Sochenda Aok is an environmentalist and content creator. She runs the ZEROW, an initiative that raises awareness of people on zero waste lifestyle and climate change. She is also known as Cambodia’s Zero Waste Girl. Sochenda inspires people by showing them a zero-waste lifestyle and encourages them to learn more about it via her digital content on social media.
[Click here to listen to the interview]
[Below is the interview’s translation which is slightly edited for clarity.]
Sotheary: I know that you just came back from the provinces. How are you doing?
Sochenda: I am doing well. I am pretty busy. I went to a province the day before yesterday. I had a workshop yesterday. I will go to the provinces next week.
Sotheary: Can you tell me what Zero Waste is? When did you start ZEROW?
Sochenda: Zero waste is a lifestyle movement initiated in 2008 by Bea Johnson. I adopted that lifestyle. I created a platform called ZEROW.
Sotheary: When did you start your ZEROW?
Sochenda: I created it at the end of 2018.
Sotheary: Why did you create it?
Sochenda: I know a zero-waste lifestyle. I learned about it when I joined a debate club focusing on the environment. Then, I shared about zero waste in the club. I was very interested in that lifestyle. I questioned myself, are there any people living without garbage?
Before that, I was not interested in a zero-waste lifestyle. I didn’t care about how waste affected the environment. When I keep learning about a zero-waste lifestyle, I know more about the impacts of waste, plastic, and climate change. I also have learned about how deforestation impacts our lives. I became more interested in zero waste. I adopted a zero-waste lifestyle. I initiated the ZEROW platform to share content related to zero waste. I think each individual can start doing something when they want to contribute to reducing waste.
Sotheary: I grew up in a community with a limited understanding of managing their garbage. How about you? Have you grown up in a zero-waste environment or recently changed your attitude toward waste management?
Sochenda: I grew up in a community you described that motivated me to initiate ZEROW. I grew up in a society where people didn’t pay much attention to waste management. When I saw other people care about the environment, I started paying more attention to it. Then, I started raising awareness of the people around me.
I don’t want Cambodians to think that Cambodia has much garbage and no or less garbage in other countries. In other countries, they produce waste on a larger scale. Therefore, it is vital to discuss garbage management education for each individual.
Sotheary: Can you share your experience when you change your attitude to a zero-waste lifestyle? Is that challenging for you?
Sochenda: When I first changed my lifestyle, it was challenging. I moved to live in Hungry. I did my master’s degree there. I adopted a zero-waste lifestyle when I lived there. I’ve known about a zero-waste lifestyle since I was in Cambodia.
I had challenging and accommodating times when I first started. I was not used to the lifestyle. I wasn’t entirely aware of the lifestyle’s details. I get used to it when I keep repeating it. I always bring my grocery bag and water bottle with me when I go out. I always carry a small box if I want to buy something outside. It becomes more manageable when I get used to it.
I sometimes don’t know certain things about a zero-waste lifestyle. So I research to explore options that other people use. For example, I walked around the market to see if they sold things I needed to accommodate my lifestyle.
Sotheary: Have you ever thought about turning back to using plastic?
Sochenda: I have never thought about that. There are many ways of an eco-friendly lifestyle, not just only zero-waste. Some people go with less waste or vegan. Both are eco-friendly lifestyles. I used to think about changing from zero-waste to vegan. A vegan lifestyle is not zero-waste but can contribute to protecting the environment. Both lifestyles contribute to reducing waste in their ways. I used to think about changing my lifestyle but not quitting it entirely.
Sotheary: Have you experienced comments like ‘‘your lifestyle is different from others?’’
Sochenda: I have not heard people talking to me directly, but I am unsure if they have talked about it behind my back. My friends don’t make me feel pressured. I’m sometimes afraid that I pressure my friends when we hang out because they hesitate to order bottled water. I understand that adapting to a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t an easy job. I don’t want my friends to feel they need to follow me when we hang out. I don’t shame other people who choose a different lifestyle from mine. I’m concerned that my friends can feel uncomfortable around me.
Sotheary: What was your family’s impression when you first changed your lifestyle?
Sochenda: When I started, they questioned me, ‘‘how to live a life like that? Is it possible to do so?’’ It was so fortunate because people watched my content when I started ZEROW. My family also supports me when many people support my content.
Sotheary: What makes you happy the most when you run ZEROW?
Sochenda: I am happy when my audience starts to change their attitude after watching my videos. Some people commented that they have heard about the zero-waste lifestyle but don’t know that people are adapting to this lifestyle in Cambodia. Some people think it is difficult to adjust their lifestyle because we don’t have many options for eco-friendly products. After watching my videos, they have learned that replacing plastic with an eco-friendly product is possible.
Sotheary: Have you thought about stopping running ZEROW?
Sochenda: When I first started, I was still a graduate student. I did it without thinking about generating income through it. After I graduated, I worked on it full-time. I faced challenges in sustaining it. It is challenging for me. We have viewers on social media, but we don’t get paid for creating our content. Our contents are free. We work on the environment and education, so we can’t accept sponsorships that do not align with our values. When I started, I didn’t have a network and didn’t know how to generate income to sustain my project and support myself. Now, we have some projects to sustain ourselves these days. But it can’t help us in the long run. Sometimes, I thought about stopping doing it and finding a full-time job instead.
Sotheary: What motivates you to keep running this ZEROW?
Sochenda: I don’t want to work a 9/5 job. I want to work on my initiative. I want to have more flexibility in my work. I don’t enjoy going to work in the morning and returning home in the evening. I don’t mean I have more time or freedom when working on my initiative. Some friends told me they wanted to run a project like mine. I think I have more space when running ZEROW. But it doesn’t mean that I spend less time on it. The good thing about it is that I have more control over my time and activities.
Sotheary: Do you have a team to assist you, or do you run it by yourself?
Sochenda: I have a team. My husband is my team member. He teaches me video-taking and editing. He is the behind-the-scenes guy. He continues supporting me. We just recruited two interns recently. They will help us with ZEROW.
Sotheary: I have heard about the financial issue from other entrepreneurs. How do you address the problem? How has your family supported you?
Sochenda: When my family didn’t know my work in detail, they asked me frequently about it. They gave me suggestions to do this or that. But they don’t direct me to work in the company. They suggested I run a business because they run a business. They want to know more about my work because they don’t understand it. They don’t pressure me. They allow me to have my own space and thinking. I have problems, but I can manage them. I don’t bring issues to my family. For financial matters, my work requires me to know more people and build a network that helps me to get more projects. I can apply to get funds from other organizations. I want to run an eco-friendly business to sustain myself.
Sotheary: Have you experienced other challenges when running ZEROW?
Sochenda: Team building is another issue. COVID-19 affected my team building. I want to explore and get to know people before hiring them to work with me. Now COVID-19 situation is getting better. I go out to meet people. I am able to find interns to help me with ZEROW.
Sotheary: If someone asks you if they want to live a zero-waste lifestyle, what would you tell them?
Sochenda: If they just want to adapt to the lifestyle, they can start by reducing plastic consumption, especially single plastic usage. For instance, we can reduce the use of plastic bottles, forks, spoons, and cups. We usually don’t need a straw when drinking; it is easier to reduce plastic. We can reduce plastic bag usage by bringing an eco-friendly bag with us. After that, they can adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, which focuses on five Rs. Five Rs include refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. We follow the order of these five Rs. First, we say ‘‘no’’. Then, we reduce plastic usage. We reuse and recycle. The last stage is to rot it. We can start from that rule and follow it.
Sotheary: Do you have any tips for beginners?
Sochenda: We should have friends or a community encouraging each other to keep doing it. For instance, my friends encourage me to keep doing what I do. If we do it alone, we sometimes want to give up. But, if we are in a community where everyone adopts a zero-waste lifestyle, we have fun doing it together.
When you want to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, you can ask your friends to do it together. You should connect with the zero-waste community. For instance, you can attend a workshop or event on zero-waste. When we join this type of event more frequently, we are able to meet like-minded people.
Sotheary: Do you regret rejecting sponsors when you are in a financial struggle?
Sochenda: I think about the long-term impact. I don’t want to damage my reputation because of one project. I don’t regret it. It is challenging when we don’t generate income. But, I don’t regret rejecting some opportunities because they can damage my work. I have my principles. If that work doesn’t align with my principle, I don’t accept it. I want to live in a self-conflicting situation. I don’t hesitate to say ‘‘no’’ to it.
Sotheary: Do you have any messages for people who want to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle?
Sochenda: If you want to do it, do it. When you want to adapt to the lifestyle, you already step one step forward. You don’t need to start with zero waste. You can begin it step by step. Then, one day you can call yourself a zero-waste person. Then, you can share your experience with other people about your journey. If other people tell you that you are different, you can show them my Facebook page because I am doing it.
Sotheary: Has anyone ever talked to you that you are different?
Sochenda: When I started it, I had not brought the result yet. When I talked to people, I felt they didn’t trust me and my journey. When I get results, people change their perspectives. So you can just do it; don’t care what others think.