Two brick kilns sit on opposite sides of a road cutting through Khsach Kandal district’s Knong village. The first one is shuttered and the other is active with workers busy feeding firewood into the kiln.
Alongside the piles of wood are huge bales of multicolored fabric scraps. A long chimney shoots out from the roof of the kiln, and has elicited the ire of some villagers who say it releases noxious smoke. They say the kiln uses fabric scraps, which on being burned releases toxic fumes into the air.
Pheng Kea, the kiln’s owner, does not shirk away from admitting his brick factory is using scraps of fabric to power their operations. But they are only using fabric waste for kindling the fires, he said.
“The fabric only starts a fire. It is impossible to burn all the fabric,” Kea said last week.
Kea said the kiln, which runs nonstop, is too big to be heated only with fabric scraps and that they have to use firewood. It was easier to start the fires with fabric scraps and then keep the kiln running with firewood.
“Totally, we use one truck of fabric for every two or three trucks of wood,” Kea said.
A GIZ report from earlier this year had five factories reporting the burning of fabric scraps to heat boilers. In some cases, the scraps were sold to waste collectors, one of whom said 80 percent of the scraps ended up at brick kilns.
A senior adviser at GIZ estimated 15 percent of fabrics at garment factories became waste, which totaled around 165,000 tons a year, most of which was burned or ended up in landfills.
Residents of Knong had mixed reactions to the kiln’s operations — while some were not happy with the noxious fumes they say are emanating from the kiln, others aren’t too bothered by the brick-making operations in the area.
Toy Sopheal, 46, lives around 200 meters from the two brick factories in the village. She has seen trucks delivering garment scraps to the kilns but had never noticed any toxic fumes from the factories.
“No one in the village is impacted by the brick factories. I didn’t know that if they burn fabric waste it can impact others and the environment,” she said.
Sorn Toy, 65, had never noticed any noxious smells from the factories and was also curious about the potential impacts of burning scraps.
“What impact to the environment does burning fabric waste have? I’m living here; I don’t smell anything from the burning at the brick kiln,” Toy said.
However, Try Cheangkreang is not one bit happy with the smoke emanating from the kiln. There was smoke that smelled like burning plastic coming from the factory daily, he said, and claimed it was affecting the crops in the fields near the kiln.
Cheangkreang moved there a few years ago and was seeing two to three trucks delivering fabric waste and firewood a day and was surprised there were no health guidelines governing this kind of burning and its potential impact on people.
“Smoke [inhalation] can affect a pregnant woman and have long-term health issues if this continues every day,” he said.
He had complained to the local police and district officials about the smoke and was disheartened by their indifference.
“The villagers also used to complain about it but it didn’t work,” Cheangkreang said.
On November 6, Cheangkreang took his grievance to the Environment Ministry’s Facebook page. He commented on a post linking to a song composed for the COP26 Climate Conference, complaining about the kiln and the toxic fumes.
Brick factory owner Kea said he has permission from local authorities and the environment department, but local officials refuted this claim.
Srern Rotha, deputy chief of Ksach Kandal’s agriculture department, said the kiln owner had asked to use fabric waste only during the monsoons but was not granted permission.
“We did not agree on that. They had asked to [use fabric waste] to start the fire,” he said.
Rotha said that kiln owner Kea had signed an agreement to not use fabric waste after officials found him flouting the rules.
He said the use of fabric scraps was not allowed because it can affect people’s health and the environment and that factory owners were using it to fuel fires but in small amounts.
“It had been happening before but only a small amount of fabric was being burned,” Rotha said.
Kea said that despite signing the agreement, local level officials, including the agriculture and environment department, had allowed him to burn fabric waste.
Sern Rotha, a district environment department officer, said there were 13 factories in the commune, but he wasn’t aware of exactly how many were using fabric scraps to power their kilns. He knew that some were using it only as kindling.
“I want to clarify. It’s like when we cook rice, we make a fire. The brick [making] is also like this too,” Rotha said.