2022 Waste Summit highlights the informal sector of Cambodia’s waste management ecosystem

Tom Starkey

The 2022 Waste Summit Cambodia – organized by EuroCham, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and GIZ – was held at the Factory in Phnom Penh this weekend, with some 50 booth exhibitions from eco-conscious businesses and organizations on show.

The event also had an interactive panel discussion on this year’s theme, namely “The Role of Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management in Cambodia”, while showcasing a range of businesses and their new tech, entrepreneurial and social solutions to innovating the Cambodian waste management system.

Organizers said the annual event is designed to bring together executives working within German Business Groups, local waste management organizations, line departments, and other relevant non-governmental organizations and communities from all sectors across the Kingdom.

“The aim is to create a sustainable dialogue and to create a platform to enable future partnerships between problem-solver, investors, start-ups, and other relevant actors.”

Only 62% of Cambodia’s waste is formally collected

Opening remarks were made by H.E. Heng Nareth, General Directorate of Environmental Protection at the Ministry of Environment, followed by Program Manager for Sustainability and Digitalization at KAS, Monika Nuon.

Nuon said that Cambodia generates 4.09 million tonnes of solid waste per year.

“This is projected to grow by 300% by 2050. Currently, Only 62.9% of waste is collected formally. The informal sector accounts for 7.9% and the rest is illegally dumped,” Nuon said.

“A tonne of waste costs the economy around $123, so while the informal recycling number seems small, it’s saving the government and the environment a huge amount. In Cambodia, they are the backbone of the recycling industry,” she added.

Daniel Schmucking, the Country Director of the KAS, said that recognizing the role of the informal sector makes is important, but the long-term solution is to formalize it.

“The best way to protect the health of informal sector workers and improve the system is to formalize. The top priority is having a proper waste collection service that focuses on separating waste, which will, in turn, create a business ecosystem,” Schmucking said.

“We have taken steps with this by providing different color bags to separate wet and dry waste. Separate everything is the goal, so making steps towards that will help Cambodia manage its waste more and more effectively,” he added.

Daniel Schmucking, the Country Director of KAS in Cambodia.

Panel discussions at the summit included updates on waste management projects since the last summit and also how best to include the informal sector in solid waste management.

Impact Manager of TONTOTON, a plastic credit solution for non-recyclable plastics, said three fundamental facets are driving the informal plastic sector.

“Waste needs to be of value, it needs to be easily accessed and there needs to be a deprived population who will do the work of collecting it. This is the case in Cambodia, but informal work means that workers are vulnerable,” they said.

TONTOTON aims to provide solutions by offering a trade standard price for plastic; this price is not subject to market instability. This means the community has more stable livelihoods.

To read more about TONTOTON Cambodia plastic credits click here.

“We also provide PPE and we educate them on the various things which can be recycled. This has created a new market where there wasn’t one before,” they said.

“The informal sector is so important to the circular economy. We haven’t formalized yet but we are taking steps to formalize our healthcare support for collectors. Steps like these will see the valuable work done by these individuals rewarded in a fair and formalized way,” they added.

Developing Cambodia’s circular economy

Speaking on behalf of the government, Dr. Keo Vanthoeun – Deputy Director in the Department of Green Economy at the Ministry of Environment – said that in the circular economy, the government identifies waste pickers as part of the solution.

“We want to empower waste pickers, particularly women in the informal sector, providing them with better equipment. We work closely with all the informal sectors and we want to work with them moving forward,” Vanthoeun said.

Dr. Jurgen Stadel, an advisor on solid waste at the Ministry of Environment, said that waste pickers have identified something very important, there is value in waste.

“Although it’s down to their situation which means they are doing this very hard work. The people in the informal sector are engaging in something where we all have a big responsibility, and they are making money from it. It’s an important lesson,” Stadel said.

“We need to include these workers in the informal sector and protect them. Engaging them will be difficult, some can be reached through education for their children and others by registering them in enterprises. But this is key to formalizing this sector, protecting these workers and protecting the valuable work they do,” Stadel added.

Manning a booth at the event, Sandy Kotan of Only One Planet Cambodia, said events like this are important to raise awareness and show the different options available for waste management.

Cambodia’s waste management system is aiming to formalize.

“Events like this are good exposure for businesses and organizations that provide eco-friendly solutions,” Kotan said.

Sandy was showcasing her sugarcane food packaging products, which will decompose within 45-60 days, compared to plastic which is 450 years, reducing waste,” Kotan added.

She also launched a new product, a metal drinks container range, which is aimed at small to medium coffee shops that can make small orders of cups, bottles and so on which come printed with their logos.

“The aim is to encourage coffee shops to reduce single-use plastic. The coffee shops can also sell to their clients if they like and make extra money on top. Our product offering is unique as they can buy in small batches to fit their budget.

Another eco-conscious business in attendance was EcoBat Energy Cambodia (EEC), the first battery circular economy project in Cambodia in 2019.,

Sebastien Ung, Business Development & Strategy Manager said that when people talk about waste pollution, they often talk about plastic, but batteries are a huge problem too, especially in Cambodia.

“Here you have a lot of imported batteries but there is no solution for recycling. Also, all kinds of batteries – no matter the quality – are imported, some of which are not designed to work in this climate which means they have a short span, producing more waste,” Ung said.

“The only battery recycling service is in the informal sector. As such, this means it causes lots of environmental and health issues,” Ung added.

The reduce, reuse, and recycle business model

As part of their project, EEC signed an MoU with the Ministry of Environment, to collect all types of batteries, such as in mobile phones, laptops, lithium batteries, and other kinds of e-Waste.

“Reduce, reuse and recycle is our business model. We reduce because we propose the battery to the client, with a maintenance service. We reuse because we have the regeneration technology which can extend battery lifespans up to 2 or 3 times,” the ministry said.

“Also, we purchase battery waste as a company to regenerate also and put these batteries into the secondhand market. Finally, we also recycle by collecting batteries, and sending them back to the factory that has a recycling plant,” they added.

They added, that in the future, they wanted to develop another machine that has the power to charge more batteries and continue expanding the life of batteries in Cambodia. As well as bringing a recycling plant into Cambodia so they don’t need to export, but this will depend on the number of batteries they can get.

Attendees and booth exhibitions of the Waste Summit 2022 hosted at the Factory in Phnom Penh.

Sarah Kolbenstetter, founder of Little Green Spark said this is the second time she has joined Waste Summit Cambodia.

“I believe it’s a great place to meet people working on or interested in the waste issue. The theme chosen this year is also of particular interest to me as the informal sector plays an incredibly large role in waste recycling in Cambodia and needs to be recognized and supported further to provide this service in the best way possible,” Kolbenstetter said.

To read more about low-carbon economic growth for Cambodia click here.

“Little Green Spark is an environmental consulting company specializing in Zero Waste. We coach and train businesses and organizations who wish to reduce the amount of waste they produce and better manage their waste. By advocating for waste reduction, the concept of Zero Waste is valuable in the Cambodian context as the country is currently unable to process the quantity and types of waste produced,” she added.

She said also said that she would like to see the role of the informal sector recognized and supported to boost recycling.

“I’d like to see more recycling opportunities arising in Cambodia so that we can use waste materials as resources locally instead of sending our waste material abroad. It should not be forgotten that many valuable materials currently end up in landfill because the recycling infrastructures are lacking or do not have the necessary capacity,” Kolbenstetter said.

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