How can a city full of plastic waste help at-risk Cambodian women break the cycle of poverty? Just ask Rehash Trash, an Intrepid Foundation-supported social enterprise that’s tackling multiple problems at the same time.
While most nine-year-olds were tucked up in bed, Yoeun Sophy was carrying her baby nephew along Siem Reap’s always-heaving Pub Street in a bid to make money for her family. “Some restaurants, when they saw us begging, they’d say, ‘Go away, go away,’” says Sophy, who’s now 24. “I felt like people did not see me as a normal person, they just saw me as a beggar. They were thinking we would steal something.”
From an early age, wandering the streets of Cambodia’s biggest tourist hub in the shadow of Angkor’s temples was a part of everyday life to Sophy. Her mother was ill and unable to support her three children, which meant the task of begging for scraps of change from tourists often fell on Sophy’s shoulders.
She would work four to five-hour shifts in the afternoon, before taking a break and heading out again until 3am. Despite the early hours being the most exhausting and dangerous time for a small child, they were the most lucrative—drunken tourists had a tendency be more generous with their cash. “At night time, it’s easy to go begging because, some customers, when they drink they give more,” Sophy explains.
But, thanks to an innovative social enterprise based in Siem Reap, Sophy’s life has changed beyond recognition. Through discarded plastic bags collected from around town, the organization provides gainful employment to disadvantaged women. Their job? Turning roadside rubbish into recycled homeware, baskets and bags.
The brainchild of Green Gecko Project, an NGO working with former street children and their families, Rehash Trash aims to create jobs for the mothers of those children. Many of these women were trapped in the cycle of poverty; begging, living and working on the streets of Siem Reap. And Sophy, whose life could have turned out so differently, now works as a management assistant at the social enterprise.
Kate Allen, social enterprise manager at Rehash Trash, says the project has two missions: Female empowerment and environmental care. “The idea was to create jobs for the mums,” she explains. “We needed something that was readily available or free in terms of materials, so it wasn’t a difficult leap to plastic, because obviously there’s so much of it strewn across the place.”
Donations have even helped one woman, Chhorm Rany, begin attending business courses, which helped her move into a management role at Rehash Trash.
Each morning, a small group of collectors take to the streets, fields and rivers in and around Siem Reap and bring the plastic back to the headquarters. It’s not uncommon for them to collect a whopping 500 bags a day. The women then set about washing the plastic bags before a team of crocheters start crafting everything from baskets and table mats, to bowls and phone cases.
Perched on the side of a leafy road on the outskirts of town, Rehash Trash is a vibrant place. As the women busy themselves with crocheting and washing the latest haul of trash from the streets, laughter and the hum of friendly chatter are common. It’s a far cry from the life that 53-year-old Lim Pov was living until around 2005.
Pov had upped sticks from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh after hearing that the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk would be handing out money to victims of landmines. Her husband had lost a limb during his days fighting for the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge ultra-communists.
However, she didn’t arrive in time and she couldn’t afford to return to the capital with their eight children. Stuck in a new city with no money, Pov eked out a meagre living by selling noodles on the street—but this wasn’t enough to provide for her large family, and the children would often end up begging on the streets with her husband.
Pov now spends her days crafting goods with her colleagues and friends at Rehash Trash and says working as part of a team is something she relishes. She’s also well-versed in the threat that plastic poses to the local and wider community. “I knew about the environment before, but now I know a lot more,” she says. “It’s very important. If we throw plastic into the water, the fish can eat it and die. It also affects the people living around the river.”
Speak to any of the women at Rehash Trash for just a few minutes, and the positive outcomes of the project become abundantly clear. “The salary means I can support my family with rent and rice,” says Seng Sovann, now 51.
All of the women say they ensure they avoid single-use plastic wherever possible in their everyday lives. They bring their food and drink to work in reusable containers, meaning that Rehash Trash is a plastic-free zone apart from the bags they recycle.
In partnership with The Intrepid Foundation, Rehash Trash will soon begin running workshops for tourists as part of their itineraries with Intrepid Travel. During the visits, travelers will be able to see the team at work and even try their hand at crocheting themselves. In fact, donations from travelers to The Intrepid Foundation have directly helped many of these women take the first steps on the road to rebuilding their lives. Donations have even helped one woman, Chhorm Rany, begin attending business courses to give her the opportunity to move into a management role at Rehash Trash.
Looking to the future, Allen says Rehash Trash is looking to expand its work, and that word is already spreading in Siem Reap. There’s been a noticeable uptick in the number of locals dropping off used plastic to the center, and there are collection points sprouting up around town. For Cambodia’s number one tourist spot, this is a big step in addressing some of the less positive issues caused by tourism.
The next step is to work with rural communities to have them clean up plastic and then sell it to Rehash Trash. There are also hopes to expand the team beyond the 16 women already working full-time.
Speak to any of the women at Rehash Trash for just a few minutes, and the positive outcomes of the project become abundantly clear. Seng Sovann, now 51, was begging on the streets of Siem Reap with her family not so long ago and says the enterprise has completely flipped her life on its head. “The salary means I can support my family with rent and rice,” she says.
As well as being provided with a whole new world of opportunities, the staff here have also gained an appreciation for sustainability; keeping their city clean, and reducing their impact. You’re unlikely to find too many win-win situations more profound than that.
Visit The Intrepid Foundation to donate to Rehash Trash and help transform the lives of at-risk women in Cambodia.
George Wright is a British freelance reporter covering Southeast Asia from Phnom Penh. He has covered politics, human rights and migration among other topics in the region since 2013 for the likes of BBC News, Al Jazeera and VICE.