Turning Plastics into Profits

One man has made it his mission to transform Cambodia’s mountains of waste into handicrafts as an innovative project gets underway to clean the capital’s three major rivers.
Garbage dumpsite at Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2021. Picture: Sam
Garbage dumpsite at Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2021. Picture: Sam

Shocked by the rise in waste being exported to Vietnam, 49-year-old Lim Vanny decided to take action and set up a handicraft business with the aim of recycling 20 tons of plastic every day.

In early 2000, Lim Vanny was an employee who melted aluminum cans and pots for the others. When Styrofoam waste started piling up, he started a plan to recycle it. In 2012, he founded the recycling handicraft Lim Vanny in Preaek Kampues commune, Dangkao district, with a concentration on recycling foam, bags, and plastics.

“When I saw an increase in waste export to Vietnam, I had an idea to start a waste recycling handicraft business,” he said. “I started in 2012, so it’s been 10 years already.”

Lim Vanny (right) at a ceremony. Picture: supplied
Lim Vanny (right) at a ceremony. Picture: supplied

Vanny is from Svay Rieng province and his handicraft employs more than 100 workers.

All of the waste used to produce grain is sourced from landfill and factory waste, he said.

“For landfill waste, including plastic, I leave it for six months to one year, so it can be exposed to the sun or wind. When there’s no smell, I will recycle it,” he added. “For factory waste [sacks and Styrofoam], I can recycle it every day.”

“Because plastic is different, we have to dry it first and then we can chop, clean, and dry it. So, it takes a long time to recycle plastic.”

Initially, Vanny faced several challenges as his technology was poor and he lacked resources. In addition, it's tough for him to convince employees to work in an unsanitary workplace. However, despite these obstacles, his business is today a success.

All of the plastic grains can be turned into baskets, foam boxes, plastic containers, and bags, among other things, he said. The plastic grains have been exported both domestically and internationally.

“I export to Vietnam, China, and Thailand for all of those grains,” he said. “There are many different varieties of grains, with prices ranging from $500 to $1,000 depending on the grain.”

In Cambodia during the last few decades, a combination of rapid population growth and economic development has led to a surge in the volume of solid waste, including plastic. In Phnom Penh, for instance, more than 3,500 tons of municipal waste are generated every day.

According to a UN Development Program (UNDP) report, 80 percent is collected and disposed of in open landfills. In poor urban and rural areas without waste collection services, waste is often burned in the open. The remaining waste is disposed of on the streets or dumped in local waterways, which carry plastic to rivers.

Globally, only nine percent of plastic waste is recycled while 22 percent is managed. Additionally, the report found the COVID-19 crisis led to a 2.2 percent decrease in plastic consumption in 2020 as economic activity slowed. However, littering rose due to an increase in food take-outs and medical equipment, such as masks. As economic activity resumed in 2021, plastic consumption has also rebounded.

Meanwhile, Vanny said about 20 tons of plastic are recycled through his business, and he can produce more than 10 tons of plastic grain in a day. Additionally, COVID-19 has not impacted his business as he already has suppliers and partners.

“I recycle over 10 tons of bags and over 10 tons of Styrofoam and plastic. So, I can recycle more than 20 tons every day,” he said. “During COVID-19, we haven’t had any problems since we expose the waste to light before recycling it.”

Hour Chhai Ngorn, an environmentalist and founder of Creal Cambodia, said there are two ways to resolve plastic issues: don't use it and recycle it. As recycling is an important element of resolving the plastic problem, he is willing to support all recycling efforts by assisting in any way he can.

“Personally, I believe that the more we accomplish, the better. When it comes to dealing with plastic, recycling is a good thing, I support it,” he said. “At least, we did solve some problems.”

He said gathering plastic waste to recycle is better than burning or burying it as burning without technology harms the environment while burying is detrimental to the land. Moreover, he suggested those involved in recycling collaborate with other Cambodian NGOs, including COMPED and River Ocean Cleanup, which specialize in water cleanup.

“They [NGOs] can all be important partners in collecting plastic for recycling and then pushing the task into a rhythm, meaning we can work as a system,” he said. “So, it will be more beneficial to the environment.”

Nou Sovan, executive director of River Ocean Cleanup and director of Let’s Do It World-Asia, said he admires Vanny's handicraft. However, it remains limited in terms of recycling. He is also concerned about the health of employees in general but understands the situation needs to be improved.

“We don’t yet have a modern machine or any infrastructure to assist him. As this large handicraft in Cambodia is run as a family, he can get a lot of garbage to process,” he said. “It’s very good for solving temporary problems [plastic issues] in Phnom Penh, not only in Phnom Penh but across the country.”

Additionally, he is currently working with Everwave, a German NGO, to clean the river as part of a historic river cleaning project. To prevent trash, particularly plastic, from dropping into the water, 200 meters of ground from the riverside will be cleaned, he added.

“Our mission is to collect all rubbish from the three rivers, the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Tonle Bassac, utilizing German boats capable of collecting up to 20 tons of garbage each day, depending on the conditions,” he said.

He added that all citizens should follow the guidelines set by Phnom Penh City Hall. Meanwhile, the government is strengthening infrastructure and the legal system.

“To make it easier for individuals who collect garbage, particularly those who work in recycling, people should separate garbage by kind in each household,” he said. “We should get started.”

Vanny said he has assisted in cleaning the environment for the society. Additionally, he offers employees, whether old or young, a job and accommodation. “I am happy even if it’s a small contribution,” he said.

Vanny added he’s willing to assist those who are interested in learning this skill. “I am very proud and happy in waste recycling as I can contribute to society. To those who attempt to do so, I will share my techniques and experiences. I’m very open-minded.”