Trash Collectors Key to Cambodia’s Recycling

A Waste Summit threw the spotlight on the key role Cambodia’s trash pickers play in the nation’s recycling efforts, but noted the dangerous environment many of them are forced to work in.
People attend Waste Summit 2022 at Factory Phnom Penh. Kiripost via KAS
People attend Waste Summit 2022 at Factory Phnom Penh. Kiripost via KAS

Morm Neang lists the health risks he faces daily as a waste collector in the capital. The 38-year-old has worked in the sector for many years as a way to support his family and while he says the smell no longer disturbs him, his health remains a cause of concern.

“It smells, but I am used to it. Sometimes I get sick because I don’t get enough sleep, and sometimes I get cold because of the rain,” he said.

“We've faced a lot of glass bulbs; sometimes they place them in black bags, and when we reach into one, our hands get cut. Sometimes, there are traffic accidents,” he added.

Aside from the health risks, Neang also faces the wrath of angry residents, he said.

“Previously, if we arrived late to collect it, they would blame us. Now, it’s better. They no longer blame us, and the trash has been well-organised,” he said.

Waste Summit 2022, which was held on August 13 at the Factory Phnom Penh, said collectors should be recognized because their work helps the economy, however, it is dangerous. The summit also addressed the roles of the informal sector in the country’s solid waste management.

Nuon Monika, program manager for Sustainability and Digitalization at Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Cambodia (KAS), said at the summit that waste pickers contribute not only to the recycling industry but also to the economy.

“Because of them, waste is recycled and sold, and none of it ends up in landfill. They collect and divide it, reducing waste in the landfill,” she said. “In each landfill, we need to spend. The more waste there is, the more money we spend, so they help to reduce costs.”

As waste pickers play an important role in recycling, they should be recognised, she said.

“We do not encourage them to work in hazardous environments or in jobs that are rarely valued,” she said. “But we have to recognize their role because their work has numerous health risks.”

The summit aims to bring together all stakeholders, including business groups, government institutions, local waste management organisations, line departments, other relevant NGOs, and communities to discuss waste, and come up with solutions and innovative ideas for improved waste management.

The event was organised by KAS Cambodia in close collaboration with other waste management groups, including Composted, GIZ Cambodia, EuroCham Cambodia, and UNDP Cambodia.

Daniel Schmücking, Country Director of KAS Cambodia, said informal waste collectors, also known as adjai, and people working in the informal sector are the biggest contributors to Cambodia’s waste recycling efforts.

“They are making a living out of waste,” he said. “They have also reduced the amount of waste that goes to landfill that is very sustainable and beneficial for Cambodia.”

In Cambodia, rapid population growth and economic development have resulted in an increase in the volume of solid waste, including plastic waste, over the last few decades.

More than 3,500 tons of municipal waste are generated every day in Phnom Penh. Approximately 80 percent of the waste is collected and disposed of at open dump sites, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with the majority of it ending up in landfill, being incinerated, or leaking into the environment. Only 9 percent is successfully recycled, the OECD said.

Soun Sreydet, one of the youth initiatives of Re-Five, said that in order to effectively manage solid waste, people should understand where plastic goes after usage.

“We should know if it can be reused or recycled, and whether it can only be used once. If it cannot be recycled, we will avoid it,” she said.

She added that the management of waste through distribution at home or in other institutions is critical because it is easier for waste pickers who will have to carry the waste to recycle or reuse.

“In Cambodia, for instance, we do not see proper waste distribution at home or in institutions; it is still piled up, so when Cintri arrives, they collect it and load it into the trash truck,” she explained. “We can see that there isn't a solid divide; if there is, our management would be easier.”

The informal waste pickers’ presence has a significant impact on the environment and civilization, she added.

“Mostly, the recycling comes from the informal sector, as they are the ones who collect it to recycle or sell to the next company in need,” she said. “So, their work helps to decrease the waste.”