Recycling in Cambodia

What a wonderful country Cambodia is: breathtaking temples, delicious food, amazing culture… and trash. A lot of trash. A 5 minutes walk around any city is enough to realize that Cambodia has a problem with waste management. The streets are filled with garbage and waste pickers often bike around with a huge amount of cans, plastic or cardboard. But what happens to this waste? And what is actually done regarding recycling in Cambodia ?

Picture of a a tuk tuk drives down a flooded street in central Phnom Penh in October 2013.
A tuk tuk drives down a flooded street in central Phnom Penh in October 2013. © Jim Heston for Southeast Asia Globe.

Recycling: the current situation

Phnom Penh generates around 1 million tonnes of munipal waste per year according to recent estimates. While most of this waste is organic (51.9%), plastic waste (which contributes to around 20.9% of the waste) is on the rise. Some of this plastic trash is currently sent away to recycle, but the percentage of waste that actually gets recycled is unclear, as is the future of recycling in Cambodia.

amount of waste in phnom penh cambodia
Source: opendevelopmentcambodia.net and Phnom Penh Waste Management Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2035

What can be recycled ?

In Cambodia, cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminium cans and metal are the main items that get recycled. Some building materials such as steel are also easy to recycle. For other waste such as e-waste, the waste pickers might sometimes collect them to re-sell their different components. For food waste, farmers collect the leftovers from street vendors and restaurants to give to their pigs. Some companies (such as COMPED in Battambang) are also starting to take food scrap to create compost.

It is also possible for restaurants and hotels to recycle their used cooking oil thanks to Naga Earth. Naga Earth collects the oil and up-cycle it into biodiesel and soap (you can contact them at info@nagaearth.org if interested). 

How is the recycling waste collected and where does it go?

The waste pickers (or edjai) collect recyclable waste in the streets or dumpsites to sell to bigger collectors (recycling depot). These collectors might send them to recycling facilities in Cambodia (e.g. for paper) although there are very few recycling plants in the country at the moment. As a result, they send most of the waste to neighbouring countries, such as Thailand or Vietnam.

However, this is coming to an end as imported waste and especially plastic waste has increased tremendously in these countries. This follows China’s decision to ban most of imported solid waste in 2017. From taking 45% of the world’s plastic waste created since 1992, China was only taking 1% of the waste in 2018, leaving the burden to other countries. As a result, Vietnam decided to stop issuing license to import plastic waste last year. Thailand is also set to follow this example by banning all plastic waste imports by 2021.

Picture of a waste-picker (or edjai) collecting plastic, cardboard and other kind of recyclable goods in Phnom Penh.
A waste-picker (or edjai) collecting plastic, cardboard and other kind of recyclable goods in Phnom Penh. © Kathrin Eitel for Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Cambodia: a wake up call?

This therefore raises concerns as to where Cambodia will be able to send its recyclable waste. The situation is however not hopeless as we observe the creation of initiatives to deal with waste management in Cambodia.

New recycling facilities in Cambodia

In 2016, the Japanese company Gomi Recycle 110 announced their plan to build a factory to recycle plastic waste into furniture. The factory, based in the Svay Rieng region, is planned to open in April 2019,  although there was no updates available about the project as of March 2019. Also, in October 2018, LingHang Investment Development Co Ltd was in discussion with the authorities to open a recycling facility in Phnom Penh.

In Siem Reap, GAEA and Naga Earth are collaborating to recycle glass from businesses. The project has started as of July 2019 and GAEA is now collecting glass from local businesses. Found out more and register your interest here.

Without forgetting education …

Having the infrastructure to recycle waste is paramount. But educating and motivating people to sort out waste is as important in the fight for a cleaner country. This is where startups can come into play. For instance, last year a team of young Khmer received 10,000 $ from the Toyota Challenge for their SmartBin app. The app, which will be launched firstly in Phnom Penh, rewards people who recycle waste in the correct bin with points that can be redeemed in partner stores.

In this way, there is no doubt that new technologies will play a key role in this fight. Robert Hor, programme manager for digitalisation of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, couldn’t agree more, as he bets on the skilled young Khmer and their ICT skills to develop digital ways of recycling waste.

SmartBin Process Cambodia
SmartBin process

What can you do about it?

Despite the initiatives seen above, there is still a long way to go to ensure that most recyclable waste do get recycled in Cambodia. But you can take actions to increase the waste that YOU recycle!

reduce plastic waste cambodia

Reduce

You probably saw it coming, but reducing your waste is the golden rule before recycling. Items such as plastic bags need a lot of resources (e.g. petroleum) to be produced, but also to be recycled and transformed into new objects. Try to analyse the waste that you generate in a week and see areas where you can improve. You can for instance buy in bulk (at Babel Eco-shop in Siem Reap or Dai Khmer in Phnom Penh) to reduce cardboard and plastic waste. Or get your old coffee machine repaired instead of buying one. Many solutions exist to reduce your consumption of new materials !

sort out waste cambodia

Sort your waste

Sort out your waste to make it easier for waste pickers. This is healthier for them as they might do it on the dumpsites but also save them valuable time. You can just set up different bins outside for your plastic bottles, metal cans, papers and normal waste to be picked up.

compost cambodia

Compost

Create a compost to get rid of your food waste is so easy if you have a garden or even just a balcony with some plants. If you don’t have one, you can find a place willing to take it for you. For instance, we give ours to Angkor High School for their garden (and keep the food scrap in the freezer in the meantime). If you own a hotel or restaurant, you can give your food waste to pig farms or to initiatives such as Camborea in Siem Reap who uses it for composting.

creative recycling ideas cambodia

Be creative

Use your waste to create useful and amazing items. Old newspapers can be transformed into beautiful bins and plastic bottles can be turned into funny flower pots. Take example on Coconut School! This school is entirely built out of waste by using glass bottles, plastic bottles, etc. Moreover, the staff is actively educating the students about waste management and recycling. Check out the video and follow their facebook page to get idea on what you can do as well.

local initiatives recycling cambodia

Find local initiatives that can take your waste

As the old saying mentions, “a man’s trash is another’s man treasure”. There are many initiatives in the country that can take your waste. For instance, Rehash Trash in Siem Reap takes old plastic bags from restaurants and individuals to transform them into beautiful products! The Coconut school is also looking for materials (e.g. glass bottles) to built up more classrooms. You can find the list of initiatives who take your waste here.

In brief, recycling in Cambodia (and worldwide) is changing tremendously with the bans of plastic waste import from neighbouring countries. While there are still many issues with recycling in Cambodia, there is some hope that it is getting better. But don’t forget : you can do your bit! Reduce your material consumption as much as possible, and this before it even needs to be recycled!

Are you doing as much as possible to reduce and recycle your waste? Share with us your tips or the recycling initiatives that you know about!

Credit cover picture: Agence Francaise de Presse

Comments

  • Laurent Wolters
    May 24, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Dear,

    We canal help you to dispose of glass.

    Do not hesitate to contact me.

    Thanks,

    Laurent Wolters

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