July 26, 2022
PHNOM PENH – If your heart is set on something dear to you, then you’ll always find a way to make it work. Giant strides forward usually start out as baby steps and most good ideas start with one person taking it seriously and then finding others who have been waiting for something like it to come along without even knowing it.
The Facebook group Phnom Penh Minimalist and Freecycle has been around for about two years now. It was founded by long-time Cambodia resident Irina Chakraborty and has now gathered more than 5,000 members – both locals and expats – who are interested in making a small contribution to the sustainability of Cambodia’s environment by reducing consumption through giving things away, reusing old things and recycling what nobody else wants.
Chakraborty relocated to Cambodia to take a break after finishing her PhD dissertation. She came to visit an old friend here and to look after her friend’s dog for a few months while she was away and by the end of 2011 she’d decided to move here herself.
She said her inspiration to create the group was environmentalism and minimalism as its core philosophical principles.
“My background is in environmental engineering and I had previously worked in sanitation and wastewater treatment. In many cultures, there is a stigma around ‘used’ items, which worsens the consumption crisis that we are currently in. But I have always loved vintage clothes, repurposing, recycling and actually my impression is that generally people in Phnom Penh value quality used products more than they do cheap new ones.
“I wanted to create a group like this many years earlier, but I saw that there was a ‘freecycle’ group already that wasn’t active. I tried to message the admins to see if they needed help with moderation and so forth, but I didn’t hear back from them. Eventually it just seemed like the right time to make my own group since there’s wasn’t accomplishing much,” she said.
Chakraborty, 41, who has Finnish citizenship but ancestry spanning several countries that she describes as “complicated”, says the goal is to reduce consumption of cheap new junk, promote reuse of consumer goods and to get people interested in sustainable living and the sharing of resources.
“The group makes it possible for people to more easily get rid of the things they don’t need and also request used items they are looking for,” she says.
So far, she says that the group seems to be working out very well for people who want to declutter or people who are moving. Some people post requests for items they might need as a first option before going to the store and buying it new.
People also post requests for broken items to salvage spare parts for other broken items like the glass part of a coffee press, a fan motor or a blender jug.
“If you look through the posts, you can see some complaints about ‘no-shows’ where people reserve an item but don’t come on time to pick it up, but I think that’s a minority of cases. You can also see people are being clearer about their expectations, like how long they will wait for someone to pick up an item and so on. I’ve also used the group to do some polls about environmentally-related topics such as food packaging,” she explains to The Post.
She says that some people just don’t understand the point of asking if anyone has a cheap or easily found item to give away and some comments are suggestions of where to buy the item instead of donation offers, which misses the point of the group entirely and sometimes she posts reminders about the purpose of the group.
“Most people know where to buy an HDMI cable for $5, but why not ask in the group first if anyone has an extra one lying around? It is the most common items used in a household that will most often be available through the group, logically,” she says.
One complaint that comes up is that some people claim items too quickly – maybe to resell them – and that it is unfair to the other members.
“My suggestion for this is that the person donating can exercise their discretion as to who receives the item. On the other hand, if the goal is to declutter as fast as possible, then someone who can claim and pick up an item quickly may be serving exactly that goal,” she says.
Chakraborty says there are rules for the group and certain things are forbidden, like no for sale posts, no animal adoption posts and no complicated bartering because that doesn’t seem very efficient. Beyond that, she has guidelines about how to be respectful to each other when donating or requesting items.
That said, according to Chakraborty almost everyone seems to understand the purpose of the group and follows the rules, so problems with the minimalists have turned out to be minimal.
One member who joined the group recently, Niki Saunders, says she learned about it when her friend shared a post from her timeline to the group.
Saunders had posted to her timeline about an old man who had helped fix the tire on her bike and she found out that not only did he not have a place to live – just a tent pitched in a lot behind a house – but when she asked how she could send him a photo she took of him fixing her tire, she found out he also didn’t have access to Facebook or the internet because he only had an old Nokia phone.
Her post that was originally seen only by her Facebook friends was posted in the group. It asked if anyone wanted to gift an old smartphone to the man for being so helpful as he had never owned one.
“When my post was shared to the group, a lot more people saw it and I was able to find someone who wanted to donate their smartphone to the old man who repaired my bike. So the group improved the circumstances of someone who did not have access to what others in the group owned and did not need. It meant that someone who has never been able to afford a smartphone was able to have one for the very first time,” Saunder says.
The 36-year-old Saunders says she will recommend this group to more people, especially to her artist friends who may need interesting materials to create things with.
“I think it’s a great idea – I see lots of people offering things to others that would often get thrown away because they can’t be sold. It follows the old saying: ‘One person’s trash is another person’s treasure’. In the grander scheme of things, it reduces consumerism, which takes much-needed pressure off the environment,” adds Saunders, who works as a lecturer at CamEd business school and as an art therapist.
Another active group member, Jonny Hamill, has been working with the NGO Care for Cambodia for over 10 years now.
He joined the Phnom Penh Minimalist and Freecycle group a few years ago through a friend who mentioned it to him because the friend thought that he would find the group useful both personally and professionally.
Hamill used the group recently to post about collecting bottle tops for a plastic recycling project for his NGO.
“I received a lot of offers. My messenger inbox was red hot for weeks after I shared the post. I was amazed that the post was shared so many times and received so many likes and comments. And most of my messages were from Khmer people. This shows me that plastic waste and environmental issues are important to many people in Cambodia,” the 43-year-old British expat says.
His NGO Care for Cambodia started a recycling project which used plastic milk jugs to recycle into children’s whiteboards and also used plastic bottle tops to recycle into other items such as medals for athletic events.
Hamill says the group is really useful and one thing he learned is that there is a massive number of Cambodians who are interested in the environment these days, though the group is mostly English-speaking which somewhat restricts participation by Khmer people without any English skills, though Google Translate is always an option even if it’s a hit or miss one.
“There are many Cambodian people who are interested in reducing the waste we leave on the planet through reusing and recycling. We have to keep working on this because we only have one world and we need to take care of it. Everyone needs to do their part by reducing their use of plastics, but also by raising awareness with friends, family and neighbours. This isn’t a battle that we have lost yet, but we need to do much more to ensure that our planet is healthy for our children and grandchildren,” says Hamill.
Chakraborty says she’s excited to see more and more people joining the group every day and she hopes it will take off in the Khmer community and is willing to make the group officially bilingual with both Khmer and English at some point in the future if the need is there.
“I feel glad about being able to help the community and the environment! Let’s see if we can reach 10,000 members. If you’re not in the group yet, you’re very welcome to join. I hope it also becomes a place to launch environmental initiatives and have fruitful discussions that help us get away from mindless consumption,” she says.