• River Wetlands

What Flow?! – Floating Waste In Chhnok Tru

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

ABOUT | Imagine that you did not have a proper waste disposal system. Would you be conscious about everything you consume and throw out? During our stay in Chhnok Tru, we have examined the villagers’ habits and thoughts about waste.

Team members:  
Ong Ching Hui, Claudia Gee, Liew Jing Yee, and Vortey. 



What do you do with your waste in Singapore? We simply throw it in dustbins and waste is collected for disposal everyday. What if we didn’t have a waste disposal system and our waste stayed where we lived? We would definitely be more conscious about what we ‘waste’.

We spent three days living with a family in a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake and conducted a ‘waste audit’ to better understand the waste management system.

Waste comes in many different forms (e.g. plastic and food) and in different types (e.g. human excrement and medical and hygiene wastes). ‘Wasting’ is unavoidable, but waste reduction is possible.


Chhnok Tru lacks an institutionalised waste disposal system; most of the villagers throw their waste into the lake wherever they are (e.g. boats or their own houses). In such cases as community events where a large amount of waste is produced, villagers gather up waste and dump it further away from their residential area. This particular attitude reflects a “NIMBY”ism – “Not In My Back Yard”.

Most wastes found in Chhnok Tru’s waters are single-use plastic food items. Not all of them are indeed locally disposed: they come from Kampong Chhnang or Phnom Penh, depending on the direction of the water flow.

Floating waste beside a home

While some wastes (e.g. organic waste) are completely degradable, it does not mean that they do no harm to the lake. For example, dead fishes, particularly, their innards thrown into water cause foul smell and could kill marine life.

Some recycling efforts are made by the locals. Cans are commonly recycled; they earn 1,000 riel, equivalent to about 0.35 SGD from selling 20 cans. Cardboard is sold for 200 riel (about 0.07 SGD) per kg, and paper for 100 riel (about 0.035 SGD) per kg. Plastic wastes are, on the other hand, difficult to make a profit out of. While certain types of plastic can be recycled, the amount of the plastics disposed is limited. Most plastic recyclables therefore end up in countries like Vietnam where plastic recycling plants are situated.

Among the domestically recyclables, cans are the only item that is collected at the household level; storage space sufficient for a large amount of cardboards and papers is not available.

A common sight in every household – cans collected for sales



The most common types of waste observed in clinics are plastic wrappers and metal needles. Their disposal is necessary because these items have to be single-use for some hygiene reasons. As they are biohazardous waste, they are kept in their dustbins and weekly brought to a major hospital on land for the incineration purpose.

Biohazardous waste filled up in dustbins within a week!


Examples of household waste: liquid, solid and organic wastes

We have studied the type and quantity of daily waste generated at the household level by taking a case of our homestay host, a household of 12 family members who earns a relatively high income. We understand that this empirical case cannot be generalised, as the amount of waste varies depending on the family size, income and travel habits.


In Chhnok Tru, floating shops come to the doorstep of every house and sell food items in the morning. The family we stayed with usually takes four plastic bags of fruits, vegetables and tofu.

A morning doorstep haul

Lunch and Dinner

Almost no food is wasted; if uneaten, it will be fed to animals. However, meal preparations generate non-consumable organic wastes such as vegetable stalks and bones as well as packaging wastes including one jar containing tofu and seasoning bottles and packets.

Snacking Throughout the Day

Typically, three plastic bottles of drinks shared amongst family members are generated. In addition, more plastic wastes are disposed if they travel. For example, two bottles of drinks are consumed while riding a boat to and from a nearby port. The types and quantity of waste depend on how drinks are packaged: some drinks are sold in plastic bags or bottles. Plastic straws are always provided, though plastic caps may not be.

Organic wastes generated during the day include coconut husks, longan shells and snail shells.

In addition to the plastic and organic wastes, daily generated wastes include: two diapers, a few pads, one pack of cigarettes and ashes from cigarettes and incense.


Minimarts largely generate plastic packaging wastes that cannot be recycled. The amount of waste varies depending on the business size. On average, they dispose one bag of plastic waste per day.

Hawkers provide plastic bags and utensils; they are cheap and do not require washing. We had to request reusable spoons when purchasing noodles.

It is interesting to note that children are less likely to consume plastic bags. For example, children eat potatoes with their hands, not needing a bag. This may be because they are less concerned about dirtying their hands.

Every food item is packaged in a small bag because most of the villagers cannot afford to buy a larger volume, which would require less plastic.



The use of plastic globally spiked in the 1980s, along with the popularisation of plastic bags.  In Cambodia, plastic is considered highly useful as it allows easy packaging of items for future consumption, compared to ‘organic packaging’ which does not allow food to last long. The villagers in Chhnok Tru take a fairly casual stance about consuming such non-biodegradable items. For example, they ask a plastic bag if things they buy are not packaged. They seem to prioritise practicality over reusability or recyclability. A working mother we interviewed commented that she would prefer single-use diapers to cloth-made reusable one because she didn’t have time to wash them.

They literately throw everything into water – water that surrounds them and flows along their houses. As mentioned earlier, for example, they sometimes dump a large amount of waste into water further away from their homes, without considering that their waste may be flowed back to them. This everyday practice may be shaped by their unawareness or no education about how their homes are connected to the lake’s ecosystem or what long-lasting negative impacts littering has on water and the lake environment.

Village Chiefs

The village chief in Chhnok Tru recognises that waste management is an urgent issue, but he feels that he is not in a politically appropriate position to institutionalise it. He mentioned that village neighbours have never contested each other over where waste should be disposed of and where it ends up. Thus, he feels that the environmental ministry should intervene in formulating a better waste disposal system.

Having said that, he individually reuses plastic products such as bottles and bags, and he tries to encourage his neighbours to do the same.

Despite the insufficient waste management scheme, some villagers do practice 3Rs – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. While some of them do so for economic gain, others seek to advocate and teach the community about waste reduction. It would be certainly difficult to adopt a new mindset of not buying plastic wastes or throwing waste into water, given that they have practiced it for decades.

We feel, however, that the residents in Chhnok Tru try to do recycling more than we do. Singaporeans have greater access to recycling facilities as well as more varieties of products to consume. This short stay in the village has made us reflect on how much more we, Singaporeans, could make efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle materials.

Orh-khun! (Thank you in Khmer)

24 views0 comments