No Cash, Just Trash: the Siem Reap Teacher Exchanging English Classes for Plastic Waste

The photo shows Sang Kimleng and his students, who pay 1.5 kilograms of plastic waste each month for tuition. Photo supplied by Sang Kimleng
  • Phat Dane and Torn Chanritheara
  • October 14, 2020 7:43 AM

Inspired by the volume of plastic waste mounting in Siem Reap City, Sang Kimleng is running English classes for underprivileged students who pay 1.5 kilograms of plastic waste each month for tuition.

PHNOM PENH--While plastic waste has long been a problem for Cambodia, the education system—although steadily developing over the years—has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one man is attempting to take on both issues in Siem Reap Province.

Sang Kimleng is a photographer by trade, known for his work at Angkor Wat, but in the wake of the pandemic he has temporarily put down his camera and now runs an innovative education program in Siem Reap City’s Teuk Vil Commune.

With both the growing volume of plastic waste and the limited access to education posing a threat to Siem Reap’s development, Kimleng opened up an English school for children, but instead of paying for tuition with cash, they’re paying with trash.

For just 1.5 kilograms of plastic waste, Siem Reap’s children can get a month of tuition with Kimleng. Evidently, his tactics has worked, as he has been teaching more than 40 children from three villages in Teuk Vil Commune for the past seven months already.

Students are seen watching cartoon during an English class. Photo supplied.
Students are seen watching cartoon during an English class. Photo supplied. 

Speaking in a recent interview, he said the class is divided into two shifts: one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. The most important thing is, Kimleng said, he doesn’t accept normal payments, instead requesting his students pay with plastic waste every month. 

“For tuition [fees], we don’t take money,” said Kimleng.

“We let them pick up a plastic bag for each person 1.5 kilograms and sometimes we lead them to collect the trash,” he said, adding that those who are not able to pay in plastic trash are required to take part in a campaign to collect trash around their village once a week.

Running classes five days a week from Monday to Friday, Kimleng often takes his students out to collect more trash on the weekend for an hour or so.

Kimleng said that by exchanging plastic waste for English, he is helping the students to develop skills for the future, but also teaching them a valuable lesson about the environment and recycling.

Some parents have expressed concerns over the unsanitary conditions that children might face while collecting plastic waste, but Kimleng said that not all parents are aware of the impact that their plastic consumption has on the environment—since his classes began though, he has found some parents are actively trying to reduce the volume of plastic waste they create.

Another issue Kimleng faces is the management of waste. He said he’s still trying to explore new ways to recycle, but added that some waste is dumped straight into the landfill and he can’t do much about that.

Likewise, his career as a photographer has not necessarily prepared him for work as a teacher and he has taken on a newfound appreciation of the challenges that educators face daily.

“In general, teaching is difficult because the children do not pay much attention, even when we try to tell them to study hard because it’s their future,” he stressed.  

Despite spending more than half a year teaching English, Kimleng still intends to return to photography, but added that this may not be for some time.  

“When the tourists come back, I’ll be back to work, but I may find someone else to take over the teaching,” he mused. “We might find people to help teach or just hire teachers to teach the kids, as I will be busy every day, but when I have free time, I’ll help teaching them.”

Kimleng added that already, he has some foreigners helping to teach the students on a voluntary basis and his role has already changed to facilitating the classes and supervising.

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