How did you come to realise single-use plastic was a problem?
It's been a gradual realisation; from knowing at a young age that it was bad to litter, to gathering the knowledge about why it's so bad for our environment. Last year when I was introduced to Plastic Free July; I realised that despite no shopping bags (these were banned in South Australia years ago!) and no disposable coffee cups (following a no keepcup, no coffee policy), there was still a lot that I was using where alternatives were available.
You are now living in Cambodia, what are the most common types of disposable plastic?
Interestingly Cambodia isn't vastly different to the rest of the world; it's just intensely noticeable here because the rubbish/waste management system is limited to major cities and even then is still in the early days of operating.
Plastic shopping bags are used to excess, often for one item or an already packaged item. Straws! Oh my, Cambodians love a good straw, maybe 2 for good measure and certainly a fresh straw for each new drink!
Plastic cups for ice coffee (or hot coffee!) and plastic water bottles are also in high volume - the last one is difficult because there is no suitable drinking water - however, locals are less the culprit here that tourists in my opinion.
What are you trying to do in Cambodia and how are you working in another culture?
I want to teach Cambodians how to look after their home; through their own actions and the expectations on tourists - around 2.5 million tourists come to Siem Reap each year and that's a huge volume of plastic they chomp through while they're here. Plastic is relatively new to Cambodia and many Cambodians consider it modern and love to be able to package things for their customers using this modern magical stuff! There also seems to be no differentiation between non-biodegradable and biodegradable waste so they dispose of it in the way they've always disposed of waste in the paste - throw it on the side of the road - which was fine for pandan leaves and banana leaves...
I'm working hard to adapt to and respect the local culture and for PFJ Cambodia, I am working on recruiting a passionate Cambodian partner (or two!) for the project. I've also made posters in English and Khmer language to attempt to involve everyone, not just expats and tourists.
What do you personally find the hardest plastic to refuse?
Definitely straws. The first phrase I learned in Khmer was how to say I don't want a straw. Cambodians are very good at following instructions and the pecking order is that you follow what you boss tells you, not what the customer may ask. Initially I thought I was pronouncing it wrong, now I've learned I need to be able to explain my rationale better and hope that more people will start to understand why plastic isn't good for us.