TONTOTON – A community-based solution for mismanaged plastic in Cambodia

We live in the ‘Age of Plastics’; mass production and widespread use of these materials has become a contemporary global threat for both the environment and the economy. Plastic dominates almost all facets of modern life and due to the fundamental characteristics of being both light weight and durable, mismanaged materials are readily transported. This poses the threat of a substantial proportion of our annual production entering the environment as a result of abandonment, careless discard and accidental release. 

Often, marine waste accumulates in coastal areas and communities in Southeast Asia are significantly affected by the plastic pollution. Quantities of marine debris in this region exceed global averages due to the rapid socioeconomic development and few effective solid waste management systems resulting in ingestion by animals, blocking drainage systems, and affecting human health. 

The circular economy rationale works to transform the global plastic crisis into a sustainable solution with the aim of achieving environmental security, financial prosperity and social equality. However, with low-income countries at the forefront of mismanaged plastic, strategies must account for this socio-economic setting. The groups of people involved in waste services, but are not employed, recognized or formally permitted to execute these activities by the local government are referred to as the informal sector, or commonly known as ‘echhay’ in Cambodia.  Waste management in the global south is dominated by such informality with scavengers performing this physically intense first step of solid waste extraction. TONTOTON have designed a project partnering with the informal waste sector, providing a community-based solution for the management and treatment of ocean-bound plastic (OBP), which is focused on the highly polluted coastal area of Sihanoukville.


The problem:

The production of plastic is well documented with Cambodia generating more than 10,000 tons of municipal solid waste daily, 20% of which is plastic and around half (48%) is thought to be improperly disposed of (FFI, 2021; IGES, 2018). In Sihanoukville, overburdened inner city areas have insufficient financial capital, human resources, and technical expertise to manage the accumulation of plastic, while in suburban areas, open burning and dumping in public spaces, including waterways and the oceans, are the primary methods of disposal.

Next to every plastic bottle that is widely recyclable in the current market, is an abundance of abandoned straws, polystyrene food containers, food packaging, and synthetic garments, that are currently not part of the circular economy. The commercial market selectively focuses on value plastics recycling (e.g., PET bottles), while non-recyclable plastic waste remains untouched, creating an imbalance in the plastic waste management system. 

TONTOTON believe in a solution for marine plastic pollution that benefits the environment, society, and businesses. Powered by plastic credits, it provides a solution for the collection and treatment of ALL types of plastic waste, leaving nothing behind.

The solution:

Despite their significance for the environment and the economy, informal waste collectors (IWC) often face marginalization and are subjected to exploitation and prices fluctuations which threaten their income. Throughout Cambodia, the dire quantities of mismanaged plastic together with the widespread coverage of IWC warrant the need for their integral part to maintain a circular economy. TONTOTON integrate these unsung heroes of plastic waste management at the forefront of their program. Specializing in creating a market for all types of mismanaged plastic waste where there is none, TONTOTON’s approach utilizes a team of 400+ local collectors from the informal waste sector in deprived coastal communities. The model allows for a reliable and consistent trading price per kilo for all types of plastic waste, establishing a novel market for low-value post-consumer materials which are not subject to fluctuation. Although the monthly income is a result of the quantities of waste collected, a stable income is established through the monetisation of previously valueless materials. We are incentivizing both the removal of non-recyclable plastic waste, as well as recyclable PET, for which the trading price is so low there is no solution in Sihanoukville.

However, the root of the problem lies with a lack of public awareness of the hazards caused by plastic to people’s health and to the environment, resulting in misuse and mismanagement. Promoting knowledge sharing is vital for the prevention of irresponsible dumping of waste and protecting marine resources from degradation. TONTOTON’s awareness campaign in Cambodia, Plastic Free Coastlines (PFC), taught in the local language of Khmer, directly tackles marine and coastal pollution through effectively minimizing plastic consumption and encouraging shared responsibility. TONTOTON works on a household level to educate communities and capture the leakage at the source, and training is conducted in 2 local public schools and 14 villages to encourage stewardship behaviour – it takes a village to clean a village. 

By utilizing a waste to energy solution, TONTOTON is able to handle large quantities of all types of plastic waste, creating a new market for low-value plastic, and therefore promoting a circular economy to reduce plastic pollution globally. The solution eradicates plastic from the environment, reduces leakage, creates jobs, and changes the selective recycling market. 

The impact:

TONTOTON’s solution not only removes 300+ tons of mismanaged ocean-bound plastic from shorelines every single month, but it does so in a way that benefits the local communities.

As a direct result of TONTOTON’s project, monthly salaries of collectors increased by an average of 48.42%, providing significant additional income with which collectors can better support their families. A quarter of collectors reported that they are now able to begin saving money in case of sickness or accidents, and a further 22% said their lives were more stable with more financial resources, comfortably affording daily essentials, such as food for their families which was previously a financial burden. 

The future:

TONTOTON is now building a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Sihanoukville to upcycle and re-purpose conventionally unrecyclable materials. The MRF will include a first-of-its-kind recycling line for all types of plastic – here, TONTOTON offers the first trade point for PET bottles in the province, transferring cleaned and compressed plastic into the recycling industry as certified materials. The conventionally non-recyclable materials undergo a heat press method, creating novel plastic items that can be used in construction to support poor communities with items such as new roofs, as well as affordable housing, creating the entire structure from non-recyclable plastic. 

TONTOTON provides a full circle, scalable solution that is inclusive of all plastic waste. 

See more of TONTOTON’s work here:

www.facebook.com/tontotonlitter

References:

Fauna & Flora International (2020) Investigating solutions to marine plastic pollution in Cambodia. Review and Research Synthesis. Fauna & Flora International, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Gall, M., Wiener, M., de Oliveira, C.C., Lang, R.W. and Hansen, E.G. (2020). Building a circular plastics economy with informal waste pickers: Recyclate quality, business model, and societal impacts. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 156, p.104685.

Velis, C., (2017). Waste pickers in Global South: Informal recycling sector in a circular economy era. Waste Management & Research, 35(4), pp.329-331.

Wilson, D.C., Velis, C. and Cheeseman, C., (2006). Role of informal sector recycling in waste management in developing countries. Habitat international, 30(4), pp.797-808.

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