After a morning pulling a cart full of scraps — old books, cans and bottles — Mean Ang, 50, sits in the shade of a house in Boeung Salang commune in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district.
He has been a scavenger for three years, a side job for when he has little farming to do in Kampong Speu. He and his wife stay with their two children who study and work in the capital, and separately drag their carts through Phnom Penh streets.
Sweating in the midday heat, Ang says he starts every day at 7 a.m., making his way through the neighborhood. After a lunch break, he works several more hours, till about 6 p.m. In one day, he can earn 20,000 to 30,000 riel (about $5-7.50) after selling the scraps he collects.
“This cart costs about $50, but I got it from the boss,” Ang says. He received the cart and some capital, and now sells the scraps he finds back to the boss, he says.
He picks up scraps from the sidewalk, and refuses to dig through garbage bags. Ang — like the other scavengers reporters spoke to — hopes that people will start separating their recyclables, for the sake of their safety.
“I don’t dig into the trash because it is mixed with other waste such as diapers,” Ang says. “I only pick up trash that has been put in a different bag. There are some people now who are aware of this and separate their waste.”
Lai Louk, a widow with three children, has worked as a scavenger for two to three years. She works in the evenings, from about 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sometimes she gets cut as she digs through trash bags in front of people’s houses to find cans and bottles.
“I use my hands to take cans out of garbage bags. If I hear the sound, ‘prowk,’ I take the plastic bottle,” she says. “Some garbage is stinky, though some are not bad. But sometimes I get cut by razors.”
Two other scavengers nearby share one cart, which in the late afternoon contains only some bags. They are sheltering from rain in front of an apartment building.
The husband and wife, who give their names only as Chea and Sinuon, say the price of recyclables has dropped recently, making their lives more difficult.
Originally from Svay Rieng province, the couple have been working as scavengers in Phnom Penh for about four years.
“Some days we can earn 20,000 riel [about $5] and some days we can even get up to 40,000 to 60,000 riel [$10-15],” Sinuon says. Sometimes they buy recyclables directly from residents, she says. But mostly they have to dig through residents’ garbage.
In Cambodia, separating trash is uncommon, with no city-wide recycling available. Most trash bags left outside homes are a mix of household waste, including bottles, cans, plastic, food scraps and sharp objects.
Heap Sakoun, operations manager for Cintri, Phnom Penh’s trash collection company, says scavengers who dig through the city’s only dumpsite near Cheung Ek have an especially hazardous task. Some have had accidents — some have even died — after being struck by bulldozers and trucks dumping trash at the landfill, he says.
He says Phnom Penh residents should start separating trash for scavengers’ safety, even if recycling services are not yet available.
“The ministries involved should make advertisements and promote the separating of trash,” Sakoun says. “[They should] make songs, pictures, broadcasts on radio, TV and more.”
Avy Arina, a project staffer at the Environment Ministry, says the ministry has a pilot project to promote garbage separation at Borey Peng Huoth, near Boeung Snor lake in Chbar Ampov district’s Nirouth commune.
Officers have been asking people to separate their trash there into three types: kichen waste, plastic waste and hazardous waste, Arina says.
“There have been promotional campaigns in the past, but without success. There was a Japanese company that wanted to come to invest in garbage recycling, but reconsidered because of the difficulty of separating. Our people still mix their garbage together,” Arina says.
The Phnom Penh Waste Management Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2035, released in October 2018, also recommends reuse and recycling of waste, in particular improving public education around how to propertly dispose of garbage.