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Plastic bag fashion is fighting poverty, but can it save the world?

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-01-2006 in
Bronwyn Sloan

On a balmy tropical night in Phnom Penh earlier this year, a glamorous fashion show took place. But while a catwalk in Southeast Asia might be expected to rustle with the sound of sumptuous silks, it was recycled plastics as "rubbish couture" that shimmered and swirled when the models stepped out in at this unusual event.

The idea was the brainchild of respected local artist Leang Seckon, whose cheeky wit and knack of blending opposing concepts to provoke thought has made him one of the country's most avante guard artists. And despite the glitz of the Elsewhere fashion show the message was dark-plastic bags are choking Cambodia

Even with its tongue-in-cheek theme, the fashion show couldn't have been further removed from the lives of the waste pickers who had gathered the plastic to weave into the night's more fabulous creations. Many of the designs had come through the local non-government organization Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization (CSARO), which has been helping solve problems of the environment and improve living conditions for the urban poor since 1997.

Not long after it was established, CSARO sent a group of waste pickers to the Philippines and India to learn how to clean, prepare and weave plastic bags into new incarnations as belts, handbags, purses and other accessories. They returned to teach others the skills they had learned, and CSARO acted as an agent, finding them markets for their products.

"In Cambodia, most of the general public still says waste doesn't matter. We find a way to make it worth more than waste," CSARO plastics programme director Touch Bopha says. "I have to say I am very proud now. More and more people are realizing that waste can be useful. What we aim to do is reduce waste and help the poor at the same time."

Local waste collectors have learned that plastic bags - an item they once dismissed as useless-can be cleaned, sorted and sold to CSARO. The bags are then made into weavable strips, which the women use for their creations. The only problem, Bopha says, is keeping up with demand because plastic bags are still worth much less to recyclers than aluminum cans and other scrap. "Sometimes we will receive bags and bags, but some months, if the waste pickers are having a good month and find a lot of more valuable recyclables, plastic bags are at the bottom of their list and we don't receive many at all."

The organization also recycles waste paper into beautiful beads that make head turning jewelry. CSARO's training gives the urban poor, and especially women, an option while taking at least some of the millions of plastic bags off the streets and out of the rivers. Waste picking is a dangerous and dirty job which carries with it a range of serious health risks and also often puts young waste pickers in vulnerable situations for trafficking and other hazards. "Once they learn this skill, some of them stop waste picking altogether and just stay at home and weave fulltime. They can earn money from home and are with their families," Bopha says.

CSARO is not the only group creating art from plastic bags. In a trendy area on Street 57, Smateria provides a market for a number of plastic weavings. Close inspection of a smart handbag retailing for around $20 reveals it is actually an intricate weave of discarded red, white and black Lucky Supermarket bags. Handsome black belts at the front of the shop are actually woven black plastic garbage bags.

Another tiny recycled fashion outlet, Tooit Tooit, located at the Russian Market, is supported by the NGO Friends and sells a range of recycled products. Profits go towards the mothers of former street children to help keep their kids in school.

But despite the statement they make and the contribution they provide to poverty alleviation, programmes such as these can't hope to make any real dent in the plastic bag problem. Chum Som Onn, media officer for the environmental education organization Live and Learn, says plastic bags are a menace and the problem is getting worse as the population grows.

"Plastic bag waste is spread out everywhere in significant amounts. When they lie as waste on the ground they can sometimes form breeding grounds for mosquitoes. When they get into the water system, they make many problems for aquatic life, and if they are burned, the smoke is toxic," he says.

He says there are some education campaigns, such as the one set up under the Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) that educate people on sanitation related to plastic waste disposal and how it affects their environment.

"Live and Learn also has the Tonle Sap Conservation Project (TSCP), aimed at - promoting community awareness of environmental issues. Waste management is conservation issue," he says. "But people still lack an understanding of the problems plastic bag waste causes. And on top of that, the population in Cambodia is increasing everyday."

A Live and Learn study on plastic bags in Cambodia described the country as "drowning" in them. "Excessive use and disposal of plastic bags in Cambodia have seen an increase in environmental harm and pollution. Plastic bags are made from petroleum and consist of synthetic polymers made up of non-biodegradable monomers. In dump sites, plastic bags may take hundreds of years to degrade," the study found. "The burning of plastic bags in Cambodia is common as a way of disposing of them but the fumes are poisonous. The toxins are known to be linked to respiratory diseases, birth defects, cancer and immune system disorder. Plastic bags are difficult to recycle because they need to be cleaned first, then dried and sorted into different plastic types. This is labor intensive but possible especially where there is a large workforce."

Studies in Fiji and the South Pacific in collaboration with the European Union found that education and awareness were the key weapons in reducing plastic waste. In Australia, a concerted government campaign to encourage people to use cloth bags rather than plastic has drastically reduced the amount of plastic used each year. And according to, a 2002 consumption tax introduced on plastic bags in Ireland reduced the number of bags used from 1.2 billion plastic bags, or 316 per person, in 2001, by 90%, saving approximately 18,000,000 liters of oil needed to manufacture the bags in the process.

Other countries that have banned or discouraged the use of plastic bags include an eclectic collection of developed and developing countries; Bangladesh, Italy, South Africa and Taiwan, which had been estimated to consume 20 billion bags a year. Mumbai in India also recently attempted to ban plastic bags.

Despite this, however, the innocuous plastic bag continues to claim the lives of marine and other animals and even humans in a myriad of ways, and on the 30the anniversary of its invention, the way it is being reinvented into fashion by enterprising Cambodians is a small bright spot in an otherwise depressingly deep environmental black hole.

Recycled Rubbish Fashion Outlets

No 8Eo, Street 57
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
HP: (855) 12 647 061
HP: (855) 12 869 762
email: jennifer [at] smateria [dot] com

Tooit Tooit
Stall 312, Russian Market
(a part of Friends NGO)


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