The trash bins and garbage piles of Phnom Penh’s homes and businesses are an unlikely base for a business boom.
But fueled by humble street scavengers, a nascent recycling industry has emerged with thousands of tons of recyclable metal, paper and plastic collected each month and exported to neighboring countries, traders and government officials said.
Cambodia does not have large-scale recycling factories, said Municipal Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun, but there is high demand for Cambodian scrap from plants in Vietnam and Thailand.
“Our people are clever now: They are able to turn waste into money,” Mann Chhoeun said.
The number of scrap dealers, who act as middlemen between the street scavengers and recycling plants, has risen too with industry insiders estimating that there are as many as 400 in Phnom Penh.
Poipet town on the border with Thailand is now the country’s second hub for scrap exports from Cambodia.
“Everything is money,” said Chheng Lay, 50, who operates a scrap dealership with her husband in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.
Scavengers offload cardboard, tin cans and metal, cloth, copper, plastic and glass bottles at the couple’s small shop in Stung Meanchey commune.
Accumulating about a ton of scrap material per week, the couple then sell their stock to Vietnamese and Thai recycling factories, earning about $100 a month in profit, Chheng Lay said.
Ten years ago, Phnom Penh’s streets held some 500 scrap collectors, according to aid organizations working with the city’s scavengers. Today, there could be some 4,000 scavengers, 75 percent of whom are believed to be children, NGOs estimate.
For 72-year-old Chea Chhith, scrap plastic salvaged from the city’s streets and trash heaps has been the backbone of his small bucket manufacturing plant in Phnom Penh over the last six years.
Chea Chhith and his 20 employees melt down used plastic bottles, bags and clothes hangers, and turn them into plastic buckets, toilet filters and cement-spreaders.
Buying plastic scrap one ton at a time, the cost ranges from $700 to $1,100, Chea Chhith said. The fluctuations in price depend on whether Vietnamese or Thai recycling factories are in town buying up scrap and in turn sending up prices, he said.
“It is a good business,” Chea Chhith said, noting that with one ton of plastic scrap he can produce about 2,000 buckets, which he sells for $7 per dozen or $1,162 for the lot.
“Plastic is easier and easier to find because there are many places to buy it,” he said.
Even schools are getting in on the burgeoning scrap business, Mann Chhoeun said, adding that students are learning how to reduce, reuse and recycle as part of a new environmental sustainability trend.
In the business since she was 11, 16-year-old Bun Sokmey said that she exports 10 tons of scrap to Vietnam each week.
“We are making very good profit from selling junk products,” she said as she was directing a group of young boys piling up bulging bags of scrap into a heap in the bed of a mini-truck at the municipal dump in Meanchey district.
While the scrap business is making some middlemen and recycling factories rich, the rewards are not being shared with the people, particularly the children, at the bottom end of the business, said Chau Kimheng, director of the Cambodian Education and Waste Management Organization, which provides education and training in recycling.
Respiratory and digestive problems plague scrap collectors because they regularly breathe and ingest chemical waste and other harmful substances, said Chau Kimheng. He also said scavengers are often malnourished.
“It’s not a human job, but people can earn some money,” said Laurence de Tricaud, a spokeswoman for Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, a French organization that assists child scavengers through schooling and job training.
Collecting scrap is quick money that takes no education or training, she said.
The scrap recycling business in Cambodia is still predominately run by the poor, said Thon Virak, deputy director of the Foreign Trade Department at the Commerce Ministry. In Vietnam, however, scrap recycling is a multi-million dollar business, he said.
“Here, we don’t realize that scrap is valuable. But in Vietnam it means money,” Thon Virak said. Seventeen Vietnamese firms compete to buy scrap from Cambodia, and seven of them have made a great deal of money from the trade, he said.
Strong growth in Cambodia’s scrap collecting business will likely keep pace with the regional demand, he said.
And his explanation was simple: “They’re all making money.”