb the usage of plastic bags by 50 percent by 2019.
To that end, it recently proposed measures, such as levying an extra surcharge on shoppers amounting to some 500 riel (0.01 euro) for each plastic bag bought.
The environment ministry is also planning to cooperate with Japan to set up a recycling plant to transform plastic waste into furniture and other household materials.
Furthermore, authorities are looking to ban the production, import and distribution of the plastic bags that are thinner than 0.03 mm and less than 30 cm in width.
But Sopheap said, "it is easy to say the word ban, but given the high levels of consumption, it will be hard to put this into practice."
Nevertheless, the positive effect of increasing the cost of plastic bags is well documented. In 2007, for instance, Ireland's government introduced a tax of 22 euro cents (1,000 riels) per plastic bag and the annual per capita consumption has dropped from about 328 bags back then to some 14 bags now.
Pou Sovachana, a social researcher, told DW that to change people's behavior, the Cambodian government needs to offer them alternatives like introducing cotton bags and add environmental studies into school curriculum.
"I hope the government will ensure that the measures it's taking to curb plastic use do not just remain on paper, but are better implemented."