Yeay An, a 68-year-old grandmother, sits in a pile of garbage for 10 hours a day at the Stung Meanchey dump, sifting through everything the residents of Phnom Penh have thrown away.
“I will never stop working here,” she says, as her son and grandson scavenge nearby for anything that can be sold. “Even with how bad the smell is, I won’t leave this site.”
But Yeay An’s family and hundreds like them may soon be losing their livelihood. Phnom Penh Municipality and the Ministry of Environment want to move the city’s garbage dump into the countryside.
“It looks very bad that the rubbish area is so close to Phnom Penh,” Environment Minister Mok Mareth said.
Officials want the dump, just outside Phnom Penh, moved at least 15 km from the city. They also are hoping to sell the old 8-hectare dump, though it is not clear who might buy the land or for how much it could sell.
Mok Mareth said he wants to make sure the sale is done through a public bidding process. In the past, he said, pieces of land have been sold without the Ministry of Finance’s knowledge, with money going into officials’ pockets.
Officials hope a new, larger dump will allow the city to start a recycling program for homes and businesses. The current dump is too small for effective recycling, they say.
The city already has an unofficial recycling program, with people picking through garbage for cans, glass and metals before it is hauled away.
At the dump, an army of children climb through the garbage, scavenging for bits of food and recyclables.
Phan Pearum, 10, started scavenging at the dump three years ago. Sometimes he goes to school, but most of his days are spent at the dump, picking over the mounds of trash for plastic and metal that sells for 500 riel per kg. He makes about 1500 riel a day, which he gives to his mother for food.
If the dump is closed, he said, “I will go to the new site.”
Conditions at the dump have been blamed for numerous sicknesses in the area. When the area floods, dirty and contaminated water runs into homes bordering the dump, and when the garbage is burned each day, toxic chemicals from plastics waft through the air.
Thy Touch, 28, who has scavenged at the dump since he was 8, said the families who live around the dump do not mind the conditions.
Rather, Thy Touch said, it is the rich people living further away who complain about the smell of rotting and burning garbage.
“I like this dump site,” Thy Touch said. “The dump helps my family and it can send my four kids to school.”
For the past 20 years, he said, he has gotten up early in the morning to go to the dump and come home late at night.
Selling what he collects, he makes between 5,000 and 10,000 riel a day.
If the government closes the site, he said, “I will not be happy. I don’t think I would find another job.”
Thy Touch estimates more than 3,000 people scavenge at the dump, with the numbers increasing each year.
And there is plenty of garbage to pick through. More than 120 truckloads of trash are brought to the dump daily.
The site opened in the 1960s when Phnom Penh’s population was about 600,000; today there are about 1 million people in the city. And with increased use in recent years of plastics and materials that are not biodegradable, the garbage volume has increased substantially.
The current dump will be full in the next two years, officials say. The new dump site could last for 20 or 30 years.
A three-member committee, with representatives from the ministries of Finance and Environment and Phnom Penh municipality will lead the search for a new dump site and decide the selling price for the old dump.
Mann Chhoeun, the city’s cabinet chief, said the municipality is looking for an investor to buy the current dump site.
If the old dump is sold, the revenue would be used to set up the new dump and recycling operation. If the old site cannot be sold, a private investor will be sought to build the new dump, Mok Mareth said.
Keo Savin, director of public works for Phnom Penh, said the city is hoping to find a piece of government-owned land that can be conceded to the municipality.
“I don’t think Phnom Penh should have to pay for that land,” he said.