Plastic Kingdom: On Cambodia’s Recycling Trail

Author: Miguel Jeronimo

Lacking adequate structures to deal with the country’s waste, Cambodia leaves its growing problem to edjais, a local term for the informal waste pickers that wander the streets with hand carts looking for something valuable to collect off the street and sell. It’s estimated that 3,000 tonnes of waste (600 of them plastic) are produced per day just in the capital Phnom Penh, so there’s plenty to be selected, hand-picked and sold for further processing downstream in the recycling trail. 

Unfortunately, not all trash is created equal. Plastic bags, for instance, aren’t worth the trouble for edjais due to the low price they can get in the market.

The problem can be measured and counted: some 10 million bags are used daily in Phnom Penh; 48% of plastics are burned or thrown into rivers or the ocean; and 80% of coastal debris is plastic waste.

The government is aware of the waste issue, and has taken some action, like introducing a fee for plastic bags at select supermarkets. But small, token initiatives leave plenty of waste behind. Every monsoon season clogged drainage systems lead to massive floods in most major cities.

After deadly flooding in the coastal town of Sihanoukville this year, the government announced a US$100 million investment from the national budget for next year to renovate the city’s wastewater treatment, drainage networks and road infrastructure to prevent more floods.

Nevertheless, most of the work being put into recycling in the country is still done in a bottom-up way, dealt by hand, every day, by thousands of tireless edjais.

Edjai payment - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Kong Vanny, a single mother with three children who lives on the street in Phnom Penh, counts her payment—US$7.50—for a day’s collection of recyclable metals and glass. Street edjais can earn from US$2.50 to US$7.50 a day depending on luck, weather and their health condition. If an edjai can’t work, there’s no social support system to help her make ends meet. But in the end, they’re the ones making it possible to recycle some of the trash produced in Cambodia—an estimated 11% of the total waste.

Metal collection centre - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

A child playing in a metal collection centre. The whole system is based on an informal hierarchy that goes from the street edjais to small collection centres where they sell the picked-up trash, and then from the small centres to larger ones that will compress and export the recyclable materials in bulk quantities. The process can reach five to seven middlemen from the moment a piece of garbage is hand-picked to the moment it arrives at an actual recycling factory. The pictured recycling centre mainly buys metal, with cans of beer or soft drinks being the items that fetch the highest value for street edjais. Prices sometimes reach up to 2500 riel/kg (US$0.60).

An edjai woman - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

An edjai woman, who preferred not to be named, prepares a traditional dish. She’s a Vietnamese national now in her 50s, who has worked as an edjai since she was 19. Over the years, she’s worked her way up the informal recycling hierarchy from collecting trash in the streets to owning a major processing facility. It’s common in Cambodia’s informal waste-collection sector for Vietnamese families to run things, despite the fact that Vietnamese people face numerous human rights violations and discrimination within Cambodian society.

Processed plastic - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

The Vietnamese edjai woman buys plastics already sorted, such as bottles and coffee cups, for 500 riel/kg (US$0.12) or undifferentiated plastics for 300 riel/kg (US$0.07), which she washes, often cleaning off other attached rubbish by hand, and crushes to be ready to sell for export to factories that make plastic chairs, baskets and other items.

Packing - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

After recyclables are compressed, workers stack high and strap the sorted garbage to be transported in the back of trucks. At the moment, virtually all the recycled plastic is being exported to neighbouring countries due to the lack of proper processing facilities in Cambodia to deal with the amount of trash produced. But with Thailand banning all trash imports next year and Vietnam planning to follow the ban in 2025, Cambodia is feeling the urgency to develop solutions soon.

Plastic chips - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Some local projects are starting to tackle the increasing waste issue. For instance, a non-profit pilot project in Battambang City is producing these samples from recycled polyethylene and high-density polyethylene by selecting, cleaning, cutting and melting the plastic into chips. On a bigger scale, the Japanese company Gomi Recycle 110 is building two factories in the special economic zones of Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng province, each one with the capacity to process two to three tonnes per day and transform the waste into composite eco-bricks, which are used as an alternative building material in construction.

Glass - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Samples of glass gravel from different types of bottles. In Siem Reap, a cooperation between the social enterprise Naga Earth and municipal waste management company Gaea is piloting the first project on glass recycling in the country. Glass is a material not usually picked up by edjais due to the lack of market value. Planned to be launched in late 2019, Naga Earth and Gaea have started to collect bottles in order to pulverize them into sand and gravel for use in the production of concrete, asphalt, artisanal glassware, water filtration, decoration or jewelry. Their glass pulverizer can process five tonnes per day and reduce the volume of the glass processed by up to 80%.

Sreynak - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Another side of the waste management system is what to do with the wet waste such as leftovers of food or rotten vegetables. Sreynak, a worker at Twin Agri Tech, an organic fertiliser company started by a Singaporean entrepreneur, is one of the most successful projects in this front. Through an agreement between Twin Agri and Cintri, the Phnom Penh municipal waste management company, the latter delivers all the wet waste from nearby street markets to their facilities. Small-scale street vendors, such as sugarcane juice sellers, also drop their waste at the company’s door.

Earthworm - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Monorom Tchaw, a local composting advocate, checking the Twin Agri Tech’s vermicompost process, which uses worms to accelerate the decomposition of biodegradable materials, which will be, in the end, sold to a large agriculture client as organic fertiliser.

Csaro is a local nonprofit, which is also dealing with compost, processing 4 tonnes/day of wet waste from Phsar Damko, a popular street market, and selling it to smallholder farmers for 50 cents/kg.

Hospital waste - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Hospital waste lying in a collection centre among all sorts of other trash. One of the main consequences of the recycling system lacking an underlying structure from the government or private sector is that all waste is picked up equally. Thus, hazardous products or hospital garbage is dumped in garbage containers or placed in the street like conventional trash, with the hordes of edjais that roam the streets looking for something valuable to sell ending up touching with their bare hands materials that can be infectious, unsanitary or even toxic.

Luma systems - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Borey Chum, a Cambodian national and CEO of Luma Systems, showing the software he’s currently developing. Looking into the future, this start-up is designing automatic recognition and mapping software that can help reduce the risks of dangerous trash being treated the same as conventional waste.

Chum’s program, which in the future he hopes will be uploaded to drones that would fly around the city of Sihanoukville where he’s focusing a pilot project, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to recognise which kinds of trash are on the street—medical, construction or household waste—in order to alert the local waste management company and allow it to plan smarter routes for its trucks according to the dimensions and type of garbage.

Go Green - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

Grace Smith, an international expert on waste from Go Green Cambodia, presenting at the Waste Summit in Phnom Penh in September 2019. The group’s proposed project would formalise the jobs of edjais in a structure supported by government, waste-collecting companies such as Cintri, municipalities and other stakeholders. With an estimated kick-start for next year, the program aims to provide improved working conditions to waste pickers, such as better hygiene, tools and safety standards, and stable income, while coordinating the different stakeholders to upgrade the whole recycling industry in the country.

Dumpsite - New Naratif
Miguel Jeronimo

The Choeung Ek dumpsite in the south end of Phnom Penh, which receives up to 1,600 tonnes of garbage per day. Despite troubled conditions in terms of hygiene and safety, it’s still the home of hundreds of families of scavengers who make a living looking for whatever they can find that was not previously collected from the street edjais. With new projects starting up, some of this waste can be processed locally without ending up at the dumpsite, or worse, in bodies of water or burned in the open air. Until then, the dumpsite keeps getting fuller, with plans already being discussed to open a new one—the third major dumpsite around the Cambodian capital.


Miguel Jeronimo

Miguel Jeronimo is a freelance photographer and writer, artist and poet. From Lisbon, Portugal, now based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Passionate about working for NGOs in meaningful projects, collaborating with other artists and curating exhibitions with impact.

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