Efficient waste management, recycling elude Cambodia

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These men and teenagers are not merely dumping trash into the truck. They are sorting it as well.

The problems that Phnom Penh faces with trash disposal are evident on virtually every corner.

Although there seem to be laws on the books mandating proper handling of recyclables and other commercial and residential waste, there appears to be virtually no enforcement.

Cintri — the company that enjoys a sweetheart contract in its monopoly for the collection of garbage in Phnom Penh — is pictured here with one of its green trucks.  You can see that the enterprise is no more exempt from overlooked child labor than are building contractors. You also can see in the photo below with one of the company’s yellow trucks that waste is separated by gloveless hands as the vehicles creep along the city’s blocks.

One of the best online sources of information that I have been able unearth on the local issue is called Urban Voice.  The blog post there may be two years old, but it is consistent with what I have observed as I dodge bicycles, motorcycles and cars while walking on sidewalks that are blocked by parked vehicles and are strewn with trash.  Consider this excerpt:

Some Phnom Penh residents are still unaware of the importance of packing and storing their waste properly. Typically, people pack all kinds of waste together in one plastic bag, making it difficult to separate for recycling and composting. In addition, a lot people keep their waste in front of their house at any time regardless of the waste collection schedule. If the schedule is missed, the waste is just left there unconditionally. Even worse, some people do not keep their waste in front of their house but instead choose to leave it on the street and other public spaces. This is normally seen during the night when large piles of garbage are put out on the street. And if that is not enough, there are waste scavengers who dig through garbage bags searching for recyclable items that can be sold.

The unnamed writer goes on to report the following:

In Phnom Penh city, it is not surprising to see flying plastic bags and other rubbish in public areas. Not everyone here in Phnom Penh actually throws trash in the rubbish bin. Despite the fact that rubbish bins are placed in most public places, people will just throw their rubbish anywhere they want. Some even throw trash from their cars or motorbikes while driving. Others leave it at the park or even right next to the rubbish bin but not in the bin. As a result, not all the waste is collected and cleared. This makes the charming city of Cambodia less beautiful and less healthy.

Because unseparated waste is burned at dump sites, the blog post continues, hazardous materials dangerously pollute the air, and organic matter that could otherwise be composted for farming goes up in flames.

A report by the Ministry of Environment earlier this year demonstrated how intractable the problem is.  It found a 10 per cent increase in the amount of waste generated between 2013 and 2014.

“While 60 to 80 per cent of trash in urban areas is collected, only 40 per cent is collected outside of towns,” according to a Phnom Penh Post article on the study.

Despite increasing amounts of waste being generated, an Okayama University report last March observes, the government focuses only on collection and dumping.  There is no treatment facility.

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The report’s authors, Seng Bandith and Takeshi Fujiwara, refer to entrepreneurial souls who also profit, miserably, from trash collection.  They state that 300 scavengers may be recovering 607 tons of valuable materials each month, based on 2014 numbers.  (Whether that is a reliable number strikes me as debatable; it may be more or less, I think.)

recycle-9For the scavengers in the capital city and at dump sites, the work in most cases hardly provides enough money to eat.  In Phnom Penh, they are everywhere, sometimes even rummaging through bags of refuse wearing headlamps late at night and having their very young children in tow.

“Consequently,” the Urban Voice writer relates, “the garbage is scattered everywhere and it is very hard to collect.”

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Waste clogs an open sewerage canal not far from a market.

Both that blog post and the report from Okayama University offer solutions to the trash problem, but it is hard to see any change in the foreseeable future.

Although the government announced last year that it would establish a $5 million fund to allow Cambodia’s 26 provinces and municipalities to take responsibility for waste management in their cities, it is questionable that it did so or that such a project had any effect, I think.

Last year, the Phnom Penh Post quoted reports as saying that the government could be forced to shell out more than $120 million to build new landfills over the next decade unless it invests in preventing Phnom Penh’s current site from reaching capacity.  You can imagine where the government apparently filed those reports.

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 Japan stands in stark contrast to Cambodia.  The refuse above illustrates how serious the country is about separating and recycling, requiring all entities to sort plastics, burnables and metals at a minimum.

Also last year, according to the Post, the Ministry of Environment announced a five-year project to include “separating, recycling and transforming waste into gas and natural fertili[z]er for agricultural and industrial purposes in order to improve the living standard of people and reduce environment contamination.”  Any progress along those lines is not clear to me, notwithstanding optimistic promises and a local newspaper’s somnolent campaign to ameliorate the situation.

Change would involve utilizing substantial financial resources, which theoretically the government could prioritize.  More important, it would require a will to take action.  I have no reason to believe the will exists and that change, therefore, can happen in the near future.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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