One man’s mission to turn Cambodia’s trash into eco-friendly bricks has proved so popular new production sites are now being sought.
Sok Thy founded Eco-Bricks with the innovative aim of creating a new solution to Cambodia's increasing plastic problem by transforming waste plastic into bricks that can be used for construction.
The enterprise makes eco-friendly bricks from plastic collected from schools and communities. Some are given for free while others exchange 2.5kg of plastic for one brick.
Plastic that is being kept off the streets and prevented from being sent to landfill includes bags, cutlery, straws, cups and foam boxes.
Cambodia's rapid economic and urban development, associated with a growing middle-class, has led to waste management issues. This includes waste collection, disposal and recycling. Additionally, the amount of waste continues to increase.
In Phnom Penh, the major Dangkor landfill acquires 83.3% of the city’s waste and is almost full. It is expected to reach maximum capacity within two years.
The rapid trash increase transferred to the landfill has led to burgeoning heaps that pose environmental and health concerns for residents living adjacent to the site, especially the stench that can be smelled miles away.
In addition to plastic dumped in the landfill, outside the collection system plastic can be found on public parks and riverbanks in Phnom Penh.
At Sotheavy, founder of Think Plastic, a social media campaign to reduce plastic use in Cambodia, said the use of plastic is very common now due to changes in social behavior, both with street vendors and consumers.
“Plastic is comfortable to use,” she said. “Now, more businesses have shifted to packaging service. It affects the beauty of the city, the country’s esteem, and poses public health problems."
“Moreover, the burning of plastic emits toxins into the air, while plastic thrown into the river affects the health of fish.”
By understanding plastic hazards, 40-year-old entrepreneur, Sok Thy founded Eco-Bricks in 2019.
He was spurred to build Eco-Bricks after learning about the environmental damage caused by plastic, realizing its lifespan lasts years on earth.
He said he admires Japan, where citizens are aware of environmental issues. He noted even young children know how to separate waste. In contrast, he sees ordinary Cambodians are less inspired to do the same.
With strong ambitions to build Eco-Bricks, Sok Thy visited different Asian countries to learn brick-making techniques from specialists, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Philippines. He also took to YouTube to teach himself.
Eco-Bricks was taken to the laboratory at Institute of Technology Cambodia for quality testing. After many failed attempts, the product finally reached its full capacity.
Experiments by three means dropping it from a height, hammering, and truck breaking. “The brick did not break,” Sok Thy said.
Sok Thy competed in SmartSpark in 2020 and the Techno Innovation Challenge in 2021. His team won first prize in both competitions, with judges awarding it for being an innovative and sustainable business.
The main materials used for making bricks are grinding plastic, sand, and cement. The Eco-Brick is larger and longer than a traditional brick.
In addition to being environmentally-friendly, the modern process of brick production does not involve using firewood and has lower accidental risk to workers.
The bricks also have holes as an insulation system, and as they are thicker than typical bricks, they are able to continually cool the building, preventing heat from entering.
According to Sok Thy, the brick is more affordable for construction. The building technique also differs from typical methods, enabling it to build faster, using fewer workers, less cement, and without plasterwork.
“If the construction costs USD10,000, by using Eco-Bricks it costs less to about USD6,000 or USD7,000 only, ” he added.
High transportation costs to provinces mark a challenge for the enterprise. This has increased demand to increase production sites that are closer to the customers.
Currently, Eco-Bricks has expanded to 12 locations in Kandal, Takeo, Pursat, Tboung Khnom, Mondulkiri, Kampong Speu, and Kampong Cham.
“We support Eco-Bricks enterprise and encourage more innovation alike,” said Neth Pheaktra, environment ministry spokesman. “Trash is not useless, its value means economic, if we can properly manage it.”
Sok Neang bought thousands of eco-bricks to build a restaurant in Sen Sok district 4 months ago. She claims her restaurant is cooler than normal buildings. “The brick is very resistant to the sun’s heat,” she said.
Moreover, using eco-bricks has reduced her spending costs. “The building looks more durable and beautiful, especially easy for painting,” she added.
Recycling is a feasible way to avoid the waste being taken to landfill.
“We believe that to minimize the increasing waste to the landfill, there needs to be more recycling,” said Neth Pheaktra.
Anti-plastic campaigner At Sotheavy said the plastic problem cannot be solved overnight, while the ministry needs to form policies to reduce plastic consumption.
“To solve the problem, we cannot do it alone or with just a few people,” said At Sotheavy. “It needs more public understanding and cooperation. Therefore, the government should increase public awareness, especially to young people.”