On a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a seafood café is setting up for the evening rush. Styrofoam boxes are ripped open. The broken tops are dumped in the street. Plastic bags full of prawns are emptied into trays, then thrown out. In a few minutes, a small mountain of trash piles up on the sidewalk. As a rickshaw trundles by, its riders chuck an empty plastic drink container onto the heap. This is one of hundreds of mounds of plastic that dot this rapidly urbanizing city.

In April, The Guardian featured a shocking photo essay on the accumulation of plastic in the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville. It showed mountains of trash dumped on streets and beaches. But this plastic dystopia is not unique to Cambodia. If we don’t act now and cut it out of our daily lives, we, as well as the environment, will suffer irreparable harm.

We live in a world of plastic. It is an amazingly convenient material - cheap, light, flexible, and durable. Used for bags, bottles and containers, it is in our homes, schools and workplaces. But that rampant use has come at a heavy price.

The worldwide total volume of plastic has reached 8.3 billion metric tons, the equivalent of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers, according to a 2017 article in Science Advances. Of this enormous amount, 6.3 billion metric tons have been disposed as waste.

Around 10 million plastic bags are used in Phnom Penh every day, according to the ACRA Foundation. Urban Cambodians use more than 2,000 plastic bags every year.

Around 90% of the world’s plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Most of it arrives by way of just 10 major rivers, one of which is the Mekong. Every year, 8 million tons of plastic reach the ocean, which is the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute.

The biggest problem is that plastic does not biodegrade easily. It stays around for thousands of years. Slowly, it leaks chemical substances that are harmful for the environment, for animals and for people.

In marine areas, many mammals, fish and birds suffer from ingesting plastic or becoming entangled in plastic materials. More than 90% of all birds and fish are reported to have plastic particles in their stomach. In this way, toxic chemicals accumulate and pass through the food chain. Since fish comprises more than 60% of the protein intake for rural Cambodians, this is a significant problem.

A landfill site in Siem Reap, Cambodia
A landfill site in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Image: UNDP

For all these reasons, taking action to mitigate the harmful impacts of plastic is an urgent task. So what can be done?

It is heartening that many countries have implemented policy measures to tackle their plastic problem. Last year, Kenya completely banned the production, sale and use of plastic bags. Violations may result in imprisonment of up to four years, or fines of up to $40,000. Many other countries, including Bangladesh, Rwanda and China, are following Kenya’s lead, putting in place either total or partial bans on plastic bags, or new forms of plastic taxation.

In Cambodia, too, new initiatives are emerging to fight plastic pollution. In April, the Ministry of Environment introduced new regulation for the use of plastic bags. Major supermarkets such as Aeon and Lucky now charge 10 cents per bag. The Ministry of Environment is also considering plans for jute bags as an alternative. The school curriculum is being updated to educate future generations on the harm caused by plastics.

One promising idea to fight plastic pollution is known as the circular economy, which focuses on waste Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling (3R). In a circular economy, waste is treated as a valuable material that should be reused or recycled, not only in order to reduce the volume of trash but also to generate new economic opportunities.

First of all, this requires policies that actively encourage a 3R approach to plastic waste. For example, the EU adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan in 2016, which includes targets for recycling 75% of packaging waste by 2030 and making all plastic packaging recyclable by the same date. The EU is also proposing a ban on the most commonly used single-use plastic products.

But making a circular economy take off also requires the active involvement of citizens and the private sector. Even small individual acts, such as bringing one’s own shopping bag to the market, contribute to lowering the amount of plastic waste. Businesses can ban plastic bags and encourage the use of biodegradable bags. The United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia has done so, at its office. Hotels and factories have the opportunity to create networks of recycling and reusing materials, simultaneously saving money and decreasing waste.

In order to introduce lasting change, it is critical to raise awareness. This can happen through environmental education and information campaigns, directed at young people especially, as well as at the private sector.

Finally, new approaches to good solid waste management are essential. Given the mountains of plastic we generate, this won’t be easy. But if we all commit to beating plastic pollution, we can make a monumental difference.