Homestay house in Wat Village, Cambodia

That one time in Cambodia: Upcycling plastic with Engineers Without Borders

By Adele Faraone

This summer I had the fortunate opportunity to be part of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Design Summit in Cambodia, which focuses on humanitarian engineering and human centred design. It wasn’t the typical “voluntarism” type of trip, like most NGOs have; rather, this trip is probably better classified as a study tour, with an active volunteer approach as well.

First stop: Phnom Penh

Over the first couple of days, we had a lot of cultural awareness workshops to prepare us for community lists but also to give us an understanding of where Cambodia is at now and how they are recovering from the Khmer Rouge – a period of tumultuous political rule between 1975 and 1979. It is fairly evident that Cambodia is a country who has struggled, and is continuing to face challenges, but is also slowly recovering.

Next up: Harvesting peanuts in Wat Village

Following Phnom Penh we moved to Kratie Provence where EWB’s partnering NGO, the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), briefed us further about the communities we would be involved with – mine being Wat Village in Koh Chreng. Koh Chreng is a little island just south of Kratie Provence, and our village was at the southernmost point.

The village itself was amazing. The community lives solely off solar power, with each house having a car battery that is charged once per week and is used to power all lights, charge phones, and can even power a small television (if houses have a television) for a short amount of time. Most villagers are farmers – farming corn, peanuts, tobacco, cucumber, bananas and rice to name a few. A highlight of the trip was the chance to help farm some peanuts as it was the time of year for them to be harvested.

Cornfields and harvesting peanuts

(L) Early morning visit to the peanut farms had us walking through cornfields; (R) Harvesting peanuts with the locals

A valuable lesson: the importance of communication

One of the skills the study tour helped me to develop was my communication, as this was essential in being able to work with the community. As we were living in a little village that spoke little to no English, we were reliant on using translators. I don’t think anyone in our group had learned how to do this before, and it’s far trickier than I first thought; there’s a lot of cultural sensitivity and nuances that you need to be aware of. 

Through using translators from CRDT, we were able to talk to the community and get involved to figure out the main issues facing the community and the things they would like to change to make their lives easier. It was fairly evident that there were two main areas of interest, one being agriculture and the other waste management.

Tackling plastics disposal through education

My team decided to look at waste management, particularly disposal and management of plastic waste. Every house that we looked at had a pile of rubbish (plastic bags, bottles, even batteries) which would be burnt every couple of days. The villagers knew that it was harmful to burn plastic, but didn’t have any other way to dispose of it. 

Our team worked together to come up with the idea of implementing a waste management and upcycling education program aimed at school children, with the hope that the children can then take that information home. The idea was presented to the village chief, EWB and CRDT, so that the village can further develop and modify our idea to so it best suits their needs, rather than us simply enforcing it.

This trip has certainly been an experience of a lifetime and I have thoroughly enjoyed being able to push my own boundaries and be involved with such a beautiful and friendly community.

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