In Cambodia plastic in everyday life has accelerated since the 1990s transition to a free market economy and subsequently increasing economic development. Far from encountering a generic plasticisation, Cambodian’s relationship with the material is particularly intensive.

Average consumers in the capital Phnom Penh are estimated to use ten times more plastic bags than in Beijing in China. High consumption of plastic bottled water is driven by the ever-expanding tourist industry and a quarter of the population that lack regular access to safe drinking water.

Research Project 1: Community Water Enterprises in Cambodia: Entrepreneurship and development narratives

Community-managed water kiosks are a relatively new way of delivering clean drinking water in lower- income countries. This involves small-scale water entrepreneurs that operate a water kiosk as a social franchise, with the technical support provided by an NGO. The water kiosk has equipment to pump contaminated ground water into a storage tank and to treat it through filters (sand filter, carbon filter, micro filter) and then through ultraviolet disinfection. Water is then bottled using 20 litre polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles before being delivered directly to consumers houses. In Cambodia this model, known as ‘community water enterprise’ (CWE). The model is accepted by the Cambodian Government international agencies including UNCIEF as part of the means toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 related to water and sanitation for all.

Not withstanding long-debated concerns about the toxicity of plastic bottles, this project is exploring: the life-use of the 20 Litre bottle as a mode of water transport and the after-life of these bottles in Cambodia; how this sociotechnical device impacts on the way that other modes of water delivery, including piped supply and rainwater harvesting are to be viewed, deemed trustworthy, reliable or feasible in more remote and less population-dense areas; the implications of the 20-litre bottle for the integrity of common resources, and the affective work involved in keeping or instituting norms of common access and also the impact that the rise of community water kiosks have on community relationships, including patron-client relationships, and on customary understandings of obligation, meritorious behaviours and practices of gift-giving.


Research Project 2: Plastic packing in Cambodia: waste problems and entrepreneurial solutions for tourism enterprises

Over the past 50 years, plastic has become a mundane material that governs the life and consumption of food while plastic litter is increasingly recognised as the most problematic contaminant of marine and freshwater ecosystems. This is of concern in Cambodia which relies on inland freshwater fish stocks for more than one third of all the protein consumed by the national population. In Cambodia, hotels, guesthouses and restaurants are among the biggest commercial outputters of plastic food-packaging waste, including polystyrene foam packaging and plastic bags which in turn arrive at tourism business premises through the suppliers of food and beverage items among local wholesalers and market vendors. This project is exploring the realities of plastic packaging in a community that surrounds a recently established meditation retreat in Kampong Cham Province in Eastern Cambodia, that is striving for an environmentally friendly image. It looks at what kind of plastic packaging arrives at and leaves the retreat and what the different roles and responsibilities these plastic items have. It seeks to uncover which type of solutions might fit best with the Retreat’s objective of an environmentally friendly image and whether exemplary practices in the tourism sector can be developed.

The research project takes into consideration some of the large-scale “grand solutions” to plastic problems being offered by relatively new market-entrant companies in Cambodia, biodegradable bioplastic bags and food packaging made from agribusiness feedstock, including by-products from cassava and sugarcane, that are recognised by international institutions including the United Nations Development Programme as contributing to Sustainable Development Goals objectives. Considering these interventions as a form of ‘green entrepreneurship’ that is compatible with other narratives of social entrepreneurship that proffer market-oriented solutions to social problems, comparisons will be made with the perceived value and practicality of vernacular materials such as palm leaf, banana leaf, bamboo and rattan as forms of food packaging that might be used by vendors who supply food to the Retreat. The objective is to try to elicit a range of hidden practices that can meet social needs, service the environment, strengthen common-property and have economic value via both market or non-market-based means.
Project Leader and Participant: Isaac Lyne
Start: 1 June 2018
End: 31 Sept 2019
Funding Structure: Lyne’s position is part time at 0.6, it is funded by the Seed Box .