Plastic-Free or Free Plastic?

By Chhum Chanrachana


Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash

Before, I used to take as many free plastic bags offered as possible. I would realize later with a pang of guilt that I didn’t need all of them. Sometimes, I also forgot to bring my water bottle to school. Whenever that happened, I had to buy at least two plastic bottles of water for the whole day.

I came across a 2015 viral video of a plastic straw being pulled out from a sea turtle’s nostril. It was just too painful to watch. Plastic is filling up the ocean. The Mekong River, which flows through Cambodia and five other countries, is one among ten rivers that altogether bring 93 percent of plastic waste into the world’s oceans every year. Marine animals are the victims. Over 1 million die each year from the pollution.

Since it’s easy to get plastic bags, we are constantly offered them; or most of the time we ask for them. Plastic just makes everything looks so convenient. It’s cheap. It’s light. We don’t have to carry a big bag or heavy water bottle around. But, we seem to overlook the problems that have emerged afterward.

Driving on the road, we can see the flying plastic bags or piles of plastic waste, waiting for the garbage truck to pick them up. During the rainy season, drainages are clogged with the plastic garbage, sometimes flooding the road. It takes hundreds of years for the plastic to disappear, which means we have to bear with this problem for also hundreds of years.

A Cheap Promotion

36247005110_55e64b7562_k-min.jpgPhoto by garycycles on flickr

Each day, people living in Phnom Penh use around 10 million plastic bags, while each of them is responsible for at least 2,000 plastic bags annually. Since the price of the bags is relatively low, sellers don’t pay much attention to how many they give out. In 2015, Cambodia has imported tons of plastic bags from its neighboring countries, costing around $100 million.

RAK_2461-min.JPG© Theara Rithyrack/ 2018

Many small businesses, especially shophouses, still have a mindset that they must give out more plastic bags for free to keep more customers happy.

This kind of thinking has been circling around for years in the society. Many people tend to give and take plastic products even though they aren’t really necessary at all. When you go to buy a plastic bottle of water, some sellers in Cambodia would pack it in a clear plastic bag and add a straw, which is basically like a promotion of free plastic.

Additionally, many coffee brand shops are using plastic cups instead of glass cups when customers drink at the place. Customers can freely take plastic straws, too. For many big fast food restaurants, plastic cutlery is the only choice.

RAK_2467-min.JPG© Theara Rithyrack/ 2018

Plastic bowls and boxes are mainly used whenever there is a takeout order. The styrofoam box is the most popular among Cambodians. We pack most food in it, even hot and cold soup. Since those styrofoam boxes easily break into pieces and float due to their light weight, those toxic pieces pollute the land and will later be consumed by sea animals, while remaining in the environment for a long time.

A Better Choice

There are so many types of plastic products that should be replaced by reusable ones.


Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Lots of alternatives exist for businesses to consider. Metal, bamboo, or even glass straws could easily solve the plastic straw problem in shops or restaurants. Plastic plate and cutlery could be replaced with real ones. A glass of water provided to the customer could avoid the purchase of plastic water bottles. For restaurant takeout, biodegradable containers are highly encouraged. They dissolve into the environment by microorganisms, like bacteria. Most of the biodegradable plastic products take around 60 to 180 days to decompose.

Sadly, all of those biodegradable products seem to be a bit more expensive than the conventional ones. It might be difficult to convince those restaurants to use these kind of products, while the consumers themselves are not really concerned about this plastic problem. Either as a distributor or consumer, all of us should a take part in tackling this problem.

Instead, Become An Environmentally-Friendly Consumer

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you brought additional reusable bags with you when you go out?
  • Have you brought your own water bottle to refill yet?
  • Why do you need a plastic cup while sitting in the coffee shop?
  • Do you really need a plastic straw?
  • Why do you take the plastic bags offered by the seller?
  • How many plastic products are you using every day?
  • Will you support businesses that are environmentally-friendly? If yes, how?


Photo by Evie Calder on Unsplash

The market might follow the social trend, and the trend itself starts with everyone. As a consumer, you are the one who decides what you need. You have the power to avoid more plastic use. You have the power to control the market. If you reduce the demand of plastic, you reduce the supply of plastic supplies.

To be honest, if offered, it might be difficult to say no to plastic. Changing your consumption behavior takes time. But you should start with little actions like ditching the plastic straws and bringing your own reusable bag and water bottle.

It might not look like it helps much in lessening the plastic issue in the country. But if everyone and I mean everyone as in the 1.5 million people living in Phnom Penh, or even the 15 million people in Cambodia could avoid one or two plastic products from their daily use, the result would be visible only within a few days. In that case, chances of us seeing plastic bags flying around would become the exception. Let’s start reducing our plastic use together now. 🙂


Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.

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