Sophana works through the night sorting through garbage in one of Phnom Penh’s busiest bar districts.
PHNOM PENH: On any typical night around the heaving bars full of tourists and female workers, street pickers lurk in the shadows.
They are children, their parents and the elderly. They are grimy, hungry and desperate.
Phon Sophana is one of them. He and his family, including his wife and two young children, live on the street, foraging a living by searching through discarded waste for items of value, normally plastic bottles and cans.
They work through the night, mostly in the darkness, but all around the clock if they have the stamina.
“There are a lot of competitors,” the 31-year-old said. “If I can go early enough, it would be lucky. If the others go before me, they would collect everything first.
“Life is tough here.”
The rewards are meagre. Twenty kilogrammes of collected plastic bottles earn Sophana about US$1.50; cans are more valuable, but each day his family can only expect to earn about US$2.50, he said.
His youngest boy is just a toddler, naked and crying alongside his sleeping mother on the footpath. His elder son, six, is already scavenging on the streets – many street pickers in Cambodia are children.
But Sophana dreams that one day he will be able to send them to an orphanage to escape the cycle he has been trapped in since he himself was a child.
“If I want them just to be like me now, I would not be working so hard,” he said. “I am working hard every day just for them.
“But what to do? Now I don’t even have a house.”
Sophana feels the only secure future his children can have is at an orphanage.
Recycling as a source of income drives a whirring mini-economy on these streets, fuelled by the consumption of a growing city. The waste sector remains overwhelmingly informal, with Cambodia lacking a centralised recycling scheme that could help reduce urban garbage.
Much of the country’s waste is thrown into open tips or burned, and litter throughout city streets and canals is prevalent.
Within the gaps, however, grows enterprise. Hundreds of middlemen scrap collectors dot the corners around Phnom Penh, making profits from selling plastic, cardboard and metal to Vietnam and Thailand.
Kim Keam, 72, is one of the cogs in the wheel. The former real estate agent buys and sells from the street pickers, collecting larger amounts of waste to be on-traded to larger processors.
“They transport it to Vietnam, and I have no idea what will it be used for. I only know that I earn about 10,000 Riel (US$2.50) per day, which I use to pay my medical bills,” he said.
The sellers here are not just society’s poorest – an employee of the National Assembly arrives on his motorcycle with a garbage bag full of cardboard he collected at his work place that day. He is able to sell it for just less than one dollar, not an insignificant bounty in this country.
Aluminium cans can be sold to middlemen for about US$0.75 per kilogramme.
KALEIDOSCOPE OF FILTH
Around Stung Meanchey, at the site of Phnom Penh’s notorious former dump, hundreds of families endure squalor to drive the business.
Their homes still bear the remnants of the old site, while evidence that the practice of scavenging remains ongoing is clear from the mountains of assorted plastic and layers of waste that create kaleidoscope paths of filth between houses.
But after the Stung Meanchey site was abandoned in 2009 for a different facility – Choeung Ek, which is about seven kilometres away – families who survive on picking need to wander further to meet their daily targets.
Children play among mountains of collected waste in Stung Meanchey.
“I go roaming everywhere around Phnom Penh,” said 37-year-old mother Sok Ran. “I wander without any specific direction until I get some good pickings. I start from 5am and at 5pm I come back home.”
Some people, including 27-year-old Than Kunthy, said they preferred the less structured nature of the work rather than employment in one of the country’s many garment workers, where monthly wages are less than US$150.
“To me, scavenging offers me a lot more freedom than garment factory work,” she said. “At the factory, if I want to have a day off, I needed to seek permission. Sometime, they allow it, sometime they don’t. It is really strict.”
While the picking business has become increasingly difficult since the re-location of the dump, many families chose not to move with it, buoyed by a squadron of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that now provide services, education and opportunities to the local community.
Many families have continued living in the community due to the number of NGO-provided services.
Sok Ran said she uses much of her income to pay for her children’s education, but it is a burden now lessened by NGOs who fund schools, drop-in centres, meals and medical care.
“I am uneducated, so I don’t want my kids to be like me,” she said.
Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) is one of many organisations working to support families in the region by encouraging learning and discouraging methamphetamine use, which is on the rise in the community.
“It has grown exponentially over the last two years, driven ironically by the fact that the youth (who) use meth are making more money than those (who) didn’t because they are staying up and working for 12-15 hours straight,” said Scott Neeson, CCF’s founder.
Business is getting tougher for pickers, as processors get more selective.
“We aim to create a better, safer, healthier community – one which includes waste pickers, but not only waste pickers.
“Recycling and picking is a very hard way of life and Stung Meanchey is no paradise,” he added. “Life here has definitely improved in recent years. We are optimistic.”
Follow Jack Board on Twitter: @JackBoardCNA