Swaying atop a mountain of trash, my stinging eyes strain for a knuckle of marketable metal among the mountains of discarded plastic and organic waste. The 75-acre dumpsite, located only 40 minutes south of Phnom Penh’s rambunctious city center, is where 53-year-old rail-thin Proem Smien has been surviving off tin and copper since it opened for business.
“We pick up all kinds of materials, but we can make about 35 cents for a kilogram of tin and around $3.20 for a kilogram of copper. We can survive but we’re not rich,” he laughs, exhaling through two loose teeth.
Smien sells repurposed castaways to a middleman, who then exports it to Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia. Purchased for $7 million early last decade, the Choeung Ek landfill took five years to prepare and is already beginning to burst its banks.
City officials opened the dump to replace the Stung Meanchey landfill in 2009, after residents began falling sick, creating a public relations headache for city officials. Built aboveground, the 44-year-old Stung Meanchey dump had morphed into a notorious symbol of international poverty after local NGOs and international coverage shone a light on the families living on and around the toxic waste.
With the opening of Choeung Ek dump, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Chrean Sophan had projected or imagined a different version of history than what was standing before me.
“We will not allow the scavengers to work here, and even if we did, they wouldn’t have any garbage to collect because we will bury it every two days,” he told the Phnom Penh Post in 2009.
He was wrong.
With a population that has doubled to more than two million since 1998, and no government-sponsored recycling system, the city’s sanitation system is, in fact, in overdrive. Garbage collection rates outside of the capital, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, hover around 50 percent or less.
As such, freelance recyclers like Smien play a vital role in maintaining Phnom Penh’s heartbeat. The capital produces 1,600 tons of garbage a day, according to Sen Chrouen, deputy director of Cintri, a subsidiary of the Canadian Firm Cintec, who signed a contract with the city in 2002, making it solely responsible for clearing the city of waste.
“More trash is being produced every year with such a booming population and the perimeter of the capital just keeps expanding,” says Chrouen, adding that anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 waste-pickers glean a livelihood from the dumpsite.
And while small-scale subsistence recycling is a way of life for Pach and Smien, the environmental and financial benefits of community-based recycling is a revolution still waiting to unfold in Phnom Penh.
Twenty-one-year-old Ban Pach has discovered many things she wishes she hadn’t in the landfill. “When we find mines [or unexploded ordnances] we feel afraid,” she says, reminding me that we’re standing within walking distance of the notorious killing fields, home to a number of the Khmer Rogue’s mass graves.
Leaning close enough that her breath caresses my collarbone she tells me that losing a friend to disease or a garbage bulldozer isn’t a foreign experience.
But the men and women employed by Cintri aren’t happy with their situation either. More than 1,000 sanitation workers went on strike in early February, demanding a wage increase to $150 per month, a health bonus and overtime. After the first day of the citywide strike, islands of trash began slowly transforming Phnom Penh’s streets, leaving city officials desperate. A deal was struck less than a week later.
No plan to institute a national or citywide recycling program is currently in the works according to city officials, but NGOs are working to fill the void. In 2009, the Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization (CSARO) began teaching local waste pickers how to compost organic waste, a program capable of earning the community up to $1,090 from 207 tons of organic waste later sold in local markets as fertilizer, according to Am Sam Ol, a program officer.
“The program keeps getting bigger because we use peer educators,” says Sam Ol. “Composting centers are one way we’re hoping turn around the lives of a lot of these people. Cintri is responsible for dealing with carting away garbage while we try to find different ways to use what we’ve already made.”
Sam Ol says the team-oriented recycling scheme can earn waste-pickers up to $60 a month, profits made from the middleman, as well as the sale of compost and recycled handicrafts. The organization also runs a mobile outreach clinic in Phnom Penh that stages “curbside sessions,” designed to teach informal classes to young waste-pickers covering lessons ranging from food hygiene, reading and math.
Doeun Veayu and Lim Hor are both 15 and dropped out of school before they hit the fifth grade. Veayu toys with a straw between his long fingers, looking at me with eyes devoid of lashes or humor. He tells me they recycle waste twice a day, leaving no time for sitting in classrooms. CSARO’s mobile clinics are the easiest way for both boys to learn how to read.
As we stand talking atop the apocalyptic hills of Choeung Ek dump, I become nauseas and am forced to kneel. A boss-looking older female waste-picker shushes the young women snickering at the retching “barang” (foreigner). She rubs my back with callused fingers, invoking a sensation similar to the drag of dry lips on dry lips, dipping a rag in a bucket of poisonous-looking water and drenching my exposed neck with it.
“You don’t know how strong we are,” she tells me.