Phnom Penh’s mounting problem of streets overflowing with trash and littered with heaps of garbage, sometimes left for days on end, could be tackled better if the waste management sector were opened up to private sector competition, according to an independent researcher.
Bunrith Seng, a senior consultant at the United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia, said yesterday at an event held by the European Chamber of Commerce that the capital’s struggle to provide proper waste management services were hamstrung by only having one licensed firm – Cintri – allowed to operate.
“It’s always good to have competition,” he said. “It would be good to have competition in the waste management sector, it would help improve things I am sure, but whether it happens or not depends on City Hall.”
Seng, who was previously an operations specialist for Cintri for nearly two years, said that Phnom Penh sends 2,000 tonnes of garbage to a landfill every day. But he lamented that poor and sporadic service has left several more tonnes ungathered, even in the heart of the city, with no waste management services provided to communes on the capital’s outskirts.
Cintri – which employs approximately 1,500 workers, equipped primarily with trucks and pushcarts to collect the mountains of trash on the streets – has been the only waste management company operating in Phnom Penh since 2002.
Ith Chenda, chief of the waste collection office at Cintri, was less receptive to the idea that competition would solve Phnom Penh’s waste management problems, defending the company’s operations.
“We have enough equipment to collect the waste in Phnom Penh ourselves. It would not be beneficial to the city to have more companies or more effective trash management,” he said. “What we need is to set up a proper schedule for waste collection.”
However, Seng said Cintri’s problems cannot solely be addressed by a new schedule for collection. He added that heavy traffic has forced the company to introduce numerous night shifts for trash gathering. But both trucks and employees now face constant danger of collisions with drunk drivers.
Truck drivers, who are meant to collect trash twice daily, often return to the landfill without having completed their routes, he added, and several streets in Phnom Penh are not included on any mapped truck routes at all. There are only a few hundred trash bins available in the city, and where there are dumpsters, most people tend to throw their trash near – rather than inside – of them, he said.
While he acknowledges that Cintri has tried to fix these problems to improve service, the solutions have not always been effective. The company now requires each truck returning to the landfill weigh at least 9 tonnes before its driver is allowed to end a shift, and GPS devices have been installed in some trucks to allow both Cintri and City Hall to track their routes.
Unsurprisingly, Seng explained, many of the GPS devices have begun malfunctioning.“They scare the drivers,” he said. “They scare them so much that the new GPS systems, meant to be waterproof, have stopped working due to water damage. I think the problem is the drivers.”
Both Seng and Chenda agreed that one of Cintri’s most pressing problems has been collecting payments. While the Cintri service fee is incorporated in homeowners’ electricity bills, many can choose not to pay the charge if they feel the trash collection service has been inadequate.
“Some customers choose not to pay our service fee and claim that our service does not work properly,” said Chenda. “This challenge is not poor management but is a lack of both infrastructure and cooperation from all parties.”
While the exact terms of Cintri’s contract have never been made public, the agreement with City Hall is not expected to expire until at least 2048, he said.
Seng lamented the lack of laws regarding waste management services in Cambodia as a whole and said he would like to see City Hall more actively streamlining the process.
“We really don’t have proper guidelines to follow,” he explained. “City Hall should have full power to give service to private companies in Phnom Penh, to outsource . . . and to figure out a way to pay back [to Cintri] the money it is owed [for collection services].”
Met Measpheakdey, a City Hall spokesman, explained that while he recognises the challenges Cintri has faced, it is within the rights of citizens not to pay for services they do not deem acceptable, and it is not the government’s concern if the company is not paid.
“The company has to cooperate with City Hall and with authorities to find solutions,” he said. “For challenges with payment, Cintri has to find out what to do, as it might be providing a poor service and that’s why customers have the right to refuse to pay.”
He added that City Hall has high expectations for Cintri’s service, and demands that those expectations are met. “We have a contract with Cintri, so everything is based on that contract. If there is a lack of service, we have the right to recommend them to improve,” he said.
Still, Measpheakdey expressed an interest in welcoming other waste management companies vying to enter Phnom Penh.
“Even we if have Cintri operating here, we are still opening the gate for all investors to invest in waste collection and to come clean the city,” he said. “So far, there have been some investors that show interest in operating here, but none of them have created solid plans for the future.”