Excess Baggage

A conversation on reducing plastic bag waste in Cambodia

Sara: I’m with Rikta Krishnaswamy, a design researcher at Quicksand, and today we are going to talk about the “Excess Baggage” project Quicksand is doing in Cambodia with ACRA. Rikta can you introduce yourself and talk about your role on the project?

Rikta: I’ve been working on this project for the past year and it’s about reducing plastic bag waste in three major cities in Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap). Quicksand’s role on the project was to find a viable, sustainable, and affordable alternative to plastic bags in a chosen focus area.

S: Awesome! You previously mentioned that when you first arrived in Cambodia plastic bags were pervasive: they were just everywhere and you weren’t sure where to start with the research. So what did you do when you came across this challenge?

R: We tried to get clarity by living the local life. In the beginning it was the best way to prioritize or de-prioritize certain areas. The project was really interesting because we couldn’t make a cut-throat decision on a focus area to chose, we had to create a framework to judge and prioritize what we would eventually end up solving for, but it all started with living really local.

A typical local market, where a majority of the urban population shop regularly.

S: Could you talk about how one of the main users you focused on were house wives as both distributors and consumers of plastic bags. You also mentioned auto-ethnography or self-ethnography as an exploratory method. Could you speak a little bit about how you used this method to simulate the behaviors of your main users?

R: Halfway into the project we had to decide between two very gnarly and equally interesting focus areas. One was street food: plastic bags are used for packaging everything from hot soups to cold beverages, because it is the cheapest packaging tool and it affects everyone (e.g., youngsters, mobile workforce), it touches ages and genders across the board. Then you have local markets which are heavily ritualized shopping purchases for fresh food ingredients, which is the housewife’s domain. You have a woman going to the market 3 or 4 times a week and each time she goes to the market she gets around 6 to 7 small plastic bags, a majority of which are not reusable. So we had these two uses cases, but we couldn’t solve for both, and I think that the markets became our center of attention because it is such a vibrant ecosystem.

You have mostly women who are the fruit, vegetable, and meat vendors, and you have mostly women who are shopping. There was a great energy about these local markets — it is where 99% of Cambodians shop; it is the nucleus of their local economy; it’s a difficult terrain but any change here is bound to be noticed.

With regards to the auto-ethnography tools that we used, we did this for a very interesting reason. In the market you would tend to go to at least 5 or 6 shops to get all your food. We wanted to optimize the number of bags the housewife gets in a typical journey of use, for typical family sizes. We wanted to report what kind of impact could be achieved in different situations. The auto-ethnographies became a way to take up the persona of a typical housewife. We extrapolated the reduction in number and weight of plastic bags, and we were finally convinced of our solution when we did these auto-ethnographic journeys. It is very difficult to codify data especially when you want to talk about impact.

Images of consolidated purchases from different auto-ethnographic journeys conducted by the research team.

S: Tell me about The Happy Bag, aka the Thang Rikreay.

R: We had to call it something that wasn’t an adjective you could confuse with another bag. We had names like ‘thang loi’ (cool bag), or ‘thang thom’ (big bag), but this could be used to annotate any bag. So we called it Happy Bag because it felt distinctive. Vendors understood it, happy bag equals happy veggies (and fruits) and happy environment. It is a 5kg bag that can hold up to 10kg; 4kg is the average weight of a typical aggregated purchase in one visit by a housewife. We didn’t want it to feel like a Public Service Announcement. What happens a lot of time with these pro-environmental campaigns is that they use the typical tropes of scaring people and shaming them, but we wanted to give a constructive alternative to bolster better habits. Our partners conducted a survey and apparently 98% of people knew that plastic bags are bad for the environment and health. I think most eco-modern alternatives tend to be very expensive and hence exclude the majority of people. You could have a hemp or cloth bag and many different material alternatives, but do they functionally (and culturally) work in the environment like Cambodia? Do they give the same convenience (as a plastic bag) and are there enough sanctions that would help them choose that over plastic? Our team felt like going with a better, bigger plastic bag and putting the onus on the consumer to procure it was the first step in creating awareness or change.

S: One question people may have is why a bigger plastic bag and not another alternative? Bioplastics were a thing you had considered and then halfway through the project you found some information that steered you in a different direction. What happened?

R: There are two ways to reduce plastic bag waste. One is to optimize on the current use. The second way is to intervene post-use, do something with the waste, collect it or upcycle it to make things like park benches or roads.

You see the thing is everything is recyclable. Plastic is just hydrocarbons and many different additives. Reclaiming plastic bags in particular is very tough. There is no actual post-use value chain for small plastic bags that are a fraction of the consumer waste.

Also it’s important to understand, recycling low-density polyethylene (LDPE) film is very difficult. Looking at the post-waste side as a possible intervention area was going to be impossible because Cambodia has close to nil in terms of waste recycling infrastructure and a handful of cottage industry NGOs that upcycle plastic bags into products. All the waste separation is dependent on the informal agents like the Etchays, and its not an easy ecosystem to penetrate into.

One of the biggest problems today when you talk to people about mindful consumption is that they assume that the trash is being recycled. Nothing is going to be recycled. We wanted a solution that looked at reducing that escalation in post-consumer plastic bag waste, rather than dealing with it after the ‘deed’ was done.

An etchay in Phnom penh (L) and typical contents of the waste collected through the day — PET bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard, hard plastics.

Bioplastic is a material that we in the beginning thought was the alternative solution for Cambodia. A lot of these products have sprung up because there is a need for a panacea, a quick-fix to disposable, single use plastics. They have just replaced this with disposable, single-use, bioplastics. Any product that is made to be consumed for 5-seconds no matter how ‘good’ they are advertised as, has to be bad for the environment and not enough people are talking about that. And by reducing the amount of plastic polymers in bioplastics and making it susceptible to breaking down faster once you throw it in a river, canal or landfill you have created another monster altogether — microplastic pollution.

S: So what is a micro-plastic?

R: A micro-plastic is when a plastic film (or any plastic in general) breaks down into smaller plastic compounds instead of its monomeric organic compounds (like methane, carbon dioxide, water etc). Bioplastics have been made with even more additives for them to break down faster into their monomeric forms, but a lot of economies don’t industrially compost their organic/ wet waste. There are certain amounts of heat and bacteria required to turn the bio-plastics into their base elements, and these are not available in a landfill or when they are thrown into the water. There needs to be a lot of research and development to make better bioplastics, and more open standards and certifications.

There is no magical solution to single-use disposable plastics. There needs to be a lot of research and development to make better bioplastics, and more open standards and certifications.

S: To circle back to the happy bags, what is their current state? You are going to deploy a pilot, and I know you are using a local producer, even though there are only a handful of people making plastics in Cambodia. What happens next?

R: We found a great manufacturer in Phnom Penh. The manufacturer has created a formulation in which he hasn’t included any additives for transparency, gloss, shine, etc. We’ve tried to keep it as pure LDPE as possible.

We are going to roll this out in a pilot in a market called Psar Loo. We have done prototype tests there and modeled ecosystems with a small bunch of stakeholders, where we trained vendors, sold the alternative bags, and run incentives for those who adopted them, for several days. The real proof if the solution will actually work, is to see it in play in the market where all the vendors collectively decide to work together to reduce plastic bag misuse.

Very recently we found that some of the recommendations we gave at a policy workshop in January are being considered. Two of them are really great for the thang rikreay (happy bag): increasing the import tax on bags from other countries, and banning small plastic bags less than 30 microns in width. These two laws, even if they are put into enough channels (radio/ newspaper) with enough memorandums in the local markets — can create enough social sanctions for the public.

The policy workshop we held in jan 2016, where we shared a plethora of recommendations to officials from the local municipal hall and the ministry of environment.

S: Its great that you could affect policy with ground-up insights into the plastic bag use behaviors! Thanks for sharing insights from your project. Do you have anything that you would like to say before we wrap up?

R: I feel what we have observed and tried by way of iteratively building an alternative, and creating a community oriented solution in Cambodia touches on a lot of the core behaviors around plastics use in other countries in Southeast Asia and even countries like China or Japan All these other economies might not have the same constraints as Cambodia and hence there may be even more vibrant solutions to reduce plastic bag waste and misuse.

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If you’d like to know more go to http://excessbaggage-cambodia.org/. We also have a Facebook page for the campaign you can visit here and stay up to date! Do you have thoughts about reducing single use plastics and plastic waste? Write to us at hello@quicksand.co.in.

Originally published at quicksand.co.in on August 1, 2016.

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