The monstrous piles of waste sprawled in the stifling heat at Stung Meanchey have long provided a much-needed source of revenue for Cambodia’s poorest.
Hundreds of scavengers arrive there every day at the break of dawn to sift through the putrid mounds of filth to find recyclables like plastic bottles and scrap metal.
But dramatic declines in Cambodia’s export industries and plummeting commodity prices have rendered the daily life of Cambodia’s informal recyclers unthinkably worse.
“Collecting waste is so difficult now compared to half a year ago,” said Has Khum, 45, who has been collecting waste and selling it at assembly points in Phnom Penh for more than 20 years. “Sometimes I don’t even have enough money to buy water.”
Ms Has Khum reached central Phnom Penh from the Stung Meanchey dump at 11 am one recent morning and placed two enormous sacks of plastic bottles on the scales at one of Phnom Penh’s larger collection points.
“Twenty-four kilograms,” shouted the collector.
She had bought the bottles from a scavenger at the dumpsite for 800 riel per kilogram and sold them for 1,000, making a meager total of 4,800 riel in profit; barely enough to survive on, she said. Waste collectors in Cambodia work in the black market, unrecognized by the state. They are often exposed to harmful chemicals from burning waste and toxic substances from hospitals and factories.
Yet they provide a major service to the city’s authorities, who have only recently started to work with Cintri, Phnom Penh’s largest garbage collection company, to install a recycling program in the capital.
This informal industry is a complex network of downtrodden workers starting with those who collect the rubbish from the disposal site and sell their items on to middlemen, who purchase the goods in bulk and later sell them to larger-scale collectors in Phnom Penh’s city center. The collectors then try and sell their stock to an exporter, who makes deliveries to either Thailand or Vietnam.
But the border dispute with Thailand and an overall decline in exports are disrupting this process, scavengers and analysts say.
Worldwide shipments of aluminum, a material often collected by scavengers, have dropped dramatically in recent months. The Japan Aluminum Association, for example, said in a statement last month that Japanese aluminum exports had dropped 39 percent in February compared to a year earlier. Oil prices, which have a direct effect on the price of recycled plastics, are only just starting to creep up above $50 a barrel from a high of nearly $150 in July 2008.
Those trying to improve the security net for scavengers say that a more robust and organized framework is needed for them to work under.
A report released by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in February concluded that Cambodia’s considerable economic growth over the last decade was a major force in the degradation of the country’s waste management program. It cited a lack of appropriate laws, standards and guidelines; poor coordination and partnerships with private waste service providers; insufficient power at local levels; and inadequate policies for human resources as the main weak points in the system.
But Sao Kunchhon, director of Phnom Penh’s waste management department, said that City Hall is due to begin working with German-based International Environment Consulting Co at the end of 2009 to develop ways to recycle the waste at the Stung Meanchey dumpsite.
“We will discuss in detail hiring workers to work at the new processing company when they finish studying,” he said, referring to scavengers. “Recently, the number of scrap collectors at the site has decreased because organizations are providing them with more training in mechanics, baking and providing micro-financing loans to buy scrap in Phnom Penh.”
In an earlier attempt to create jobs in the waste collection service in Phnom Penh, the Asian Development Bank worked with Cintri last year on a project to help bring about “demand-driven waste collection,” said Januar Hakim, ADB officer in charge of waste collection in Phnom Penh. He said the project had provided access roads, garbage bins and transfer stations, creating proper jobs for locals and collecting fees from households. The revenue was split among Cintri, village units and waste collectors, he said.
“Environmental awareness campaigns were done regularly throughout the project along with livelihood improvements for waste pickers through waste recycling and micro-credits,” he said. But scavengers on the ground say the effects of such campaigns are limited.
Von Kunchea, a 23-year-old garbage collector from Phnom Penh said, “I would like to see the state organize how we collect waste better.”
Pushing a small cart filled with about 100 cans and half as many plastic bottles, he said he could sell the whole lot for 10,000 riel. But he had bought the load from a collector outside the city for 6,000 riel, reducing his profit substantially. He said he would have earned twice that at the beginning of 2008.
“I just about manage to pay for my food and house,” he said. “But sometimes I cannot earn anything.”
Sok Saoum, 62, another tired-looking garbage collector, said she earns approximately 2,500 riel for every kilogram of scrap metal she gathers. She sells her waste to an independent wholesaler, who exports to Thailand. She says that before the border dispute with Thailand, she managed to sell her cans and bottles for 6,000 riel per kilogram.
“I think if the government introduces a scheme that allows us to organize waste, it will help me to increase my profits,” she said.