Project Gives Refuse Collectors Salary and Job Security

They are such a ubiquitous part of the Phnom Penh landscape they are almost invisible: The waste pickers, trundling down the street with pushcarts full of bottles and cans.

They are desperately poor—almost all of them make less than 5,000 riel per day, according to a 1997 study. Many are young—about half are under 18 years old. But in a city where trash collection, long mired in politics, is erratic at best, and enormous dumps are overflowing with trash, they provide a valuable service.

Now, one NGO has recognized the waste pickers as a resource. In one Phnom Penh neighborhood, garbage is picked up regularly and efficiently. It is sorted into compostable organic material, recyclables and trash. And the waste pickers who do the work get a regular salary.

“I became a waste picker when I was 15 because my family was very poor,” said Sam Rotha, one of 22 waste pickers who work at the Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization’s Waste Recycling Development Center, located behind Preah Ang Eng Primary School, three blocks north of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

“I am happy working for this project because every time I go to collect garbage, I know I am cooperating together with people I know,” Sam Rotha said. “Before, [when I worked on the street] I only worked for myself, and people could hurt me.”

The self-help center’s workers collect garbage every day from about 300 families in the area under a special municipal contract, said Bo Sokhann, solid waste program manager.

“It’s the best garbage collection in Phnom Penh—every day at the same time,” said Robert Deutsch, an adviser to the organization.

In the center’s small yard, work­ers in yellow uniform jackets wander in and out with pushcarts, while others wearing plastic gloves sort through the heaps of trash, seemingly impervious to its pungent smell.

“When you collect garbage on the street, sometimes you make a profit, sometimes not,” said Chhan Sopheap, 39. Her husband also works part-time at the center to help support their three children.

“This is better because it’s a daily income,” she said, tossing compost into a concrete-block enclosure as rats chased each other around it. In addition, she said, learning to make compost gave her a skill she could use to work for herself.

Most of the compost the center produces is sold to a wholesale company. Some is sold to the Garden Center Cafe, where owner Bob Cumiskey displays and sells bags of it to customers. He also uses it for his landscaping business, whose clients include several ambassadors and high-ranking officials.

“It’s good compost—it makes for very balanced soil,” Cumiskey said.

Cambodia has few recycling facilities of its own, Deutsch said. Some simple plastics are recycled in Cambodia to make plastic twine or low-quality pipes, “but the raw materials are so cheap here that there’s not much of a market.” Aluminum is melted down to make cooking pots and other implements.

The recyclables sorted out of the garbage are sold to depots around town which act as middlemen. Glass bottles are reused. Cardboard and most plastic is exported to Vietnam and Thai­land for recycling. Steel goes to Thailand. “There’s not a big profit margin, because transit costs are high,” Deutsch said.

Not far away, near Phsar Olym­pic, the organization runs a center on the grounds of Tuol Sleng Pri­mary School where waste pickers—adults and children—can take free classes and learn recycling techniques such as turning tires into flowerpots.

The center has first aid and toilet facilities, activities, a small library, and space for waste pickers to relax and sort the trash they’ve collected.

An outreach team even takes to the street to find waste pick­ers and hold informal “curbside classroom” education sessions.

The organization’s next step is to start a program in seven schools in the area. Teachers and students at the schools will learn about the environment by composting food waste. The idea comes from the slums of Bangla­desh, Deutsch said, where an NGO conducts a similar program.

The municipality of Phnom Penh recently signed a contract with a Canadian company to take over city trash collection for the next 47 years. During negotiations, the organization was briefly threatened when officials from the company, Montreal-based Cintec, tried to get the city to eliminate the waste pickers’ special trash collection zone.

But the city held out, and the sanitation organization’s enclave of the city remains—a small part of Phnom Penh where the impoverished men, women and children who pick through the gar­bage aren’t invisible after all.


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