From streetside to the retail market, the journey of trash

From streetside to the retail market, the journey of trash


While it may appear that little effort is put into recycling in Cambodia, the reality is that everything of commercial value is scavenged from rubbish piles by local etjai within hours


Sculpture installations made out of recyclable materials by school children on display during arts week at ICAN.

Phnom Penh Recycling Tips

  • Ask your landlord or neighbours about the general garbage collection service, or ask your maid to give/sell recyclables to the neighbourhood etjai
  • Bring Tetra Paks, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, recycled paper and straws to Smateria
  • Contact Smateria if you run a hotel or restaurant and are interested in recycling materials
  • Contact Friends if you have a business or organisation and you would like to give them materials for recycling, such as paper
  • Order take-aways from places that do not use Styrofoam boxes

IT'S an almost a perfect system here, there is a market for everything, said Elisa Lion, co-owner of Smateria, a shop selling products made with recycled and reused materials. Glass and plastic bottles, cans, cardboard, paper and rubber materials are all of value. "Your bin bag is likely to be checked at least four times before ending up at Stung Meanchey [rubbish dump]," she said.

In Phnom Penh, recycling works through the etjai, a  term that means "recycle" in Vietnamese, hinting at the origins of the system. The etjai men and women, sometimes also called waste pickers, walk around pushing their carts shouting out, "etjai, etjai", after which residents in the area come forward to sell their recyclables. The going rate for two cans is 100 riels (US$0.02), while plastic bottles are bought at around 300 riels per kilogram. The etjai then sell the material to a recycling station for a slightly higher price, after which most of it is sold abroad, mainly to Vietnam and Thailand.

Cintri, the company in charge of rubbish collection in Phnom Penh, also removes recyclables from household waste. However, if your bin was left on the street awaiting collection, it is likely to have been foraged through before the company gets to it.   

Despite evident demand for recyclables, there is a drawback to the market-based system, a so-called market failure. Styrofoam (which many take-aways are delivered in), plastic bags and boxes, PVC, Tetra Paks, yoghurt tubs, batteries, as well as other hazardous waste are some of the materials that are traditionally not re-sellable and hence not recycled, despite their detrimental effect on the environment. These materials end up discarded on the roadside, in lakes, at landfills, or they go up in smoke. Plastic, in particular, is a favourite fire starter, polluting the air.

"[Around] 75 percent of waste in Cambodia is organic," said Heng Yon Kora, director of the Community Sanitation and Recycling Organisation (CSARO). The organisation works with waste pickers and the poor and marginalised communities they come from. Heng Yon Kora said that if household waste was effectively sorted, much of it could be used for compost, but that it is of no use when mixed with non-organic and hazardous waste. "We need to teach people about waste management, and also educate waste pickers about the hazards of their work," he said.

Waste not, want not

Among its many activities, CSARO mobilises waste pickers into groups that collect solid waste and safely sort it at one of the organisation's centres. Recycled materials are used inventively to make other products, from envelopes to hats, while organic material is made into compost. "Demand for our compost currently exceeds the amount we can supply," Heng Yon Kora said.

Other organisations and businesses in the capital also work with disadvantaged groups to bring value to waste. At the NGO Mith Samlanh, or Friends, expatriates and foreign tourists can purchase products made using recycled materials. These range from purses and necklaces to shopping bags.

Your bin bag is likely to be checked at least four times before ending up at stung meanchey.

Friends' business and marketing adviser, Dennis Barbian, explained that the project started with trying to encourage street children to attend school.
"The kids had to contribute to the family income, so we realised we had to help the parents, as well, in order to keep the kids in school," he said.

And so a home-based production program was started in which parents, mainly mothers, are trained to produce products sold by Friends on their behalf. "They have to source the raw materials themselves. They could buy the items needed, but surely it's better to use what is available?" he said. Many products sold at Friends are made from used rice bags, cigarette cartons, paper, cardboard, Tetra Paks and even cans.

Similarly at Smateria, the product range features wallets made with Tetra Paks, bags made from plastic bags, as well as several different products made from mosquito netting for animals. The mosquito net is not recycled; the material used is generally off-cuts and is essentially reused. Owners Elisa Lion and Jennifer Morellato, however, warn that while they aspire to be frank about the mosquito netting not being recycled, other producers may be less forthright. "You can buy new rice bags in the market, and add value by making them into other products," Lion said.

University student Thon Saykhim, 20, who coordinated events for the recent Environment Week, said that even if many households sell recyclables to the etjai, throwing rubbish around is a common problem that contributes to bad smells, flies and the spread of disease. "We need to change people's mentality about the environment. It's a very hard thing to do, but I hope the younger generation will lead by example," she said. CSARO's Heng Yan Karo  called also for government leadership. "The government has to commit to recycling and waste management. We need not just talk, but real action."

For  further information visit Friends at, Smateria at and CSARO at


  • Ethnic group ‘disappointed’ to be denied French visas to attend court

    Eleven people at the centre of a case involving seven indigenous Bunong villages in Mondulkiri province pursuing legal action in France have expressed disappointment after the French embassy in Phnom Penh denied their visa applications to attend court. A press release said the 11 included a

  • Cambodia nabs 12th place in best retirement destinations

    Cambodia is an expatriate hotspot for those dreaming of living a more luxurious lifestyle at an affordable cost, according to International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index 2019. For the fourth year in a row, Cambodia took the top spot in the Cost of Living category.

  • EU starts EBA withdrawal

    The EU on Monday announced that it has begun the 18-month process of withdrawing the Kingdom’s access to its preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement over “a deterioration of democracy [and] respect for human rights”. However, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) said

  • PM: War result of foreign meddling

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Sunday that Cambodia’s recent history of conflict was caused by foreign interference. “The wars that happened were caused by provocation, incitement, support, smearing and interference from foreign powers, and the group of ignorant people who pushed Cambodia to