Working as a Wastepicker

Unterwegs als Wastepicker

In The City
Of course I was not yet satisfied with my experiences on the dumpsite and wanted to know about waste picking in the urban areas of Phnom Penh. Every morning one hears the prevalent calls of "Hychai!" in the streets of Phnom Penh, which encourages the citizens to bring out their valuable waste and sell it to the wastepickers.
A segment of the wastepicker community walks with push-carts through the streets, and buys sorted valuable waste, with small amounts of capital, directly from households and companies. These sorted valuables can then be sold to the middlemen for a better prize than usual. Thus here developed a system of waste separation, without any municipal involvement, but born out of poverty, following the motto "From waste to money".
In the city different methods of collecting garbage exist in parallel to each other. At one extreme this can be the way of buying valuables as described above; at the other extreme are the homeless street children living in misery and searching through garbage bags for valuables and food.

So, in order to complete my understanding of my personal dream job I choose the middle level on the scale of poverty and accompany a young wastepicker woman on her tour through Phnom Penh. I meet her at 5:30 a.m. in the Wastepicker Development Centre (WDPC), where she is already waiting impatiently to start her work. Her name is Long Toiao. She is a single parent mother of two children, 32 years old and lives in a small shack on the side of the road, like so many poor people in the city. In addition to her normal dress, she is wearing a Kroma and plastic sandals. Like my first time collecting waste, I am fully equipped with working boots, hat, working gloves, working trousers (and a camera). Long Toiao is at least one head smaller than me and seems to be very slender. But as she starts to push her push-cart, I have serious problems following her.

It is cool so early in the morning, but the speed she is making makes me sweat immediately. And while Long Toiao runs for her life from garbage pile to garbage pile, I try to slow down the speed through more severe examination of the content of the garbage bags. Basically we collect the same valuables as on the garbage dump and it all ends up on our push-cart which is filling up in a ridiculously slow manner. We search through many waste bins and garbage piles. Long Toiao never rests long, she is always driven further. She apparently developed a supernatural instinct, telling her which bag is worthwhile to open and which bag isn’t. In a random sample way I open the plastic bags she leaves unregarded, and again and again I ascertain disappointedly, that it is indeed not worthwhile to open these bags.

Meanwhile the city awakes, to live in all its spryness and viability with all the colourful facets of the Cambodian daily routine. Ostensibly aimlessly we pull our cart through the city, while passing so many locations, which bring up stories and memories of the last months, and I ask myself, whether Long Toiao would ever understand these stories, that happened to me just two meters beside her working place – the street. We pass the office, where I was working in the first days, the restaurant with the beer girls, where I always drunk Angkor Beer, the Heart of Darkness night club, which probably threw out their last guests just before our arrival, the guest house where Ebba lived with her adoptive daughter, the bowling club, independence monument, our favourite pub and so on. And we are constantly on the search for the small items, which can be found in the garbage bins.
Long Toiao’s push-cart fills up slowly and gets heavier and heavier, and slowly the gentlemen inside myself awakes, willing to take over the hard work of cart pulling from the lady; better late, than never.

Long ago I became a wastepicker, to the complete amusement of the urban population, who points with their fingers at me, showing facial expressions which range from smiling unbelievably, to being absolutely aghast. Especially funny are the moto-taxi drivers, who mechanically lift their forefinger at the sight of a longnose (barang or white person), while calling out ”moto!” to offer their services, and then almost fall from their bikes, when they discover that a white guy is collecting garbage. "Barang hychai!??"
Meanwhile I pull the cart. As Long Toiao enters the street where I live, I speed up and change to the other side of the street, trying to avoid the questioning glance of my neighbours. As an occasional speciality we find nicely bundled empty oil bottles and a stack of card-board beside a restaurant. A pile of plastic bottles and a neon lamp exhaust the capacity of our cart, and Long Toiao decides to return to the WDPC. So I keep on pulling the cart, while she secures our freight. It is quite comfortable to let the cart drop back while pulling, because like this I can hang my arms into the handles and my back can relax.

At 10:30 a.m. we end our tour back at the starting point, after having covered a distance of approximately 8-10 km. In the WDPC Long Toiao sorts the valuables, dries or bundles them and prepares them for re-selling. In the meantime I sit on the floor with other wastepickers and detach textile from faulty baseball caps to separate it from the plastic form. Eventually I lay down in the hammock, exhausted.
For Long Toiao only half of the days work is done. Usually she makes two tours per day, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. She tells me that she is usually working 11 hours on average, 9 for the collection and a further 2 for sorting, preparation and reselling of the valuables. With her daily average income of 8000-10000 Riel (2 -2,50 Euro) she cares for herself and her kids, and finances the education of her children.
While I play with the thought of going home and taking a nap, I see Long Toiao returning from the shower at the centre. With fright I realise that she was obviously wearing several layers of clothes the whole morning, which hid from general view how emaciated she really is.