Phnom Penh is a city that is slowly sinking under the weight of its own waste. Even with the establishment of the new municipal landfill in Choeung Ek – which was necessitated by the closure of the previous site in Steung Meanchey in 2009 – the city’s gargantuan garbage problem is only going to get worse as the capital’s population continues to grow, with some estimates stating that the city’s inhabitants may reach as high as 2.9 million by 2025.
Compounded by the lack of an effective garbage collection system and recycling initiatives, the result is a sea of waste across the city – save for around 60 percent of the city’s population that are lucky enough to receive (inconsistent) garbage collection services, according to the Asia Foundation.
For the privileged few, these mountains of garbage are eyesores that should be kept out of sight. But as common wisdom puts it, another man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so in the eyes of Phnom Penh’s street recyclers, these piles are their treasures – with a few thousand riel hidden behind every pile of refuse left behind by the rich.
Day by day, these street recyclers roam the city’s streets in makeshift carts – with no protective gear – to scrounge whatever they can get from the side of the street. From cardboard scraps to cans, from PET bottles to pieces of fabric, there are haulers for each objects, and specific buyers that would buy these wastes by the kilo in exchange for a few dollars, just enough to last them yet another day.
Yet these street recyclers continue to brave the heat – because otherwise, what are they going to eat?