Private enterprise Tontoton officially launched its campaign for a plastic-free coastline in Cambodia, via “plastic credits” at a media event and press conference held on February 17th in the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
The event was attended by both domestic and international media, with speakers including Dr Moeko Salto Jensen, of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), His Excellency Kith Chankrisna, Advisor to the Minister of the Environment (MOE), as well as representatives from both the public and private sectors.
Who are Tontoton?
Tontoton was established by Israeli national and CEO Barak Ekshtein to be a “solution provider, creating daily impacts and changing the reality of plastic pollution through plastic credits”.
Plastic credits are designed similarly to carbon credits in that a company can ‘offset’ their plastic footprint by purchasing them from regulated companies such as Tontoton, which work on not only recycling where possible but most importantly dealing with non-recyclable and valueless plastic waste.
The company initially began operations in Vietnam, where they worked within the informal trash-collecting community, before moving to Cambodia in 2021, specifically 3 villages in Sihanoukville. The eventual plan is to have facilities across the coastline of Cambodia, as well as in other areas that suffer from plastic-based water pollution, such as the Mekong.
A ‘business for purpose‘
In a sector usually dominated by NGOs, charities, or government agencies, Tontoton describes themselves as a “business for purpose” and a “for-profit, with our product being environmental commodities”.
The company currently works by going into coastline villages that are not connected to the refuse collection infrastructure of the city and paying people to collect both recyclable and non-recyclable waste from the sea.
On a visit to a floating village next to Sihanoukville Port called Oh Vietnam, we were shown the Tontoton project in operation, as well as getting to see two waste collectors for the company in action.
Speaking to Cambodia Investment Review Srey Mum, one of the employees for Tontoton and a resident of Oh Vietnam told us “When they said they would pay us to take trash from the water we were skeptical, but we registered fully with our ID’s and get paid for what we collect. This has really helped me support my family during Covid-19”.
Refuse collectors can then separate cans and bottles, which have a recyclable and financial value from what is termed “valueless plastic”. For this collectors receive KHR 300 (7.5 cents) per kilogram from something that previously held no financial incentive to collect.
Before the program excess refuse had caused great problems within the village with workers and villagers, Bopha told us “Previously the trash would get so high it would come into peoples houses, or they would just push it underneath until it became unbearable. People still throw the trash into the sea, but it is getting better”.
The extremely visible plastic waste of the village was in stark contrast to the beautiful surrounding beaches of the area, with the refuse being a mixture of that thrown from the village itself, as well as outside waste washing up on their shores.
This the company acknowledged was to an extent a vicious circle, with a spokesperson stating: “As part of the program we have also put trash containers with our logo in the villages, as well as working independently and with NGO’s on educating people about not throwing refuse into the sea. Although we have not been working here that long, we have already seen a change in people’s behavior”.
Monetizing valueless plastic in Cambodia
One of the core elements of the event and indeed the focus of the company is dealing with the aforementioned “valueless plastic”. While bottles and the like cannot only be recycled but also provide a financial incentive to do so, common everyday packaging and waste plastic as of now do not.
To fix this the company collects the refuse from where it is transferred to a processing center employing 50 people, before being sent to Kampot. From here the company works with ChipMong Ecocycle, who burn the refuse into ash that can then be used in cement, offering an environmentally alternative to coal-based ash.
Yet although plastic offers a green and apparently more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels for cement, it was not at a stage to be monetized, yet anyway with Sajith Edirsuriya of ChipMong Ecocycle, when answering a direct question from Cambodia Investment Review stating “We do this for environmental rather than economic reasons, with it not yet being of a scale where it could be monetized”.
Following on from the question Chris Parker, Director of Plastic at US-based Climeco LLC, a company that specializes in advising and monitoring the plastic credits industry adding “In the future as processing improves and companies are incentivized to reduce their plastic footprint, we feel using waste plastic for cement is something that could one day become profitable in itself”.
During the presentation, His Excellency Kith Chankrisna Advisor to the Minister of the Environment praised the work of Tontoton, as well as highlighting the need for the private sector and the community as a whole to be part of creating environmental sustainability stated “This is an area where people look to government too much, but in fact, we are all in this together, we need everyone to be part of the solution and private enterprises are key to this”.
What is the monetary value of Plastic Credits?
One of the key points brought up was what economic value companies from SME’s to big businesses could get from participating in such programs, with plastic credits obviously not offering a direct financial “reward”.
This though was something Chris Parker of Climeco said would help both small and large companies as consumer views change stating, “Customers increasingly care about corporate responsibility and they want to see action, with a reduction in plastic waste is just as important as reducing carbon footprints.
This is something we have increasingly seen in the west and at Climeco we work with companies, such as Tontoton to be matchmakers between those doing the work on the ground and businesses wishing to improve their environmental footprint”.
He added, this is something that is not only visibly working on the coastline of Sihanoukville, but also for Tontoton as an expanding private, profit-based enterprise with Mae Catibog.
The head of Sustainability Compliance for the company also told us, “We do not rely all upon donations and are a private company registered in both Vietnam and Cambodia. We draw our revenue almost exclusively from the plastic credits that we sell”.
So, while Cambodia is on the journey to becoming middle-income by 2030, its consumers to are expected to care much more about climate change and environmental sustainability, thus opening more doors for private enterprises, such as Tontoton looking to be part of the solution to what is a global problem.