International brands' waste fuels brick kilns in Cambodia, prompting health concerns
20 Nov 2023
An exclusive report released on Monday, November 20, 2023, by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) reveals that waste from at least 19 international brands, including major names like Adidas and Walmart, is being utilized as fuel in brick factories in Cambodia. The report raises concerns, as some factory workers are reportedly falling ill due to this practice.
LICADHO's investigation, conducted through visits to 21 brick factories in Phnom Penh and neighboring Kandal province in Cambodia between April 2023 and September 2023, uncovered the burning of pre-consumer garment waste, including fabric, plastic, rubber, and other materials from renowned brands like Adidas, Walmart, Primark, and others. The factories are allegedly burning this waste to cut down on fuel costs.
The report states that several workers have complained of headaches and respiratory problems linked to the burning of garment waste, with one worker noting adverse effects during pregnancies. The use of garment waste as fuel can release toxic substances harmful to humans, according to a 2020 study by the U.N. Development Program, which measured emissions from garment factory incinerators in Cambodia.
Dioxins, known carcinogens, are among the toxic substances released during the burning process. A 2018 report by UK academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, highlighted that clothing scraps often contain hazardous chemicals such as chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, ammonia, heavy metals, PVC, and resins, which are used in dyeing and printing.
Brick factory workers, as outlined in the UK report, reported experiencing regular migraines, nosebleeds, and other health issues. The LICADHO report lists 19 brands involved in the practice, including Adidas, Walmart, Gap, Disney, and others.
In response to the report, several brands, including Primark and Lidl, have expressed their commitment to investigating the matter. Burning garment waste without proper management of combustion conditions can pose severe health risks, as acknowledged by the U.N. Development Programme.
Adidas, one of the named brands, has initiated an investigation to determine if waste is being diverted from authorized disposal routes to brick kilns. The company's environmental policies in Cambodia stipulate that waste materials must be disposed of at approved waste-to-energy plants or government-licensed recycling centers.
Lidl stated that it takes LICADHO's reported conditions seriously and has begun investigations. Meanwhile, LPP, another implicated brand, expressed unawareness of its textile waste being burned and announced plans for an awareness day in early 2024, focusing on waste management for its agents and factories in Cambodia.
While some brands, such as Tilley Endurables, expressed concern and emphasized compliance with audits and standards, others did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Cambodian Ministry of Environment, World Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), and waste collection company Sarom Trading Co. Ltd have not provided comments on the matter at this time. The situation raises questions about the environmental and health implications of waste disposal practices in the global fashion industry.