A new report shows fashion waste is fueling controversial Cambodian brick kilns

Cambodia is known for its garment factories, producing clothes for global brands.

A new report shows fashion waste is fueling controversial Cambodian brick kilns
Waste from international clothing brands is stored before being used to fuel kilns at a brick factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia November 17, 2023. Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights/Handout via REUTERS

The backstory: Cambodia has one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, and it’s been experiencing a construction boom over the past few years. To supply all this construction, the nation’s seen a bunch of brick kilns pop up, which have become controversial for their practices. The brickmaking factories – or the kilns, really – have been linked to debt slavery. In many cases, farmers have gone into debt because the effects of climate change have upset the agriculture situation, with floods and droughts leading to poor harvests. So they end up entering the “blood brick” industry, risking their lives in these dangerous environments via debt bondage, with kiln owners paying off farmers’ debts in exchange for their bonded labor. Another controversial aspect of the Cambodian brick kilns over the years has been accusations of child labor in these factories all over the country.  

More recently: Cambodia is also known for its garment factories, producing clothes for global brands. It’s been suspected for a little while that textile waste has been used to fuel these brick kilns. In 2022, Greenpeace published an investigation showing how textile scraps from Cambodian factories for major clothing brands were being used as kiln fuel. This waste was reportedly being used to feed fires at five different kilns investigated. Because today’s clothes often use synthetic materials (like polyester, which is made from petroleum), burning textiles like this often releases toxic fumes. This is bad for the environment, but it can also affect the health of kiln workers, giving them coughs, nose bleeds, lung inflammation and more. 

The development: On Monday, The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (French acronym LICADHO) released a new report on fashion waste being used in these kilns. According to the report, waste from 19 international brands was identified – including fabric from Adidas and Walmart. This report was based on LICADHO’s visits to 21 brick factories and interviews with kiln workers. It found that fabric, plastic, rubber and other materials were being burned at seven of the 21 factories. It also points out that “pre-consumer waste” is being used to fuel kiln fires, meaning that this waste is from the fashion manufacturing process. Some of the interviewed workers said that burning this stuff made them feel sick – causing headaches and breathing problems. The report said that some of the toxic fumes include dioxins, which have been linked to cancer. A few of the brands involved, like Primark and Lidl, have said that they’re investigating the situation. 

Key comments:

“The burning of acrylic garments, especially when combined with plastic bags, hangers, rubber and other waste as occurs in Cambodia, releases plastic microfibres and other toxic chemicals into the immediate environment which compromise the health of workers and neighbours on a short and long term basis. The human impacts, in particular, are substantially worse than burning wood and have been highlighted in a recent UK parliamentary report as a major problem in the industry,” said Dr. Laurie Parsons of UK’s Royal Holloway University, who co-authored a 2018 report on garment incineration in Cambodian kilns. 

"Several workers reported that burning garment waste caused them headaches and respiratory problems; another worker reported that it made her feel especially unwell during her pregnancies," the LICADHO report said.