Sorting Through Sadness The High Cost of Recycling at a Cambodian Landfill

Those who live there call it “Smokey Mountain.” Officially, it’s the Steung Meanchey landfill in Cambodia, the city dump for Phnom Penh, a 100-acre mountain of waste where some 2,000 registered workers, including 600 children, sift through roughly 700 tons of garbage a day.

The air is thick with smoke and the smell of burning rubbish. The dirt road leading to the dumping ground is lined with recycling facilities, makeshift noodle stands, a pool hall and a hairdressing shop. Beyond the industrial scales used to weigh arriving trucks is a huge, flat plateau of garbage crawling with workers. Children, some barefoot and naked, clutch plastic bags full of empty bottles and cans.

Large tractors crisscross the site shoveling the slippery flotsam into massive piles of rotting food, clothes, magazines and wilted flowers. Groups of scavengers converge on the incoming trucks while others scour ash and soot searching for lucrative metal. Tarpaulin and plastic shelters dot the landscape, providing relief from hot sun or soaking rain. Children too young to join their parents occupy several of these refuges, playing with found objects—and dead animals.

These children can’t attend school because their families depend upon even the youngest worker’s income, as little as $.50 USD per day, to sustain them. Replacing that income is the first step in getting these children an education. According to its website, the French NGO Pour un Sourire d”Enfant (“for a child’s smile”) has helped 5,000 children attend school in Phnom Penh during the past 10 years.

As the afternoon sun descends behind drifting walls of hazy gray air, workers separate items by type, sacks are filled, gathered and weighed, and recyclers pay each worker in cash. According to Thingha, a 26-year-old worker from Phnom Penh, “Many of the people have difficulty finding metal, that’s why I choose to concentrate on metal each day.” Other workers focus their efforts on soft, clear plastic that can generate 200 riels (about $.05 USD) per kilogram.

Shrouded by impending nightfall, the Steung Meanchey workers trek back to their ramshackle living quarters on the edge of the facility. Small clusters of wood-frame shacks wrapped with plastic and canvas await them. Children gather scraps of wood used to fuel fires for cooking while women fill pots with rice that will be prepared on heavy clay or black cast iron stoves. After their evening meal, large families retire for the evening to sleeping spaces, some no larger than three by four meters, only to arise before dawn to repeat this routine the next day.

Led By Hope

The World Bank reports that 35 percent of Cambodia’s population of around 14 million exists on less than $.50 USD per day. Since an adult who spends 12 hours per day scavenging through this sea of waste may earn as much as 10,000 riels, or the equivalent of $2.50 USD, many workers come to work at Steung Meanchey to escape the crushing poverty and malnourishment found in rural Cambodia. Their newfound wealth comes with a heavy price, however, as they are forced to breathe air polluted by the constant smolder that generates toxic byproducts from the flaming heaps of garbage. Scores of workers are seen coughing or sneezing, and most of the youngest children have runny noses, inflamed throats and watering eyes. Some scavengers sport facial scars from being struck by errant swinging gaffs, while others have been injured or killed by tractors or garbage trucks whose drivers didn’t notice them.

Cambodian-born Dr. Teng Soeun, 60, moved to the Steung Meanchey area four years ago from Phnom Penh’s city center and opened a health clinic near the landfill. “I feel better about myself living here in Steung Meanchey and I wanted to help,” says the German-educated hematologist. “The people who work at the dump look unhealthy because of the air pollution. I see a lot of breathing problems and eye infections. The potable water supply around here is also limited because of the poison that leaks into the ground.”

Small groups are trying to provide healthcare and supplies to the needy residents. They range from Los Angeles-based to, a grassroots organization headquartered in Toronto. According to George Reed, a representative for, the organization has recently provided a van to help the workers get to health clinics and hospitals. Despite their noteworthy humanitarian efforts, these groups have unwittingly added to the collective needs of the people who work there, since a large percentage of the workers come to Phnom Penh from rural Cambodia after learning about health, food and school programs available there.

Approximately 85 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, including You Engsry, an unmarried 27-year-old resident of Prasat Village in Kampong Cham province. “I’ve heard about people leaving my village to pick through garbage, but that is something I don’t want to do,” he says. “Maybe if I had a family I would think about it,” he continued, “but I spend my extra money on English lessons.”

The need for humanitarian aid for newly arriving workers is seemingly constant, adding pressure on entities to sustain and grow their sources of funding. That doesn’t discourage Chicago’s Jerry and Valerie Varney from doing what they can. The couple is forming a new charity,, that they hope will receive enough funding to rescue as many youngsters from the misery as possible. While the Varneys’ initial focus will be trading garbage hooks for school books, Mr. Varney is taking an open approach to their new endeavor. “The areas we go into depend in large part on how much money we can raise,” he says. “I”m open to everything given the proper funding.”