As the population continues to grow, the rubbish mountains grow with it. But as Cambodia realises that their anywhere and everywhere philosophy cannot last forever, the move towards large-scale recycling and renewable energy sources could be a small step forward in the never-ending race to remedy the dilemma with waste. Ben Fahy reports:
A lone wastepicker fossicks through the Stung Mean Chey dumpsite in search of society's buried treasures. An estimated 2000 people collect and sell recyclable materials at the dumpsite everyday.
Every morning, women like 23-year-old Meas Sotheary wade through the filth at the Stung Mean Chey dumpsite in Phnom Penh hoping to find discarded, saleable treasures. Though she and her friends scour the rubbish each day, recycling remains a foreign concept to them. All they know is that in a land of necessity, litter is a livelihood.
Every morning, 'middlemen' like 48-year-old Kong Sophorn buy products from waste pickers like Sotheary: cans for up to 100 riel per kg, paper for 150 riel per kg, glass for 1000 riel per kg and copper for 4000 riel per kg. But as Cambodia has almost no major recycling infrastructure to process any of it, he is forced to pay around $100 in additional fees to transport his truckloads to sell cheaply at the Vietnamese border.
And every morning other countries continue to reap financial benefits from Cambodia's recyclable waste.
Whether it be the metal masquerading as unexploded mines that fetch one baht apiece from Thai contractors; the Vietnamese compost imported at almost double the price of locally produced fertiliser; new Coke bottles and aluminium cans purchased regularly from Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia; or the Thai-produced plastic chairs made from recycled Cambodian plastic, the lack of large-scale recycling here is not only a strain on the local environment, but also a loss of much-needed revenue.
Heng Yong Kora, Program Director of the Community Sanitation and Recycling Organisation (CSARO), says that although small-scale subsistence recycling is a way of life for many, substantial recycling factories, the resources to sustain them and an understanding of the financial and environmental benefits that community-based recycling can bring remain non-existent.
But in conjunction with the Phnom Penh Municipality and a cooperative of Christian NGOs, CSARO has initiated one of the few functioning recycling schemes in Cambodia.
The project involves 20 wastepickers from CSARO's 'yellow army' who are sent door to door to collect rubbish from 6000 houses near the Toul Sleng Museum. The waste is then separated into glass, plastic, aluminium, metal or any other reusable products and sold back to the middlemen who transport it to Vietnam and Thailand to be processed. All of the biodegradable material is made into compost and sold.
Kora says that with this organised and more team-oriented recycling scheme, his workers can earn up to $50 a month through a combination of profits from the middlemen, the collection fees they are paid by the government and the sale of high-quality compost and handicrafts from recycled materials.
"At present, the whole recycling concept is quite new to Cambodia and most people feel that all garbage just goes to the dump. We feel that garbage can do something, and that if we heighten their awareness, there is money to be made," he said. "We shouldn't waste our waste, and with education I think we can improve the situation."
Of 15 wastepickers surveyed around Phnom Penh and at the Stung Mean Chey dumpsite, none of them knew where the recyclable materials they collected ended up. There was also very little understanding of the concept that recycling is beneficial to the environment.
Kora says that residents within the collection area are also unacquainted with waste separation and recycling at present, but nonetheless, the scheme has so far proven to be successful for the workers.
Pascal Patrice, General Director of waste collection agency Cintri, hoped that a similar citywide recycling scheme could one day become a regular part of Cambodia's waste collection system. However, he was realistic about the chances of self-sufficiency if NGOs were not subsidising the project.
"Of course recycling would be good for everyone, but we've got our hands full handling the normal rubbish collection let alone separating it," he said. "... Technically [recycling] is very efficient, but financially it's not at this stage."
As well as the questionable financial viability of large-scale recycling in Phnom Penh, Patrice said the general lack of understanding and individualistic mindsets of Cambodian waste pickers would be difficult to overcome.
"People recycle here more than in most other developed countries, basically because it has a value to them," he said. "It is done very informally though, and there would probably be greater value from a more official system, but it's quite difficult to get [wastepickers] to work in a community-based system where everyone shares."
In addition to possible recycling initiatives, Patrice said Cintri was involved in nine other waste management projects with various organisations, including the Asian Development Bank, the Japanese Fund for Poverty Reduction and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
JICA is currently finalising a 'master plan' for Phnom Penh's waste management system which is due to be implemented by 2007. It are also in the experimental stages of a methane collection scheme at the Stung Mean Chey dumpsite.
In addition to extensive aid donation, Japan is also supplying what locals have dubbed as chochus, or "waste" for a growing second-hand market in Cambodia. Used items such as computers, refrigerators and even bras that are destined for recycling or disposal in Japan are finding their way here to be sold.
As well as Japanese cast-offs, Cambodia's growing consumer demand brings in container loads of second-hand goods from South Korea, Taiwan, the United States and Europe, but Government officials are concerned this "dumping" of developed countries' leftovers will only exacerbate Cambodia's waste problems in the future.
Yukihiro Koizumi, an Assistant Resident Representative with JICA, says the agency is concentrating more on health and safety education of the 2000 estimated wastepickers at Stung Mean Chey than on second-hand bras. Although he says recycling does form a small part of JICA's existing education programs, a more formal scheme at Stung Mean Chey was "still a far more ambitious plan for the future".
Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh Municipal Government Trac Thai Sieng says that while seven projects involving NGOs and government agencies were currently active at Stung Mean Chey, none of them were concentrating specifically on recycling.
He says that for positive changes to be made to Phnom Penh's waste management system, there needs to be increased understanding of the recycling process, as well as a change in attitude towards recycled goods.
"People here don't understand what recycling is, or the quality of the products that can be made, but all the environmental and educational training should eventually crystallize," he said. "Recycling is not something for the general population yet, it's still something for the poor, so we need to overcome the psychological barriers before we can gain any benefits."
Thai Sieng says that of the 800 tonnes of waste dumped at Stung Mean Chey each day, only 15 percent is recyclable. At the present rate, he expected the existing site to reach full capacity in around two years when the "rubbish mountain" would be moved to Choeung Ek, near the Killing Fields.
Minister of Rural Development Ly Thuch also feels the lack of recycling facilities and education amongst the people would continue to be detrimental to the country if changes were not brought about.
"Cambodia has to import everything, even tissues, so we spend far more than we should," he said.
"We ought to push for more recycling factories to show the people the importance of reusing waste. Cambodian people use their land like millionaires and then throw everything on it. That needs to change."
As well as Cambodia's potential waste recycling strategies, the Cambodia Fuelwood Saving Project (CFSP), which was given $1 million by the European Commission and is managed by a French NGO, has been working on projects to create charcoal from biomass waste.
At a January 22 conference organised by the European Commission, 45 countries agreed to support similar projects that aimed to expand renewable energy sources in developing nations.
The European Union Energy Initiatives report stated: "Increased efforts should be made to assist developing countries in establishing energy strategies for sustainable development that appropriately address poverty eradication."
Senior Program Director of Rural Development at the European Commission Tony Felts says that by reusing waste such as coconut husks, cassava trees, leaves and other soft woods to create charcoal, the CFSP scheme would lead to reduced pollution, increased urban employment and decreased illegal logging.
Felts says that with such a small commercial waste market in Cambodia, large-scale recycling would bring minimal financial benefits to the country. But as over 80 percent of the population uses hardwood charcoal, which is illegal to produce, the availability of a fuel source made from biomass waste would be a much more valuable commodity.
In addition to the benefits of a renewable fuel source, Felts says that pyragallol, a by-product that can be collected from the fluid draining process, was now being marketed as an insecticide in Thailand.
Currently, he says, 25 percent of the wood ends up as dust during charcoal production, but that with a mixture of Cassava powder, resin and clay they could create a high-quality substance to make briquette, the binding agent that is essential for good-quality softwood charcoal.
But like the issues that hamper increased recycling in Cambodia, a lack of understanding about the quality of softwood charcoal within the general population and a lack of positive response from the government is stymieing the project's potential.
"This is a really non-confrontational and proactive approach to a big problem," he said. "If we can manage the production and use of the charcoal from softwoods, we will have a sustainable fuel source that could reduce poverty. But can we change the law [on charcoal]?"
The Ministry of Environment declined to comment on the issue of recycling or the production of charcoal from biomass waste.
So as the rubbish mountains continue to grow, and the wastepickers continue to eke out their existence from the leftovers of society, waste management remains an unavoidable concern for Cambodia's environmental future. A broader understanding and more formal implementation of recycling amongst all Cambodians is a good first step for a country that seems to be losing the battle with its own refuse.