Your choices come from privilege

My Facebook feed is full of videos about plastic or vegan meal recipes or how one industry of the other is causing waste. From single use plastic or how meat consumption destroys the planet, there are a lot ways that we are told we should be better stewards of the planet. These posts almost exclusively come from my British friends and not my Cambodian ones. There may be something cultural about it: perhaps British people love animals and the environment more than Cambodians. (The respective heritages of Christian and Buddhist faiths may have something to do with this.) However, there is a more plausible and obvious reason: the choices of my British friends are born out of privilege.

Cambodia has a massive rubbish problem. Every street side or empty plot of land with be filled with stinking bags of rubbish. Plastic clogs streams and covers fields. Everything is served in polystyrene cups or boxes or little plastic bags tied up with elastic bands. Single-use straws are common and popular. Most plates or cups or spoons are plastic and often disposable. Cambodians use them, probably without a second thought on its long-term environmental impact, despite how blatantly obvious the impact actually is.

You may judge the Cambodians for the limited understanding or their dismissive attitude or their simplicity. However, Cambodian’s do not have the same opportunities to make good choices. First, pragmatically and practically, their opportunities are limited. However, psychologically, they may not be equipped to make such long-term decisions. Good choices often come from a position of privilege, not from a position of greater intellect or superior morality.

First, practically, plastic is the obvious choice in the life of an everyday Cambodian. It is affordable, available, easy, disposable and hygienic. The single use polystyrene boxes are cheap. If you make a comparison on the affordability of more environmentally-friendly options, there is a clear winner. Small Cambodian cafes or street-side stalls simply cannot cover these costs. Many Cambodians will earn a couple of dollars a day, therefore, cheapest is always best. Also, the plastic options are readily available. The environmentally friendly ones are only available in a few places and that would only be in large cities that are developed to cater for Western sensibilities.

Secondly, no Cambodian really wants to be think about storing multiple reusable bags or Tupperware boxes. When your home is one room, with only one bed for the whole family, a small gas stove and very little other furniture, they just seem like a waste of space. At home, people have whole cupboard dedicated to miss-matched plastic tups and lids, and another dedicated to piles of lifelong bags from Waitrose. When you have a single cupboard, that’s not really an option. Cambodians are going to want an option that is easy to get rid of and won’t clutter their small homes. Plastic is perfect for that.

In a tropical country that is dusty and dirty, plastic provides convenient hygienic options. One reason that Cambodians like straws is because cans are often dusty. Something only has to be sat in the same place for a day or two here for a thick film to have covered it. Plastic is clean and therefore substatiaatially better than not using straws or disposable items.

Therefore, plastic use is huge in Cambodia. But, of course, Cambodia is still a developing nation. The resources need to deal with such waste has not been able to match it. Recycling and efficient waste-disposal is costly and requires good infrastructure and government funding. This simply isn’t there. The Cambodian people cannot even afford clean water systems, schools, road system, healthcare, de-mining programmes, electricity infrastructure or crime prevention. Many visitors are offended by the waste and the pollution, but there are so many other issues that Cambodia needs to address first. Also, visitors have not seen the massive developments and progress that Cambodia has also made.

So, feel free to post your videos about plastic waste or environmental issues on Facebook. However, as you do it don’t feel indignant or smug. Just a remember, these choices come from privilege.

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