Standing on a huge, smoking mound of trash, Ban Ra, 37, divides his treasures
into piles. Cardboard, plastic bottles, scrap metal, sacks, cans - all can be
traded for cash with the middlemen at the foot of the rubbish heap.
Twenty-year-old Hun Ni has been working as a scavenger in the dump for
more than three years. Today he is collecting plastic bags. Not just any plastic
bags: a particular type of soft, clear plastic is the only kind worth any money.
For each kilogram of plastic he can make 150 riel. Ni estimates that in a day,
he can gather 50kg.
Kay Sun, 44, and his wife Nath Chanthoeun, 45, have
lived and worked beside the dump for 15 years. When they moved there, the dump
was a hole in the ground; now it towers over their home, a small, dilapidated
shack surrounded by rubbish. This is a dangerous place to work. Broken glass
protrudes from the black soil and scavengers have been run over by the bulldozer
driver, who failed to see them in time.
This is Stung Meanchey, the
Phnom Penh rubbish dump, and every morning, men, women and children comb the
muck for saleable items. Small fires spew noxious black smoke into the morning
air. Naked, muddy children clamber over the flotsam. Old clothes, vegetable
matter, hair dye sachets, a baby's sandal; the refuse of a city accumulates
here, a stinking man-made mountain growing higher every year.
By far the
most common items of rubbish are ordinary plastic bags. Pink, yellow, blue,
white, they carpet vast areas of this otherwise monochrome landscape with
impressionist daubs of pastel.
Since recycling companies started paying
people to collect plastic, says Sun, there have been fewer plastic bags around.
But more recently, numbers have increased again - because the companies pay so
little for ordinary supermarket bags (scavengers make just 50 riel per kilogram)
that people just ignore them. Other kinds of trash - bottles, polystyrene, metal
- are far more lucrative.
Like many cities worldwide, Phnom Penh has a
plastic bag problem. It's a recent phenomenon. Cambodians traditionally used
paper bags, or bags made from banana or lotus leaves. Plastic bags arrived in
the country with UNTAC in the early 1990s, and today they are imported from
Thailand or Vietnam.
Since they were invented in 1957, every plastic bag
ever produced is still with us, whether in solid form in the water or soil, or,
if burnt, as toxic chemicals in the atmosphere. In our rivers and oceans they
suffocate fish and other creatures. In cities like Phnom Penh, they block
drains, which contributes to flooding in the wet season, and traps dangerous
factory waste near people's homes during the dry.
Local NGO Cambodia's
Media Forum on Environment (CMFE) recently completed a study on the health
effects on people of plastic bag pollution.
"We found that people who
live in areas with lots of plastic bags have lots of diseases: sore throats,
headaches, and lung disease," says CMFE director Ek Visarakhun.
past few years, many countries have taken steps to minimize plastic bag usage.
In 2002, Ireland introduced "Plastax," charging 15 cents for every bag used at
check-out. The idea was not to generate revenue, but to act as a deterrent,
encouraging people to bring their own, reusable bags when they shop. The scheme
resulted in a 90 percent drop in bag consumption.
countries, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Kenya, have also implemented similar
programs. In the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, anyone found using a
plastic bag could face a fine or even a prison sentence. Visarakhun believes
it's time Cambodia started addressing this problem.
"We don't have a
specific plan yet," says Pak Sokharavuth of the Department of Pollution Control.
"But we consider that it is one of our major environmental problems, and I think
that this year or next year we will consider ways to minimize the use of the
plastic bag. It would be a very good step for the Cambodian people."
what's good for the environment may not be so good for the Stung Meanchey
scavengers. If such schemes are successful, part of their livelihood will
"Plastic is not the main thing," says Kay Sun, "but it is part
of the business. If there are no plastic bags, I will lose a part of my income."
It's something legislators will have to consider - but the sheer variety of
saleable junk in the dump means that scavengers should be able to survive such a
In any case, for Ek Visarakhun, plastic bag usage in Cambodia has
reached such absurd levels that action must be taken.
"Now when I buy one
bottle of water at the market, they put it in a plastic bag for me!" he says. He
has several suggestions for ways to reduce consumption.
"We would like to
do as other countries do, and fine sellers who give out free plastic
"Many Cambodians are not clear about what looking after the
environment means. We want to explain the harmful effects of plastic bags to
people, and promote the benefits of using a basket for shopping. Now, every time
people shop in the markets, they come home with many plastic bags.
want to work with the Ministry of Environment to distribute leaflets to the
women who shop there, and hang a banner in every market saying 'Use a family
shopping basket to reduce your environmental impact.'
"It is very
important that some action is taken. In Cambodia now we have peace with the
people, but we do not have peace with the environment."