Volume 2 No.8

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Overheard





Thirteen Green Bottles
By: Jon Bugge.Picture by : Bobby Viceral ( August, 2002 Volume 2 No.8 )

During the communist rule of the eighties, against a backdrop of turmoil and conflict, ten people came together to start anew. Their common goal was the establishment of a glass factory. More specifically, they set up a recycled glass factory. Whilst recycling has been a trendy buzzword in the west, the process is, more often than not, carried out here without any second thought. Across the country there are numerous examples of recycling and reusing. In Phnom Penh, the only place that actually completely recycles the glass, is a small factory in Toul Kork district. The cause of the collaboration was simply economic. In 1984, when the factory began production, the market was too small and underdeveloped to allow a single investor to succeed. The result was that ten people came together to create this industry. The economy in Cambodia at the time was very stagnant and the lack of bottles and glassware prompted them to corner this niche in the market. Since that time they have been at the same site. Whilst nearly ten years have passed, Chea Bun, the Accountant for Toul Kork Glass, recalls the first days and the problems endured: "It was difficult because of the times we lived in. Business was slow and starting the factory was tough."
In Khmer tradition they slowly moved ahead step by step. In the West, the socially conscious had recycled glass atop their dining tables and the fad was for all things eco-friendly, while Chea Bun and his colleagues struggled to make a living from the industry.

He seems almost nostalgic when he reminisces about the beginning: "It seems like a long time ago now. I cannot remember how much we used to make, but we would only work in the day, not at night, so it cannot have been that many." Whilst his memory may have failed him, the skills of his factory are still alive and in ample evidence around the site. Eight-foot high walls, made of the characteristic green or brown glass bottles, with the signature trademark bubbles, cover great lengths within the compound. This is the stock from the last production cycle. "We will work for twenty days, then we take two months off.," explains Chea. The shelves are stacked high with packaged glasses and jars, waiting for customers to take them off their hands. Since last year they still have the stock of glasses, which remained unsold. They no longer make glasses and stick only to making bottles. Nowadays the furnace is cold, although they are still open. They have a backlog of glass and have to wait for the stock to sell before they can fire the furnaces again. Centre stage in the factory stands the furnace. It is a strange looking contraption: with a shield of pieces of brown, rusted corrugated iron leaning against the body of the great oven.
Even when not fired it seems to radiate heat. The image of a furnace, with seven industrial fans around it, is enough to make one break into sweat. The heat in times of production must be close to intolerable. Inside the furnace the temperature reaches at least 800 degrees centigrade. Sometimes the mercury is pushed even higher. "We only have one furnace, but we have five machines that the glass is fed into after the furnace." Chea points out. When at full capacity, Chea estimated, that during the twenty-day production cycle, they would use approximately fifty tons of used glass.

This is collected from around the country, although he admits most of it comes from Phnom Penh. The factory buys it from the recycling middlemen, who do the actual collecting. It is then sorted and crushed for firing in the furnace. Beneath the furnace itself, comes forth a stream of glass. When cooled and hardened it is processed, this was in evidence from the last production run. A bright green cascade of liquid formations in solid glass emerges from the center of the factory. A woman is hunched over and slowly chips off the edge of the glass river. Again and again, she fills the basket with the jagged shapes of rich green glass, empties it and begins again. The history of the place is recalled in the extraordinary amount of paraphernalia around the factory. Strange looking twisted metal components and bizarre rusted artifacts fill the area around the furnace. While wizened and aged mechanics tinker and tend to the needs of the machines, strange objects are visible through the gloom. Their purpose unknown, their origin unclear, simply amassed through the years. The process involves cleaning and melting the glass. After an initial melt black oil is added to act as the gelling agent. It is poured into molds and once again baked in the furnace. What emerges is the finished is the finished product. After cooling and cleaning it is ready to be boxed, and hopefully sold.
The factory is essentially subsistence; they must sell the last production output, to pay for the glass and fuel to make more. It is a cycle that is difficult to break. The 55 year old, Chinese Khmer, knows this all too well: "It is difficult to sell at the moment and if I could stop I would like to stop." Like the bubbles, which make his glass so appealing, Chea too, is trapped. A female worker chips off pieces of the solidified river of glass. The air of disparity is not helped by the constant sound of smashing glass. The grinding, crushing, sorting, collecting, chipping, processing and packaging, all produce a deafening din. It seems to be a sound that you become accustomed to: it seems not to faze the staff. Chea explains: "When we are during a production cycle we employ 48 people." As this was not the cycle of production around a handful of people were working on the site. The finished product is sold through, yet more, middlemen, who call in their orders over the phone. This network proves to be slow in the clearance of the products and all to often payment is delayed: "The difficulty is that we must wait for them to sell the glass and then we can get our money, but that depends on the market," laments Chea.

In theory their number one product is Soya sauce bottles. These are some of the most commonly used glass objects in the country. Technically they should have the market sewn up. Reality is more unfavourable and economic conditions and circumstances dictate their fate. In recent years there has been an influx of Soya sauce bottles from Vietnam, they are allowed to simply re use old bottles. This is, as opposed to having to recycle them, naturally cuts the costs involved. This is slowly choking the business out of the factory. On the market a recycled Soya sauce bottle, from the Toul Kork Glass factory, will cost 220 riel. However, a Vietnamese second hand Soya sauce bottle (with one careful owner) will retail for 180 riel. This thirty odd riel is enough to mean that Vietnam now controls the market share of this industry: a poignant microcosm of Cambodia attempting to compete economically with her regional neighbours. Chea is seemingly stoical about the problems, but allows a glimpse at his feelings when asked what he saw as the future of recycled glass in the kingdom. He simply puts it: "I have no hope for the future." No doubt the factory will struggle on, there are those involved who have dedicated a great part of their lives to this industry and are unlikely to let it slip away from them, without some resistance. It is an example of a contemporary craft using sustainable materials. The factory does make sales on site: Street 337, house number 13.