Despite the science, it seems there is any number of world ‘leaders’ who simply don’t care about climate change, don’t understand it, or both. While waiting for genuine leadership on climate change, teachers like me and other individuals can choose to sit on their hands or proactively seek out opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint. I’ve made a conscious decision not to sit on my hands and I’d encourage colleagues who hold English teaching jobs in Phnom Penh and in other parts of Cambodia to take tangible action – starting immediately – to reduce carbon emissions.

The reality is that English teaching jobs in Phnom Penh and greater Cambodia afford an array of opportunities to reduce carbon emissions. At this point in time, I am focused on reducing my usage of plastic and paper. When I’ve managed to put these bad habits to rest, I’ll identify other areas where I can reduce my carbon footprint through my work as a teacher.

Let’s have a look at environmental issues pertaining to plastic and paper from the perspective of a foreign teacher in Phnom Penh.  

Reduce your use of plastic

It only takes a day or two in Phnom Penh to realise that local people have a love affair with plastic. Visit any Khmer shop and there’s a distinct possibility that you’ll exit with more plastic bags than the number of items you’ve purchased. Newspaper reports suggest that Phnom Penh generates 600 tons of plastic waste daily including the infamous plastic bag and PET bottles (and containers). “What is a PET bottle I hear you ask?” It’s a bottle made of polyethylene terephthalate, which is a form of plastic. If you buy water or a sports drink at a local store or a supermarket, almost certainly the bottle will be made of polyethylene terephthalate. The United Nations estimates that 91% of Cambodia’s plastic waste ends up in landfill, waterways and other places where it’s not meant to be. Anything that’s collected for recycling is shipped overseas with local people receiving a pittance.

These days, I take my own ‘fabric’ shopping bag when I go to a store in Phnom Penh. It’s true that I get strange looks when I knock back plastic bags, but that’s ok. I live in hope that one day I will see another person asking the cashier in a store to place his (or her) purchases in a shopping bag like the one I carry around. I might be naive, but I do believe it will happen.

Foreign English teachers love PET bottles, almost as much as Cambodians love plastic bags. If it happens that you’re a foreign teacher in Phnom Penh, there’s a high chance that the last time you took a class there was a PET bottle containing water in your ‘Teacher’s Bag’. Those of us engaged in English teaching jobs in Phnom Penh know about the importance of drinking plenty of water when working in a stifling Khmer classroom, but as educated people we should also know that PET bottles are bad news for climate change and potentially bad news for our immediate health. Who handled that PET bottle before you? Did that person wash their hands before handling the bottle that you’re now drinking from?

I’m living proof that ditching PET bottles is achievable without pain or withdrawal symptoms. Buy a reusable water bottle, take it with you wherever you go and top it up when the opportunity presents itself. Something as simple as a reusable water bottle will: 1. reduce your carbon footprint; 2. save money because you’re not buying drinks; and 3. reduce the likelihood that you’ll pick up a ‘lurgy’ of some kind due to the poor hygiene practices of a shop assistant.

Save paper

Everyone loves tress, but we keep chopping them down to produce paper and other products. Chopping down trees is detrimental to the environment on a number of fronts. Trees store toxic carbon. This is good news.  When a tree is chopped down, the toxic carbon that was stored is released back into the atmosphere. This is bad news. On top of this environmental merry-go-round where carbon is stored and then released again, deforestation typically includes a burning process and more toxic gas finds its way into the atmosphere. This is also bad news. Adding insult to injury, land that was previously a forest is often used for agricultural pursuits, which account for 20% (+/-) of carbon emissions worldwide. This is horrible news.

No matter how you look at it, chopping down trees for paper and commodities beckons an environmental catastrophe. Through my work as a teacher, I’m doing my bit to turn things around.

I can honestly say that none of my peers working in English teaching jobs in Phnom Penh have a ‘moonlight’ gig chopping down trees. I can also honestly say they’re all ‘big-time’ consumers of an end product of chopping down trees – paper. Teachers have used copious amounts of paper from time immemorial, especially English teachers for some unknown reason. Single use flashcards made on the fly, back up tasks printed in huge quantities, a box of tissues on the teacher’s desk, newspapers, magazines and circulars that are read and discarded or just discarded, paper planes in the staff room (it does happen), memorandum after memorandum, paper hats at staff birthday parties and the list goes on and on.

Changing the mind-set when it comes to paper usage in English teaching jobs in Phnom Penh won’t happen overnight, but as they say, every journey starts with a single step. I’ve taken that first step and I’d like to see others who hold English teaching jobs in Phnom Penh doing their bit. Here are some really easy things that I’m doing right now and you can also do starting from today:

  • Only buy recycled paper
  • Use both sides of the page
  • Say no to paper (and plastic) straws
  • Unsubscribe to junk mail
  • Communicate by email
  • Avoid printing emails
  • Be creative when wrapping gifts
  • Use a ‘bum gun’ rather than toilet paper
  • Use a handkerchief rather than tissues

Science tells us that climate change is real and that we need to take action now to have any hope of turning things around. Those of us who hold English teaching jobs in Cambodia – and elsewhere – are well-placed to take immediate action in a whole range of areas directed at reducing our carbon footprint. Right now, I’m focused on plastic and paper. I’m making subtle changes in my consumption habits including saying no to plastic bags, taking a reusable water bottle with me when I’m out and about and using a handkerchief rather than tissues.

What are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?

About the writer: Peter Goudge is the Managing Director (and owner) of AVSE-TESOL in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). If you’d like to know more about how to reduce your carbon footprint, or AVSE-TESOL, feel free to email Peter directly: