• River Wetlands

Trash Talk

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


The small, yonic-shaped island of Koh Trong lies in the middle of the Mekong River, four hours from Phnom Penh. With a permanent population of 1,500, the island markets itself as an “eco-tourism island”, with an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Other than their home-grown pomelos - which is only the third agricultural product to be awarded the "Made in Cambodia" sticker[1], island is known to be a pit-stop for many travelers. Despite not having any hotels[2], travelers have the option of homestays where visitors often point out the relative cleanliness of the island compared to the neighboring inland. Yet, while the residents do not pile their rubbish up along the sidewalks due to a lack of a municipal trash collection service, whether this would be due to an effective waste management system is what we seek to investigate.


Despite the agrarian economy, non-compostable trash is also created on the island. Trash is created when someone buys drinking water in plastic bottles, Cambodia Beer in an aluminum, Khmer Cakes in plastic bags and even when we eat dinner, in the form of food waste. Trash is created when our remotes are out of battery, when we need to replace our light bulbs or when we finish our bottle of detergent or body soap. Essentially, trash is created everyday. However, we have observed one trash that defines the landscape of Koh Trong - plastic mineral water bottles (Image 1). Such was the sight that littered the entire island.

Plastic Bottles among other trash. This was too common a sight on Koh trong.

Being an island in the middle of a river, Koh Trong does not have a centralised sanitation or water system. Islanders have to distinguish between greywater and potable water. While greywater, collected from the rain, or drawn from wells, inland lakes, or the river, are used for bathing and laundry, drinking water, is mostly bought and brought over from the mainland in plastic bottles or five-gallon bottles - similar to those found in offices. The presence of plastic water bottles littered around the island spoke volumes on the present waste management system in Koh Trong - or a lack of.

Speaking to the islanders, it appears that they would love a trash management service, however, their geography - the small area, dense population and susceptibility to frequent floods makes it tricky for a landfill to be established. Any municipal garbage service will have to be shipped back to the mainland on the same barge visitors and residents use to get to-and-from the island. Through the Community Head, we discovered that there were attempts to create an informal waste recycling system within the island (Image 2). Such a system should involve small-scale, low-cost and labour intensive enterprises[3]. However, on Koh Trong, this system is operated solo by the Community Head’s daughter, through a buyer from a Vietnamese trash management company. A fraction of the sales would be passed on as incentives to the islanders to encourage whoever willing to collect and sell their recyclables. As prices respond to the international commodity markets of trash, the recent fall[4] in prices severely cut the already fractional incentive awarded to the islanders. Today, the incentive recycling an entire basket of plastic bottles are worth less than US$0.50[5]. The Community Head’s daughter argues that the low profit and yet high-labour work has turned herself and the villagers away from actively collecting recyclables.

Aluminium cans and bottles collected at the Community Head's house by his daughter. Later sold to a middle man for a Vietnamese company.


Without institutions of collective action, like a local waste management community, individual islanders do whatever they can individually to tackle this issue. The most convenient method is to burn all trash in roadside bonfires during the dry season[6].

Waste being burnt along the roads. The acrid smoke produced proves to be dangerous inhalants to the villagers.

However, bonfires are a makeshift solution as their low temperatures meant that plastic are left unburnt, and in the open, until the rain washes them into gullies, and into the river[7] (Image 3). Most islanders are cognizant that this is far from ideal and recognizes the health hazards, but they lamented the lack of alternatives[8]. The Community Head summed up much of the problem of trash on the island in two themes: the lack of money and ignorance. The formal is apparent due to a lack of funding from the central government to tackle this problem, however, the latter could be regarded with a little more suspect as we proceeded with our survey.


Graph showing the Islanders’ view towards the cleanliness of the island and their desire for it to be cleaner

All of the 36 islanders interviewed expressed desire for the island to be cleaner suggesting a clear desire for collective action, especially amongst the younger generation - 90% of the interviewed were under the age of 30 years old. It appears that the local government may have misunderstood it's islanders, since the communal government, as champions of the community, should work in the public interest, and the sentiments for a cleaner environment is very strong. Through our observation, the local government is not strong enough, financially and structurally[9], to compel islanders to raise it’s own revenues to solve the trash problem everyone wants to solve. Many islanders we interview have resigned to the realities of political power, that as individuals, they are too weak to pressure change in established power structures to make their island cleaner.


Both perceptions of the islanders, that they lack political power to enact change, and the local government, about islanders being ignorant, cannot be more wrong. With small movements amongst the villagers to improve the current the current situation[10] we were inspired that education becomes very important in tackling this problem. For the islanders, education on the benefits of proper trash disposal, could possibly more than enact a change of behaviour, but even, create a platform for creative environmental sustainability ideas to surface bottom-up (eg. Image 5). For the local government, understanding the benefits, environmentally and economically[11] of a formal waste management and recycling system, could possibly inspire institutions to be formed to promote collective action to create a better future. Since the island prides itself as an eco-tourism hotspot, elements of sustainable tourism includes a proper and sustainable waste management.

Villager with his handmade sign. Emphasising the importance of handling your own trash and keeping the island clean.

There is immense potential for the island of Koh Trong to become a model of an eco-tourism hotspot if their current waste management is dealt with tactfully and faithfully, and we believe that this already amazing island has much more in store for everyone!



  1. "Following GI Award, Demand for Koh Trong Pomelo Soars." Khmer Times. January 02, 2019.

  2. There is, however, a guest villa with a swimming pool.

  3. Chandrappa, R. & Das, D. B. (2012, p. 373) Solid waste management: principles and practice. Heidelberg: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-28681-0_14

  4. Bellman, E., & Agarwal, V. (2019, July 28). ‘We Are Swamped’: How a Global Trash Glut Hurt a $25 Billion Industry. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

  5. Bellman, E., & Agarwal, V. (2019, July 28). ‘We Are Swamped’: How a Global Trash Glut Hurt a $25 Billion Industry. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

  6. When the weather is dry and when the Mekong’s water level is low

  7. One farmer we interviewed chose not to burn plastic bottles. He instead bundles plastic bottles together with string and weighs them down with a heavier piece of garbage. Once every few weeks, he drops the bottles into the Mekong River at the midpoint of the stream. He believes the silt will cover the bottles up.

  8. The U.S. military is also struggling to reduce the use of what they dub “open-air burn pits” in warzones. Burning caustic refuse often releases neurotoxins and carcinogens, which often result in long-term health effects. The New York Times cites a doctor who called open-air burn pits “ticking time bomb[s]”. Philipps, Dave. "U.S. Military Is Scrutinized Over Trash Burning in Afghanistan." The New York Times. July 23, 2014.

  9. There is a lack of a formal waste management system even within Phnom Penh where the central government is located. It can be assumed that there is close to no funding towards managing the waste on the island - as lamented by the Community Head. This may have also led to a lack of a dedicated organizational structure within the local government to manage the waste on the island. The closest was the eco-tourism group.

  10. We met one villager trying his best to make a difference. He designated a secluded swampy clearing near his house as a communal incineration site. He has even put up signs to persuade his fellow islanders to not litter. “I feel depressed”, he told us, “that we are surrounded by so much waste. I had a drive to transform the village into a beautiful environment dominated by the green-colors of plants so our lives are easier and we can sleep well.” Nevertheless, his home is not centrally located. Many people are not bothered to walk that far of a distance just to burn trash.

  11. As per the data published by HSE (2004), the United Kingdom, which generates 50 million tonnes of commercial waste, 30 million tonnes of industrial waste, and about 30 million tonnes of municipal waste, employs 160,000 workers in the waste management sector. Among these about 120,000 workers are employed in the private sector. HSE (Health and Safety Executive) (2004) Mapping health and safety standards in the UK waste industry

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