TONOTON Turns Valueless Plastic Trash Into Cash

TONTOTON’s Plastic-Free Coastline program operates in villages that have no waste collection infrastructure, paying residents who take on the role of “informal pickers.” The aim is to clean up Cambodia's plastic-ridden coastlines and ocean. The program started with three Cambodian villages, with Mom’s village of Oh among them. mote attendees from around the world learned how Cambodia’s city of Sihanoukville, and communities beyond, are faring in their pollution fight in the face of rapid population and economic growth and, with that, more plastic and waste.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

March 16, 2022

6 Min Read
plastic3feat.png
Getty Images

Vietnamese Srey Mom was apprehensive when a company called TONOTON told her it would pay her 300 riels (7.5 cents) for every 2.2 pounds of plastic trash she brought them from the litter-inundated coastline edging her village.

But she thought she had nothing to lose if she collected and delivered a load, then waited to see if the proposition was for real. It was.

“Before TONTOTON team, we had a lot of problems. We have debts, no money to buy medicine. I am really happy because they helped me and my children live again," says Mom, whose children are able to go to school now; she pays tuition with her first-time earnings since losing her job during COVID.

Mom was one of several presenters at TONOTON’s Community Solution for Plastic-Free Coastline Launch, organized in partnership with Combatting Marine Plastic Litter, a project of Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment with support from the Embassy of Japan and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

TONTOTON’s Plastic-Free Coastline program operates in villages that have no waste collection infrastructure, paying residents who take on the role of “informal pickers.” The aim is to clean up Cambodia's plastic-ridden coastlines and ocean. The program started with three Cambodian villages, with Mom’s village of Oh among them.

She is among those involved in TONOTON’S initiative who presented at the program launch. Others were Moeko Saito-Jensen, Environmental Policy specialist, UNDP Cambodia; Prak Visal, public relations and International Cooperation, Provincial Government of Sihanoukville; H.E. Kith Chankrisna, adviser to the Minister, Ministry of Environment; Kristin Hughes, director, Global Plastic Action Partnership; Sensamras Piseth, UN-Habitat Cambodia; Chris Parker, director of Plastic, Climeco; and Sajith Edirisuriya, general manager, ChipMong Ecocycle.

Remote attendees from around the world learned how Cambodia’s city of Sihanoukville, and communities beyond, are faring in their pollution fight in the face of rapid population and economic growth and, with that, more plastic and waste. They listened to the story of a project funded by Japan to tackle marine litter.  And they heard a case for the importance of supporting innovation to clean up the region’s plastic waste and pollution

Barak Ekshtein, founder of TONOTON, opened, reporting that the company has started collection centers in poor waste management areas on islands and in coastal cities not only in Cambodia, but in Vietnam, with plans for expansion.

“Our goal is to have collection centers in each city impacted by plastic waste. We collect any plastic waste from bags to straws, Styrofoam, and shoes.”

“Orphan plastic” as he calls it is used as an alternative energy source to coal, reducing CO2 created by cement production by up to 25% while removing high volumes of trash from the environment.

By the end of 2021 TONOTON rescued 600 tons of waste plastic.

Ekshtein is looking for support to open five more collection centers in Cambodia and increase monthly collections and treatment capacity to 200 tons of ocean plastic.

“Opening new centers will enable us to reduce poverty, create more sustainable communities, and improve marine life, while helping companies take responsibility for their plastic footprint [companies purchase plastic credits to support the work and in turn offset’ their plastic footprint.] And they will be able to add significant impact to their brand, products, and corporate social responsibility strategy,” Ekshtein said.

UNDP Cambodia works with the Royal Government of Cambodia to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic wastes. Saito-Jensen of that organization offered this insight: "(For many reasons), the fight against plastic pollution is an urgent priority. Over 200,000 tons of municipal plastic waste is generated every year in Phnom Penh alone. Through Combatting Marine Plastic Litter Project, UNDP has supported the Royal Government of Cambodia since 2018 to promote the 4Rs framework (refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle) and has made significant progress.”

Yet, Saito-Jensen said, it’s also important to involve businesses and citizens.

“It is important for everybody to know what can be done to reduce reliance on daily use of plastic products, and how plastic can be recycled rather than burned or thrown into the canal, rivers, and ocean," she said.

For the last decade, the city of Sihanoukville has experienced fast economic and population growth along with other rapid change, especially in infrastructure needs.

“This has caused some challenges, including the remarkable increase in solid waste polluting public areas,” said Prak Visal, Provincial Government of Sihanoukville.

“The SHV government has been promoting and supporting environmental projects, and this one implemented by TONTOTON is aligned with Sihanoukville policies, and we hope that we could jointly achieve plastic-free coastlines," he said.

H.E. Kith Chankrisna of the Combatting Marine Plastic Litter Project explained how the government, lined ministry, and subnational administration have been collaborating.

“Together we are organizing law, policies, and strategies to manage plastic waste. But we also need participation from development organizations, private sector, and especially from the people. Working with different partners can speed up our achievements … We need to join to address the issue of plastic waste.  We need to change the behavior from now. In collaborating with TONTOTON, we can mainstream the plastic issue and involve everyone."

Sensamras Piseth of UN-Habitat reported research findings on community solid waste management, with some takeaways being that about 1.1 to 1.5 pounds of plastic waste is generated per person in the city of Sihanoukville. Of that, 90% is collected and 10% is landfilled. But of the collected fraction, up to 30% is plastic and ultimately ends up in waterways.

“There is a high rate of plastic waste leakage while we have a shortage in collection capacity. The communities play a crucial role. As they are part of the problem, they need to contribute to clean-up their environment. For them to do so, we need to empower them," she said, pointing to plastic credits as one means to pull them in.

Parker of Climeco, an environmental commodity trader in the U.S., also touted the potential power of plastic credits, referring to them as a new financial mechanism to help drive private sector capital to projects doing “works on the ground.”

“It provides companies transparency and accountability, with the goals of removing plastic from the environment, contributing to ecosystem restoration, building new waste management structures, and providing next-life solutions, whether co-processing, recycling, or repurposing," he said.

ChipMong Ecosystem has an ambition of moving from fossil fuel to clean, sustainable fuels and sees nonrecyclable plastics, typically of no value, as helping to fulfill its ambition.

Said ChipMong’s Edirisuriya: “They can be used in the cement kiln as alternative fuel. This kind of plastic waste is everywhere, with no collection structure, and if we go by our own to collect it, it's not financially feasible. So, it is important for us to work with projects like TONTOTON."

TONOTON has so far recruited about 50 community waste collectors, who it reports collectively recover 180 tons of orphan plastics. The environmental and social reform for-profit says its work is just beginning. Its ambition is to collect and treat up to 3,000 tons by the end of 2022.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.

You May Also Like