In the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, waste pickers struggle to access waste. The landfill Stung Meanchey, which provided a livelihood for around 1000 families, closed in 2009 because it had reached its capacity, and because the landfill was giving a ‘bad reputation’ to the city and the country. “Poorism” (poor tourism/slum tourism) was growing around the landfill and a ‘city beautification’ effort led by the local government put an end to Stung Meanchey. Another landfill was opened south of Phnom Penh, the Choeung Ek dump, but due to city council concerns that it would end up like the former, waste pickers were denied access. 
In the mid-2000s, Stung Meanchey in Phnom Penh was one of the world’s most infamous rubbish dumps. Stung Meanchey was built in the 1970s and was an open dump above ground. The landfill spread over an area of 100 acres, and until 2009 Stung Meanchey was the main dumping ground of Phnom Penh’s municipal waste.
Stung Meanchey was nicknamed “smokey mountain”, because of its size and the smoke seeping through the piles of garbage. Nearly 3000 waste pickers, or edjais, worked day and night in the dump by gathering, sorting, and re-selling materials for recycling to numerous purchasers. Most of the people who collected waste also lived on and around the dump and children often helped their parents collect waste. 
The residents at the landfill were exposed to numerous hazards. Many accidents happened when dump trucks entered the landfill and overlooked waste pickers who were working in the piles of waste. Residents had to step over broken glass and medical waste and inhaled putrid smoke. Dangerous levels of cancer-causing dioxins were found in the soil around the dump and heavy metals were found in the metabolisms of children working there. In addition, there were reports of diarrhea, headaches, chest and stomach pain, salmonella infections, and irritation of the skin, nose, and eyes. In the words of one resident, Stung Meanchey was characterized as “hell on earth”. Another resident, a woman who lived and worked at the landfill, explained that: “We lived in hell because we had no choice.” According to Sonia Dias, a leading Brazilian waste expert, the first thing that drives people to work with waste is poverty. Waste picking is a flexible form of self-employment for those with very little capital, and it offers opportunities. The waste pickers at Stung Meanchey were living under dangerous and precarious conditions, but their occupation enabled them to gain a minimal daily income and a supportive social network. 
Edjais struggle for recognition
In 2003, the Government of Japan initiated a development study on waste management in Phnom Penh, which would eventually lead to the closure of the Stung Meanchey landfill. The study was performed by the municipality of Phnom Penh (who had initially sought the support of the Japanese Government), together with a Japanese company, Kokusai Kogyo Co., Ltd. and a regional firm, Indochina Research Ltd. The authors of the study report stated a list of concerns, including “the presence of 500 waste pickers working without any rules or control”. Although the authors acknowledged the positive and important contribution made by waste pickers to the city, they stated that the waste pickers were a hazard to themselves and a hindrance to the municipality, by interfering with the operations of the site. The study found that the working situation in Stung Meanchey was chaotic, and the authors of the report recommended the municipality to ban waste pickers from entering future planned landfills, rather than finding alternative approaches to incorporate the waste pickers within the city’s waste management system. 
According to researcher Cindy Bryson, who conducted fieldwork in Stung Meanchey for several years before and after the closure of the landfill, the study performed by the Japanese government highlighted the opportunities to bring economic and environmental improvement to Phnom Penh. Bryson mentions how such ideas of progress came at a time when other waste pickers in the world, like in Phnom Penh, had become further disenfranchised as waste was becoming a more contested resource, through the recognition of its potential economic value. And in contrast to the study report, Bryson did not find that the working conditions in the dump were chaotic. Even though the waste pickers were not organized in a representative body, union or formal organization to defend their working rights, they helped each other by sharing information about dealers, aid groups, recycling prices and local conditions on the dumpsite. Furthermore, they respected and followed social norms that promoted principles of equality and equity and were conscious of the need to follow safety procedures. 
In a period of years before Stung Meanchey closed, a team from the study of waste management ran a pilot project to control the work of the waste pickers in the landfill. The pilot period included new rules of rotation of working hours and working sites, and at some point, a complete restriction on access to the landfill. Waste pickers protested the new rules and experienced a decline in their incomes during the pilot period. After the pilots had been completed, the study team stated that they had learned the waste pickers worked in patterns, not in chaotic and unruly fashion as they had previously assumed.
It appeared, according to Bryson, that the team did not fully understand the work of waste pickers prior to the implementation of the pilots, and that this study was an example of ill-conceived and deterministic planning by an international donor. The waste pickers tried to meet their own needs, norms, and values, but were overruled by the so-called experts of development. The new rules and regulations, based on ideals of rational reasoning, practices of authority, international development and modernization were implemented at the expense of local knowledge and practices. 
The closure of Stung Meanchey
By 2009, the Stung Meanchey had become ‘a ‘full-blown slum city’ and a notorious symbol of international poverty after local and international NGOs had exposed the local families living on and around the waste. The support from NGOs had unintended consequences, as the attention of the dump attracted many visitors and ‘do-gooders’ including missionaries and sightseers on “poorism tours”.
The dump had become world-known, but this was not what the Cambodian government wanted to be famous for.  The former governor of Phnom Penh, Kep Chuktema, announced the official closing of Stung Meanchey in 2009. The dump was closed because it had reached its capacity, it created a bad reputation to the city, and residents had recently begun falling sick. Another dumpsite was opened, the Choeung Ek dump, located in Dangkor district 40 minutes south of Phnom Penh and 10 kilometers from Stung Meanchey. It was purchased for 7 million US dollars and took 5 years to prepare. Phnom Penh’s City Hall publicly declared that waste pickers would not be allowed into the new Choeung Ek landfill, and (former) deputy governor Chrean Sophan told the Phnom Penh Post that “[w]e will not allow the scavengers to work here, and even if we did, they wouldn’t have any garbage to collect because we will bury it every two days”. It was stated that the new site would have a fence around it, so those waste pickers would not be able to enter. 
Waste pickers expressed their frustration and worries about not being able to collect discarded materials. As collecting waste was their only source of daily earning they were determined to try working at the new landfill. Eventually, many of them managed to enter the new landfill via a side path, and despite the ban, no one from the municipality tried to stop them from entering. Yet, they forbid all the former recycling dealers from operating on the site except for one single trader - which meant lower incomes for the waste pickers. Waste pickers reported that they faced harassment from the police and authorities, who were attempting to ensure that the recyclables were only sold to the single trader. Furthermore, the municipality demanded a yearly fee for working at the landfill. No visitors were allowed to enter the dumpsite, as the municipality did not want the new landfill to become the new icon of poverty in Phnom Penh. 
Since Stung Meanchey closed, many people continued to live there. Some commuted to the new Choeung Ek dump and traveled to the dump for about three days at a time, where they worked nights and sleep outside in the days to avoid having to pay to rent, as land at Choeung Ek is private and expensive. It is complicated and costly to commute, it’s resulting in longer working longer hours, and generally, the changes have made it much harder for waste pickers in the city to gain an income. Other people who used to work in Stung Meanchey now go through the streets of Phnom Penh to find recyclables as this form of work offers more flexibility than the strict working arrangements they would face working in garment factories, for instance. An informal recycler, who now collects recyclables from the streets, explained why this is the best option for her. She used to work in a curtain-making factory and explains: “I fainted many times. So I quit and started this job instead. This job gives us more freedom. Life is easier with this job.” 
Current waste management situation in Phnom Penh
The population of Phnom Penh has doubled to more than two million since 1998, and accumulating waste is a major problem in Cambodia’s capital. In 2002, 800 tons of waste were produced in Phnom Penh per day. In 2014, the number was 1400 tons, and in 2018, the number had increased to about 3000 tons. According to the Phnom Penh Post, the amount of waste increases by about 13 percent annually.  CINTRI Ltd., a subsidiary of the Canadian Firm Cintec, is a private solid waste company that had a monopoly on the collection of solid waste in Phnom Penh while they were contracted from 2002 till 2019. But the government-sponsored recycling system was never been able to keep up with the amount of waste in the capital, often lacking in the service they claimed to provide, which was to collect waste from streets and households. This led to several protests, strikes, and complaints about CINTRI, and eventually, the government of Cambodia revoked their business license in 2019.  Thus, most of the work being put into recycling the waste from the streets of Phnom Penh is done by hand every day, by thousands of edjais, most of them women. They play a vital role in maintaining Phnom Penh’s heartbeat, where they function as “the veins of Phnom Penh”. They are a considerable group of female informal workers who constitute a technical infrastructure, which should have been implemented by state responsibilities but wasn’t. Due to their collection practices, they provide further distribution and revaluation of recyclables and contribute with independent financial benefits of community-based recycling. But even though the waste pickers of Phnom Penh play an important role in the city, they face continuously more hardship and must struggle to secure income. 
Because of the rapid accumulation of waste, the Choeung Ek landfill is now also filling up. The City Hall is looking for other options, and the director of the Dangkor (Choeung Ek) Dumpsite Management Committee, Keo Channarith, is now looking into Waste-to-Energy solutions. Several international companies want to invest in waste management in Cambodia, Channarith has explained, and Phnom Penh’s governor is looking to those that can turn trash into electricity and compost. Channarith explains: “At the moment, there is only informal recycling via waste pickers. They pick only certain valuable and recyclable items to sell to recycling depots. We have yet to bring in a formal waste classification system.” Channarith continues: “Companies from China, Japan, South Korea, and Europe have in the past looked to invest in reprocessing waste in Cambodia. The municipal hall welcomes those interested in investing in waste reprocessing.” 
For the edjais of Phnom Penh who work on the streets and in the landfills, the construction of incinerators would put their livelihoods further at risk, as their source of income would go up in flames.