EDJAI – street waste-pickers and the Cambodian recycling trail

This series tells the story of trash in Cambodia, from the moment it is collected by a street waste picker to the moment that is processed and ready to be exported for recycling. This series not only aims to be a glimpse on the inwards of the informal recycling industry in the country, but especially a way to turn visible the countless informal waste pickers roaming the streets in search of plastics to collect and who, even with hard working conditions and facing discrimination, are the ones that promote the whole recycling system: the edjais

With the lack of formal structures to deal with the country’s waste, Cambodia leaves its rising problem to edjais, a local term for the informal waste-pickers that wander the streets with handcarts looking for something valuable to sell. It’s estimated that 3000 tonnes of waste are produced per day just in the capital Phnom Penh (600 of them being plastic), so there is plenty to be selected, hand-picked and sold for further processing downstream in the recycling trail.

The call of edjai. It’s common in the streets of Phnom Penh hear the peculiar sound of home-made horns, used to signal their passing while walking on the streets with their handcart, with families coming out of their homes at that moment to sell whatever recyclable garbage they have.

Kong Vanny, a single mother with three children living on the street, receiving the payment of her today’s collection. Street edjais can make from $2.5 to $7.5 a day depending on luck, weather or their health condition. If one day an edjai can’t work, there is no support system to help her making ends meet. But in the end, they are the ones making it possible to recycle some of the trash produced – an estimation of 11% of the total waste.

A collection center in Battambang, where edjais sell plastic waste collected. Unfortunately, not all trash is created equal, with for instance plastic bags being something not worth for edjais to pick up due to the low value they can get in the market. With statistics such as 10 million of bags used daily in Phnom Penh, 48% of plastics being burned or thrown into rivers or the ocean, and 80% of coastal debris being plastic waste, there is definitely a problem that needs to be solved.

Kid playing in a metal collection center. The whole system is based in an informal hierarchy that goes from the street edjais to small collection centers where they sell the trash of the day, and from these ones to larger centers where it will be compressed for export in bulk quantities. A process that can reach five to seven middlemen from the moment a piece of garbage is hand-picked to the moment it arrives to an actual recycling factory. In the case of this picture, the center focuses on buying metal, with cans of beer or soft drinks being the items which give street edjais the highest value, with prices sometimes reaching up to 2500 riels/kg ($0.60).

Kim Phúc (name changed for anonymity) preparing a traditional dish. She is a Vietnamese national now in her fifties, living in Cambodia and working as an edjai since she was nineteen. Somehow along the years she worked her way up the hierarchy from collecting trash in the streets to owning a major processing facility. It’s common in Cambodia the garbage industry being run by Vietnamese families, even if facing constant rights violations and discrimination from Cambodian society.

Hospital waste lying carelessly in a collection center 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. Meaning that hazard products or hospital garbage will be 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 infected, unsanitary or even toxic.

Kim Phúc buys plastics already sorted (bottles, coffee cups, etc.) for 500 riels/kg ($0.12) or undifferentiated plastics for 300 riels/kg ($0.07), which she washes, often cleaning by hand other rubbish attached, and crushes to be ready to sell for export to factories of plastic chairs, baskets and other items.

After compressed, workers strap the sorted garbage to be transported. At the moment, virtually all the recycled plastic is being exported to neighbor 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, the country is feeling the urgency to develop solutions soon.

Choeung Ek landfill in the south end of Phnom Penh, which receives up to 1600 tonnes of garbage per day. With troubled conditions in terms of hygiene and safety, is still home for hundreds on families of scavengers which make a living looking for whatever they can find that was not previously collected from the street edjais. Hopefully with the new projects starting at the moment some of this waste can be processed locally without ending up here, or worse, in bodies of water or burned open air. Until then, the dumpsite keeps getting fuller, with plans already being discussed to start a new one – the third major dumpsite around the Cambodian capital.

A monk joining a clean-up activity in the countryside, which was joined by government officials, students, the military and common citizens. The government is becoming more concerned about the waste problem, even if not directly due to a genuine ecological concern. Every monsoon season clogged draining systems lead to massive floods in major cities, with for instance a 100 million dollars investment from the national budget being announced for next year to renovate the wastewater treatment, drainage networks and road infrastructure to prevent more floods in the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Nevertheless, most of the work being put into recycling in this country is still done in a bottom-up scheme, dealt by hand, every day, by thousands of tireless edjais

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, a company started by a Singaporean entrepreneur, is one of most successful projects in this front. With an agreement with Cintri, the Phnom Penh municipal waste management company, they have delivered at their facilities all the wet waste from the street markets of their neighborhood. Small vendors, such as sugarcane juice, also come to drop their waste at their door.

Monorom Tchaw, a local activist for composting, checking the Twin Agritech’s vermi-compost 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 fertilizer. Csaro is a local non-profit 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 50cents/kg.

A pile or organic waste slowly decomposing. There is huge environmental and economic value in compost, not only by increasing the amount or organic fertilizer in the market but also the side effect of reducing the amount of wet waste going to landfills – a major cause of the release of methane gas to the atmosphere – and consequently the increase of plastics among the trash which are clean enough to recycle.

Portraits of edjais. Hopefully more and more people will recognize and acknowledge the presence and effort of these countless invisible soldiers who clean our streets.

Some local projects are starting to tackle this issue, for instance reaching to these samples from a plastic waste recycling in Battambang city, which processes polyethylene and high density polyethylene by selecting, cleaning, cutting and melting the plastic into these chips. On a bigger scale, the japanese company Gomi Recycle 110, managed by expat Hiroya Kawai, is building two factories in the special economic zones of Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng, each one with the capacity to process two to three tonnes/day and transform it to eco-bricks for construction.

Borey Chum, a Cambodian national and CEO of Luma Systems, showing the software he’s currently developing. Looking into the future, this startup is designing an 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 to be uploaded on drones that would fly around the city of Sihanoukville where he’s focusing the pilot, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to recognize which kind of trash is on the street – medical waste, construction waste, household waste, etc. – in order to alert the municipal waste management company and plan smarter routes for their trucks accordingly to the dimension and type of garbage.

Samples of glass gravel from different types of bottles. In Siem Reap, a cooperation between the social enterprise Naga Earth and Gaea, the municipal waste management company of Siem Reap, is piloting the first project on glass recycling in the country – a material not usually picked up by edjai due to lack of market value. Planned to be launch later this year, they already started to collect bottles in order to pulverize it into sand and gravel for use in the production of concrete, asphalt, artisinal glassware, water filtration, decoration or jewelry. Their glass pulverizer can process five tonnes per day and reduce its volume up to 80%.

Grace Smith, an international expert on waste from the Go Green Cambodia project, presenting in the Waste Summit 2019 their proposed project to formalize 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, this is a program which a potential to provide increased working conditions to the waste-pickers, such as higher hygiene and safety standards, stable income and better tools, while coordinating the different stakeholders to upgrade the whole recycling industry in the country.

Some of the most underprivileged members of society are edjais, including families of squatters who, besides relying on picking up plastics for survival, also live among trash in their improvised homes.