Waste pickers

A brief history of Cambodia’s plastic crisis

Cambodia’s plastic waste is kept in balance thanks to an army of waste pickers, who represent the only functioning infrastructure. We look back at how plastic conquered the Kingdom

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because to tackle the Kingdom's plastic problem, we need to know where it came from.

Kathrin Eitel
August 22, 2019
A brief history of Cambodia’s plastic crisis
One of Cambodia's many waste pickers pushes her cart through the streets of Phnom Penh. Photo: Kathrin Eitel

An older woman with wrinkled skin, a colourfully chequered shirt and an equally vibrant chequered sun hat bows down to the street and grasps a handful of empty plastic water bottles stacked in a white polystyrene container. Packed alongside it is a mix of household waste consisting mainly of organic waste or waste no longer fit for reuse – dirty polystyrene packaging, thin plastic bags, green coconuts, cardboard and broken toys. But the only scraps useful for Champei – whose name, like all the workers in this piece, has been changed to hide her identity – are clean, recyclable waste such as plastic bottles or aluminium cans, which she empties onto the ground before tossing them into her pushcart. Whether she judges the waste she collects as useable or not depends on her 20 years of experience as a garbage collector walking the streets of Phnom Penh. She prefers plastic or aluminum, she says, pointing to the empty cans clumped in her cart. “That makes the most money!” 

A woman rides a bicycle by a stack of destroyed cars cast aside by the Khmer Rouge as of symbol of the bourgeoisie in Phnom Penh. Photo: Getty Images

Champei gets money from the Vietnamese operators of the garbage dump, from whom she has also leased the pushcart. For this, she has to pay a fixed amount daily, which is deducted directly from her daily income. Otherwise, she gets paid by weight, and this is done on the typical Cambodian grass-green scales, which every household seems to own. Aluminium brings the most, closely followed by copper and (thick-walled) plastic. From time to time, she also finds something that she can use herself. Sometimes it’s in the close-packed rubbish bins in front of the International School in the south of Toul Tom Pong district; other times, in the rubbish she buys from households. Here, she finds trinkets and treasures: a red plastic toy for her youngest son, or a spoon, or a plate, which she can use for her own household. She always carries two large washed-out plastic bottles, which she fills with cooking oil or vinegar left at the bottom of cast-off containers.

It is estimated that there are at least 2,000 waste pickers in Phnom Penh collecting garbage every day. Most of them are women who usually collect recyclables in the streets. A smaller number of garbage collectors work at the only municipal garbage dump in Dangkor district, and another minority collect in the streets at night. 

Sombo, a somewhat younger waste picker who knows Champei from the common depot, collects like many women in two self-chosen shifts. The first one comes early in the morning, from six until noon and then again from two to five in the afternoon. While she walks her routes around the quarter, her eyes wander restlessly searching for recyclables along the roadside. Not a single plastic bottle, however small, that has not already fragmented into its individual parts, made brittle by the sun and ground to microplastic by wind and floods, escapes her eyes. 

Many of the garbage collectors also buy plastic and other recyclable waste directly from households. The money used for this is lent to them in the morning by Nguyen, the Vietnamese depot owner, and deducted from their income at the end of the day. 

A cinema from Cambodia’s so-called Golden Age in the 60s

In a small side street, Sombo stops at a green house in a small side street and writes “edjai!” – waste picker – on the wall. She squeaks her horn and a grey striped cat winds around the big tree in the yard and then comes meowing towards us. At the same time, the front door inside the courtyard opens, and an elderly woman lifts two large bags of plastic, aluminium cans, and other recyclables out towards Sombo. Sometimes a flat rate per sack is negotiated. Today, however, after a short negotiation, a unit price per material type is agreed, and Sombo sits down next to the bags and counts through the trove. 

The household is one of a large number of permanent households that Sombo runs regularly and which have established themselves as her customers. In addition to the continuity of the business relationship, payment also plays a role.

“[The households] like to sell the garbage to waste pickers with whom you can easily work,” says Sombo. “If you are willing to give them a little extra money, then they will sell to you,” 

As the thousands of edjai walking the streets make clear, Phnom Penh has plastic in abundance – so much so that there doesn’t seem to be any competition between the waste pickers directly. A promise of plastic for all – or as Sombo would say, “We are using our right to collect recyclables”. But it wasn’t so long ago that plastic was almost unheard of in Cambodia. 

After plastic had boomed as a parachute material and in aircraft linings during the world wars, it became a box-office hit in the US and soon all over the world. The wartime mantra of “lighter and better” quickly became “lighter, better and cheaper”. The uniquely malleable and durable material ‘plastic’, under whose term a multitude of different synthetic materials are concealed, was brought into the world of mass production and conquered Southeast Asia on old – though still existing – colonial routes, walking backwards along the Silk Road in the late 1940s and 50s. 

UNTAC military observers distribute radios donated by a Japanese NGO in order to provide the population with information for the elections planned for May 1993. Photo: UN Cambodia

Particularly striking in this respect is the British crown colony of Hong Kong, which became unchallenged alongside Japan in the 1950s and 60s as the largest plastic production site in Southeast Asia. The factories were exclusively in Chinese hands, and raw materials were mainly imported by Western companies such as Monsanto, Dow, and ICI. In 1958, 30.8 percent of the raw materials came from the United Kingdom, 23.8 percent from the USA, 20 percent from Canada and 5.4 percent from Germany, according to the economic journal Far East Economic Review.

Here, plastic furniture, footwear, cameras, radios and in particular plastic toys and bottles were produced on a large scale on colonially built trade routes and sent back to Western countries. The absolute blockbuster at the end of the 50s were plastic flowers, which were produced almost exclusively in the British Crown Colony and distributed from there. Some even made it to Cambodia – though only to a small extent, and mainly to the colonial rulers that remained in the country.

Plastic materials, especially in the form of packaging, for example for cigars or soft drinks, and cellophane machines were among the first things imported into Cambodia by the French colonial power. With the help of the French occupying forces, capitalism slowly moved into the country, which most Cambodians were already familiar with from other branches of the French economy, such as the many rubber plantations. 99 percent of its yields flowed into the colonial country of origin. Thus in the 1950s, shortly before the end of French rule in 1953, plastic flower garlands blew on veranda doors in Phnom Penh, and the French were casually striving for domination from rattan chairs coated with polyvinyl chloride. The first synthetic textile fibers were imported and processed in textile factories from the 1960s onwards, replacing the traditional Sampot garment woven from cotton and silk and eventually shaping the image of the post-colonial period.

Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, has unexpectedly fallen into the hamster wheel of rapid exploitation pressure and had little time to prepare

Under the administration of Prince Sihanouk until his overthrow in 1970 by the US-backed Marshall Lon Nol, the Kingdom still smelled of growing prosperity to the plantation owners, the politicians and, crucially, the Americans. Due to Cambodia’s proximity to the ‘Resistance War against America’, as it was called by the Vietnamese, Americans had, in the meantime, settled in Phnom Penh. But with the launch of the harmless-sounding Cambodian Campaign by US President Nixon in 1970, the period of Western-style consumption and interest in new and international plastic products, inventions and their cultural integration into Cambodian life came to an end. 

An estimated 5,000 bombs were distributed across rural Cambodia over six months. Phnom Penh, whose population had only just begun to thin out, had absorbed about two million refugees by 1975. After the Khmer Rouge came to power later that year, those same city dwellers saw themselves driven from the city again, sent to forced labor camps in the countryside. Any infrastructure that might have developed with regard to waste disposal was thus nipped in the bud – as was the continued import of plastic products and materials.

The following four years, which were shadowed by unimaginable acts of violence, murder, and torture, would become a constant companion of the people who survived this time. Former plantations, factories, and already existing trade routes had been destroyed, or their owners had been murdered. Cinemas, cars, everything, which could count as ‘luxury’ were eliminated. Even after the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge and the liberation of the population by Vietnamese troops in 1979, Cambodia remained a playing field for various groups fighting for political supremacy. In the heat of the battle for political dominance, however, factories and industries were slowly rebuilt. Cambodia’s economy – and thus also its access to ‘modern’ products – recovered only slowly, though, and then only picked up speed again from the mid-1980s onwards. 

At the end of a long day, the collected weight is weighed in the depot. Photo: Kathrin Eitel
A waste picker wends her way through the streets of Phnom Penh. Photo: Kathrin Eitel

With Cambodia’s accession to ASEAN in 1999 and to the World Trade Organization in 2004 under Prime Minister Hun Sen, the country suddenly opened up to international trade and plastic products of all kinds poured into the country like an avalanche. While Southeast Asian countries have been able to gradually get used to plastic and plastic waste since the growth of the plastic production facilities in Hong Kong and Japan in the 1950s, Cambodia has suddenly been celebrated by the international economy as the El Dorado of undiscovered capitalism; a land of undreamed-of possibilities. This resulted in the import of plastic products and packaging. Global players such as Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestlé delivered the much sought-after drinks and food to Cambodia, a country still plagued by civil war and shaped by the Americans, Australians and French, who had most recently been remembered as the UN peacekeeping force in the early 90s with their cowboy boots and Coca-Cola cans in their hands. 

The majority of plastic products were well-received by the population, since radios, cellophane-packed cigars, toys and much more were already known from French colonial time – albeit as luxury goods and thus for a certain elite – and later brought into the country by the US with connotations of modernity and prosperity. While plastic first found its way through the Western occupying powers to Cambodia, today there are Western companies that not only import products and capital, but also a piece of lifestyle with each product, based on the old, historically grown hegemonic structures. 

What was not at all noticed, though, either culturally or infrastructurally, was plastic’s long-lasting quality. Suddenly whole communities, cities, and estates found themselves able to discover unwanted colourful fragments between the green of the rice plants, to recognise entire streets in the urban space lined with unspoiled garbage and to notice the wafts of the smoke of the privately burned garbage winding around their houses again and again. Accompanied by a smell that has become as much a part of everyday life in Cambodia as the loud hustle and bustle of the market, plastic waste had arrived in society. 

Although the Cambodian city government in Phnom Penh is striving for a garbage disposal infrastructure alongside a range of civil society groups and other stakeholders, as the recently published report ‘Phnom Penh Waste Management Strategy and Action Plan (2018-2035)’ shows, there is much work to be done. In general, two waste disposal strategies can be distinguished with regard to waste. One is carried out by the municipal waste collection company Cintri, which has been granted a monopoly position by the municipal government based on a long-term contract. 

The orange Cintri cars with their nimble, young garbage men are responsible for collecting organic household waste; however, the quality of service is subject to strong fluctuations – especially when it comes to collecting garbage in dark and narrow alleys or in peripheral districts of the capital. Waste that does not fall under the very diverse concept of purely organic household waste – and here we come to the second strategy – is not structured at all by urban authorities. There is therefore actually no urban ‘overall strategy’, even if this may change in the next few years, as the report on waste disposal strategy suggests. Nor, at present, is there an urban or state strategy on how to deal with recyclable waste. Traditionally, a large part of the recyclable waste ends up in the landfill, unless it has already been incinerated or buried. 

In addition to single NGOs that run upcycling programs with women and girls with poor backgrounds, this is where the women garbage collectors come into play. Nobody knows exactly when the first waste pickers started collecting recyclables and selling it to so-called middlemen/women and depot owners who then sell it abroad. Sreypich tells me, as I accompany her on her route through the city, that she knows a woman who has collected for over 20 years. 

“People started waste-picking not so long ago,” she said. “Back in the past, waste-pickers were Vietnamese. Cambodians only started recently.” 

Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, has unexpectedly fallen into the hamster wheel of rapid exploitation pressure and had little time to prepare. Everywhere there is a lack of infrastructure, such as functioning sewage systems and other systems that could cope with the emerging and exponentially growing trade and economic volume, providing support without being driven by the flow of bribes.

This situation has led to the emergence of so-called informal (infra-)structures that function in a practical and everyday way and without which, as it can be seen in the example of the waste pickers inside, there would be no functioning urban handling of plastic waste and other recyclable. The waste pickers of Phnom Penh, who daily wander their routes through the streets, have become part of the cityscape. With their colorful hats and trousers, their squeaky red horns and their pushcarts, they are an integral part of the city and provide the only infrastructure for waste management in the city to deal with recyclable waste. 

For Sombo, however, it is first and foremost a way of surviving financially: 

“Waste-picking is the only job option for the poor,” she says. 

At the same time, she finds that this job allows women to be flexible and free of strict working hours and employers, and to manage children, family, and household in parallel. She sees the cleaning of the city more as a side effect. 

“When I pick up waste, I also play a part in protecting the environment,” she says. “The public spaces are much cleaner without those cans or bottles around.”

Kathrin Eitel

is a social and cultural anthropologist and works as a research associate at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology at the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main in Germany. She is doing her Ph.D. research on Cambodian waste pickers and the everyday handling of garbage in Phnom Penh.

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