A World without Rubbish: Roadside Cleanup by Little Hearts

Last Friday afternoon all the children of Little Hearts marched out of our gates armed with rubber gloves, masks, large garbage bags and trash pickup sticks. They split up into their respective detachments and headed north. Their mission: to clean up two kilometres of road (1 km from Little Hearts to the nearest pagoda, Wat Pich Mkot, and another 1 km from there to the following T-junction), collecting all the litter strewn by the roadside. The kids were divided into four teams (one for each side of the road and for each kilometre), each headed by a senior student and supervised by a staff member. The cleanup work was completed within three hours and continued despite the rain. Fortunately, everyone had brought raincoats and umbrellas! The result: over 50 large bags filled with trash and ready for pickup. (Little Hearts pays a private contractor to collect our rubbish once a week, and we had negotiated for them to pick up the roadside waste as well.)

As many of you know, Cambodia faces a serious waste disposal problem. Some of the larger cities in the country, such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, do have municipal waste collection and disposal services, but most smaller towns and villages lack any such utilities. Moreover, many Cambodians are still unaware of their civic and environmental responsibilities with regard to waste. Littering by the roadside is extremely common, and households often dispose of their household rubbish by leaving it in piles along the road, where it is eventually burned, creating clouds of toxic fumes. Or they burn it in their own back yard, or just fling into a river.

So, last Friday’s roadside cleanup exercise served several purposes. Besides the obvious – keeping our immediate surroundings as clean as possible – it is part of the kids’ environmental education. At Little Hearts we try to instil responsible environmental behaviour as soon as the children join the facility, through both classroom instruction and hands-on activities, such as the much-loved Friday cleanup (!) and various recycling initiatives. But we also want the kids to understand that keeping one’s own home clean and tidy is not enough. The streets outside, the fields, the pagodas, the river just a mile away – all these resources belong to them as much as to other citizens, and it behoves us all to care for them, especially in the absence of appropriate government services. We also want to show our neighbours what environmentally responsible behaviour looks like, and to ensure that they see us as an active and civic-minded member of the community.

Indeed, Little Hearts is no stranger to neighbourhood cleanup. In 2017, we initiated a project known as Cleaning up Archetype for Kids and Environment (CAKE), which sought to address the ongoing issues of inappropriate waste management and lack of environmental education in underserved communities in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. In practical terms, CAKE, which was funded entirely through donations, hired 15 sanitation workers from the local community and trained them to collect garbage door to door in the villages of Akrey Khsat, Khsach, Toul Meas and PhoTom, and to conduct periodic cleanups of highly polluted common areas. We also installed large rubbish dumpsters at locations where garbage dumping was common, such as the ferry terminal and major road junctions. CAKE also conducted frequent environmental awareness classes on waste disposal, recycling and compost-making in nearby villages and mounted a full-on environmental education campaign using banners and billboards in central locations to remind people of appropriate waste disposal practices.

During its six-month pilot phase, CAKE was extremely successful. More than 200 tons of garbage were collected each month and disposed of safely through an agreement with Cintri, the company that manages waste disposal in Phnom Penh. In a survey of the communities that had benefited from CAKE, we found that 68% of participants routinely took their trash to CAKE’s disposal bins or waited for our sanitation workers to collect it from their homes. Especially heartening was this survey finding: though everyone had been receiving CAKE’s services for free, 75.4% of participants declared that they would be willing to pay a small monthly fee (which could be adjusted according to each household’s income level) to continue the program.

Despite its initial success, CAKE had to be shut down because of lack of support from the Kandal provincial government. In the years since the end of CAKE, the environmental condition of our neighbourhood has deteriorated severely. As we ride our bicycles or the tuk tuk to school every day, we pass by endless litter and, on a particular stretch of road, large amounts of household heaped and waiting for open-air incineration, all the while oozing toxins into the soil and emanating a dreadful stench.

Tony and the staff are keen to restart CAKE, perhaps under a different name and with a different operational setup, but we cannot do it alone. Little Hearts is currently struggling financially, so it lacks the funds and the manpower to undertake a comprehensive waste management project; cooperation with local government and a waste disposal company are necessary, as well as ample funding, of course. To this end, Tony has had preliminary meetings with two local companies, SOMA and SEVEA, who are well-established Little Hearts supporters, in order to gauge their interest in tackling the ongoing waste problem in our little corner of Cambodia, but more discussions need to take place in order to kick-start a viable solution. If you or anyone you know might be of help in this endeavour, or if you want to be involved in such a project (financially or operationally), please get in touch with Tony (tony@lho.ngo).

In the meantime, we do what we can through small projects like the recent roadside cleanup. The most important thing, as always, is to train our youngsters to care for the earth and to always work towards a hygienic, safe and pristine environment.


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