The waste land
Southeast Asia is racing to follow China's ban on plastic waste imports. And with Cambodia now forced to clean up its own mess, the Kingdom has a chance to turn piles of plastic trash into treasure
By Evie Breese and Thim Rachna
Sitting outside the recycling facility that houses her business and family, Kim Mouy, 51, who also goes by Mae Kamouy, watches over her workers as they churn through Phnom Penh’s trash.
She is perched upon a wooden stump opposite an unstable heap of black plastic – car dashboards, fan casing, old televisions, speakers – selecting a piece and cracking it with a mallet to split apart any metal or glass still attached.
In the house sits other kinds of collected waste separated into piles: colourfully woven plastics neatly packaged in sacks ready to be shipped out, metal scraps still waiting to be sorted. In one corner, two men toss plastic rice bags into a machine that presses the bags into blocks.
Born into a Vietnamese immigrant family in Cambodia, Mae Kamouy spent most of her childhood scavenging waste with her siblings. Decades later, those experiences helped her to run her own recycling business, a few streets away from the increasingly stuffed Dangkor district landfill.
Mae Kamouy’s business involves purchasing scrap plastic which is then sorted, cleaned and packaged or ground into tiny pieces. Most of her buyers are outside Cambodia – mainly in Vietnam and Thailand, where there is a much higher demand for scrap to be processed.
But the ongoing plastic import bans from the neighboring countries may threaten steep declines in profit in an industry where profit margins are already minute, threatening the closure of her business.
“We are not the world’s trash can!”
Like the refrain of a rebellious anti-trash anthem, this sentiment has reverberated across Southeast Asia.
In 2017, China set off a chain reaction of defiance after it banned plastic waste imports, some of which had come from Cambodia only to be passed from middleman to middleman until it made its way to China.
Since 1992, China has imported more than 45% of the world’s plastic waste. Last year, it took in just 1%. Beijing’s decision caused scrap prices to plummet, sending shockwaves through middlemen and traders across the region.
Straining to pick up the slack, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of garbage. Malaysia last year issued a permanent ban on the import of plastic waste and announced it will be phasing out the import of other types of plastic by 2021. Thailand will also stop plastic waste imports by 2021, and Vietnam has banned the issuance of licences for the import of plastic waste in preparation for a total ban by 2025 .
While much of the world’s media has focused on the issues these refusals will cause for major waste-producing countries in the West, namely the US, Canada and Europe, closer to home the bans may cause an equally troublesome headache for neighbouring Cambodia. As Neth Pheaktra, Spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, eloquently concluded: “it is a problem.”
So far, Cambodia has largely managed to evade the diplomatic and logistical complexities involved in absorbing the West’s discarded plastic. In 1999 the Cambodian government prohibited “the importation of the household waste from abroad to the Kingdom of Cambodia”.
Echoing the sentiment across the region, Pheaktra explained, “we do not allow importing waste to Cambodia. We don’t do that. Because Cambodia needs to not be the trash bin for other countries.”
Unsurprisingly however, such stringent regulations can never be wholly enforceable, and it was recently reported by the Guardian that throughout the second half of 2018, about 260 tonnes a month of US plastic scrap was snuck into the already plastic-clogged seaside town of Sihanoukville.
In response to the Guardian’s reports, Pheaktra replied that “according to my knowledge, the exporting plastic waste to Cambodia was banned at Sihanoukville port and sent back to the original country,” although this is unverified.
It is important here to distinguish here between worthy and worthless trash. Worthy plastic waste is the 1% that China is still accepting – that which has been sorted and cleaned.
Hiroshan Hettiarachchi, an academic on civil engineering and sustainability at the United Nations University in Germany, broke it down.
“In theory, no country is against accepting or handling clean waste such as clean plastic, because there is value in it,” he said. “But accepting mixed waste from other countries, for instance, means taking on a greater responsibility to manage its leftovers, which creates an extra environmental burden in your country. ”
Mislabelled, soiled and contaminated recyclable plastic is, in itself, worthless – and it is this matter which China and now many Southeast Asian nations are closing their doors to, or shipping back to whence it came. But if sorted and purified, plastic can be transformed into something worthwhile.
A mess of our own making
The Kingdom’s 20-year-old ban on household waste imports has been something of a blessing, given that Cambodia doesn’t have the means to process its own ever-growing trash flood – let alone consider any one else’s.
Every day, Phnom Penh alone generates anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes of waste, 600 tonnes of which is plastic waste. Cambodia as a whole produces more than 10,000 tonnes of waste – or more than 3.6 million tonnes a year.
While this remains a staggering amount, it is important to view these numbers in context.
The city of New York has a population just over half of Cambodia’s 16 million souls, but manages to produce a staggering 12,000 tonnes of waste per day. So it’s not that Cambodians are particularly wasteful – rather, they are not afforded the luxury of shipping this off to someone else’s backyard.
Sarah Rhodes, founder of social enterprise Plastic Free Southeast Asia, lamented that “a lot of people – especially tourists or visitors – come here and comment about how much rubbish they see in Southeast Asia. But countries in the West are consuming a lot more than what is consumed here, but they don’t really see the impact of it.”
A huge proportion of Cambodia’s waste simply ends up dumped in landfill – around 70-80%. According to the Ministry of Environment, 65% of this garbage could be recycled, meaning that it is a material that somewhere in the world there is the technology to reprocess. But at the time of writing only 20% of Cambodia’s waste escapes the pit, and not all of that is recycled – some simply seeps out into rivers, waterways or goes up in toxic smoke.
“We still have a big informal system in which waste is either buried or burned or not disposed of properly,” said Robert Hoer, program specialist in digitalisation and waste management at Cambodia-based German think-tank Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
“Landfills are not the most sustainable solution of this nature,” he said. “The future dream scenario is that in ten to 15 years Cambodia has no more landfills.”
That dream, however, still seems far-fetched for the time being.
Phnom Penh’s remaining two landfills in Dangkor district are expected to reach capacity by the end of 2020 or early 2021, according to Cintri, the city’s sole garbage collector. Both landfills caught fire in March 2018, the cause of the flames attributed to hot weather and a buildup of gases caused by decomposing waste. As of now, it is up to the municipality to find new landfills in which to dump the waste – no easy task in this increasingly industrial capital.
Landfills significantly lower the value of surrounding property. In a rapidly expanding city that aims to be a global draw for business and tourism, Phnom Penh’s property has become a hot commodity for developers, who would hardly welcome a new dumpsite next door.
With neighbouring countries closing their doors to plastic waste, there are fears that the rejected scrap will join the ever growing mountains of landfill.
“We know that Thailand are going to stop accepting imports of recycling. So I would hope that the higher level of Cambodia dealing with this are looking ahead and thinking about what’s going to happen,” said Rhodes.
Going in circles
Ey Srey Ny and Huot Vanna are cheery and seem happily married, she in her mid-twenties and he in his early fifties. She perches behind the cart’s motorbike inside the covered shelter, set up like an office space complete with charging point and cushion, a green metal scales balanced beside her head.
Less than a year ago, the couple moved from their hometown in Prey Veng province to Phnom Penh, having thrown in the towel at their salaried jobs as a factory worker and security guard. Now they roam the Choeung Ek area together salvaging metal scraps, plastic water or oil bottles, cardboard and cans to sell to one of the many depots dotted around the Dangkor landfill.
On a daily basis, their two person team can earn from 40,000R to 100,000R ($10 to $25), but on a good day – if they find more valuable pickings – they can make 200,000R ($50) towards supporting their parents and family at home. Not bad, given that Cambodia’s minimum wage set for garment workers – as of January 2019 – is $182 dollars per month.
“Before this, I used to work in a curtain-making factory,”said Ey Srey Ny. “I fainted many times. So I quit and started this job instead. This job gives us more freedom. Life is easier with this job.”
Scraps collected by these edjais, or waste-pickers, are sold on to recycling depots which act as middlemen, then sold to larger middlemen and so on until they are either bought by one of Cambodia’s own small recycling businesses to be reprocessed, or sold over the border. While in one sense highly inefficient, this system provides multiple parties a small slice of the pie, as tiny margins give each player a small income.
Efforts to formalise this naturally evolving and sprawling system have been met with resistance.
“We saw a situation when the new dumpsite here in Siem Reap was opened, and the edjai that were working on the old dump site, were offered jobs to help with sorting and working in a more conventional work structure, and they didn’t want to do it,” explained Rhodes.
This sentiment is echoed by Mae Kamouey, who described her struggle to find workers for her recycling depot, saying that many would prefer to “dump dive” where they can make more money.
“Back when we were working at the factory, we received monthly salary,” Ey Srey Ny said. “I do not want to work in a formal setting. There are a lot of requirements that come with the job.”
Despite fervently stressing the importance of the three ‘R’s’ – reduce, reuse, recycle – through partnerships with the Ministry of Education in order to “clean the minds” of the next generation, government or sub-level provincial government investment in recycling is negligible.
Cintri is a private company contracted by the Phnom Penh municipality to collect trash left out by small businesses and homes since 2002.
“We do not have a formal recycling system yet,” said Meas Saron, assistant to the executive director of Cintri. “For now, we only have the edjais”.
Even Cintri relies on the edjais to put a dent in the tonnes of trash headed to the city’s Dangkor landfill, and some Cintri employees earn a little money on the side by fishing out recyclables and selling them on to local edjais.
Despite the company’s policy being unfavourable to workers sifting through the trash, a blind eye is turned to this side hustle which supplements employee’s salaries.
“Frankly speaking, it is not supposed to be done like that,”Saron said. “It makes the collecting process even longer than it already is. (…) But if we look at the bright side, with this being done, it also helps that not all recyclable waste would end up at the landfill.”
A reliance on the edjai is an inevitable outcome – and, said Pheaktra, not such a bad thing.
“Because of edjai we can take advantage of the waste, so without edjai that could be a problem,” he said.
The price of plastic waste (recyclables) is dropping daily in Cambodia, as demand abroad for these materials drops. As was the case when China first issued its ban on waste imports, it is likely that bans on scrap imports from neighbouring countries will drastically drive down their value.
Cambodia is facing a situation where around 3,000 edjai and, as of 2018, 462 middlemen depots may lose their largest customers, left with few options of where to sell their plastic scrap.
For Mae Kamouy, there is certainly no shortage of scrap for pulling apart, hammering, shattering, segmenting and dissecting. But her buyers, whom she has built up relationships with over a decade of trade, may soon be prohibited from importing her goods.
It is a possibility that Mae Kamouy had given little consideration to. But when pressed, a frown of concern briefly appears.
“Cambodia has a lot of waste and has very low local demand for it,”she said. “If we don’t export abroad, then where would the waste go? I am not sure if I could continue my business with the ban going on.”
Home-grown recycling initiatives have been doggedly working away in Cambodia to clean up local areas, making small incomes for employees. In the northwest city of Battambang, plastic bags are washed, dried and refined into smaller pieces in Cheng Kimchheav’s recycling facility as part of the young Cambodian’s labour of love to clean up the environment. Running the non-profit, Mr Kimchheav has no plans to expand his business, and has been forced to temporarily halt business until a new premises is found.
Hong Kong based company Asian Plastics Opportunity (APO) propose a strategy of turning plastic waste into energy by transporting self-contained units to areas where plastic pollution is particularly bad, to turn the waste into oil or gas to be used by local people, and once clean, move in to the next area.
Asian Plastics Opportunity president Holger Borchert said that his company was planning on expanding into the Kingdom.
“Our plan is to partner with local companies in order to install and operate several waste to energy units at centres of pollution in Cambodia over the next three years,” he said, though he added that his organisation would “have to collect sufficient funds first.”
In efforts to lure larger foreign investment into Cambodia’s recycling wastelands, the Ministry of Environment is looking to sweeten the deal by offering tax reductions as well as cutting down the price of electricity for recyclers.
“Cambodia is looking for foreign countries to invest in Cambodia to do the recycling here, and create jobs for Cambodian people,” said spokesman Neth Pheakra.
Japanese recycling company Gomi Recycle 110 claims to be the first to receive this discount on electricity, using Japanese technology to turn mixed plastic waste into products to be sold in local markets.
The Japanese company is currently constructing two plastics recycling plants, in the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone and Svay Rieng province, scheduled to start production in September of this year. With the backing of investment from the Japanese government, Gomi hopes that by first tackling waste they can lay the foundations for further Japanese investment in Cambodia.
Manager Hiroya Kawai explained how the technique for plastic recycling, which combines all forms of plastic waste except for PVC, will be melted at high temperature and combined to create tables, chairs and construction bricks strong enough to build bridges and homes.
“What we are doing here is to mix all these different types of plastic to make the material,” he said. “It’s quite strong and it’s not easy to blend, to mix up those plastics. This kind of mixed-plastic recycling doesn’t exist in Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand. It’s quite unique.”
Although he does not want to get ahead of himself, Kawai believes that, if successful, the plants may even be able to receive plastics for processing from neighbouring countries, accounting for the selection of Svay Rieng province which juts out in to Vietnam.
“It’s going to change the market of Cambodia because, with this machine, something we are throwing away as waste will be money,” he said.
Though laudable, this goal is highly ambitious. Each of Gomi Recycle 110’s plants is set to process 2-3 tonnes of waste per day, which in the context of Phnom Penh’s massive emission of waste – an estimated 600 tonnes of plastics per day – seems a mere drop in the ocean.
Kawai confirmed that the plants will buy plastic scraps from edjai or middlemen, and with such a surplus of scrap plastic it is likely they will be getting a particularly good deal.
It does not seem that the Ministry of Environment has a plan for dealing with neighbouring bans on imported plastic scrap, and it is likely that these rolling prohibitions will have a serious impact on the livelihoods of the nation’s scavengers and middle men.
While the impending crash in value of this resource may have disastrous effects on the livelihoods of edjai and middlemen, this could create an environment highly advantageous for investment in recycling.
“There is an opportunity because the price of plastic within the country has gone down,”Hettiarachchi explained. “So if there is anyone interested in investing in plastic processing it’s a good opportunity, because the raw material is cheap now and the labour is inexpensive.”
The question remains, however, as to whether Cambodia can do enough to attract domestic and foreign investment to turn these mounting piles of trash into treasure.