One Cambodian turns trash to cash

Heng Yon Korra has a plan to reduce trash and fight poverty in Phnom Penh. So far, it’s working.

David Montero
Garbage pickers regularly scour the municipal dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Heng Yon Kora has had a long, intimate relationship with trash: As a teenager just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime – a period when Cambodia was racked by famine – he survived on it.

He quickly learned that, in a nation trying to rebuild after years of war and isolation, discarded metals and plastics were precious commodities. Selling recycled waste, Mr. Kora soon had enough money to pay for schoolbooks.

Although hard work took him away from the garbage heaps – to jobs at the World Health Organization and the United Nations – he never forgot the lessons he learned there.

His profession in human rights and development often brought him face to face with garbage pickers. Thousands of them, including about 1,000 children in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, pick garbage for a living, selling scrap to earn enough to eat. Many face discrimination and grim health prospects.

There was the growing amount of garbage, too. As Kora’s nation rises, enjoying an economic boom, its garbage woes have piled high.

So in 1997, Kora decided to address the poverty and waste by founding the Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization (CSARO), a nongovernmental organization that turns trash into an economic asset for the poor, borrowing an idea from NGOs in neighboring countries.

It’s a small success story not only for making a dent in Cambodia’s poverty, but also as a showcase of how innovative local solutions in one part of Asia are being exchanged throughout the region.
Phnom Penh’s only waste dump at Stung Meanchey, six miles outside the city, tells the underside of Cambodia’s economic story.

Garbage rises like a mountain, its contents a discarded inventory of life – chunks of ceramic toilets, plastic sneakers, and water bottles. Garbage is up by 15 percent in the capital from last year, according to CINTRI, a Canadian company that does waste removal here.

The city has no official recycling policy, and the landfill is now overflowing, posing health and environmental risks. Kora knew from experience that just throwing trash into landfill was a waste. “We’ve been standing up at city hall and saying that waste is money,” he says.

To find solutions, Kora and his staff scoured the region. “We did an exchange in the Philippines, in Bangladesh. We looked around Southeast Asia.” They found ideas they liked and adapted them to conditions back home.

On a recent afternoon, Von Savrin demonstrates one such idea: For several hours a day, she cuts old movie posters down to strips and rolls the strips into paper beads. Fastened with glue onto a string, they make brightly colored necklaces that sell at stores around the city.

“We discovered the idea in the Philippines,” says Bo Sok Han, CSARO’s program officer, who has attended workshops in Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh.

Ms. Savrin, who has never had a job before, now works from home, where she raises her children while also earning $75 a month – more than most teachers and civil servants make. “She’s given us the change to go to school,” says Savrin’s son, Sohao Sety.

Savrin is one of 60 women trained by CSARO who make jewelry, picture frames, and bags at home, all from recycled garbage. They hope soon to form a cooperative, to expand their products and earnings.
Kora found another idea he liked in Bangladesh, where he attended an exchange workshop with Waste Concern, an organization that employs the poor to turn organic waste into fertilizer. Like Bangladesh, some 70 percent of the trash produced every day in Cambodia is from fruit and vegetable scraps. Waste Concern showed Kora’s staff how coconut shells, mixed with other organic waste, could make high-grade fertilizer.

Since 2007, CSARO has employed four people to produce four tons of fertilizer each month, which they sell to farmers at about $100 a ton – a small profit, but enough to pay the four employees and hopefully bankroll an expansion.

It is uncertain how much of an impact CSARO can have on reducing Cambodia’s waste problem. For now the municipal government has mandated simply opening a new landfill farther outside the city, to replace the old one.

To Kora, that’s a waste of good trash. “The government should educate people to [recycle] their household waste. Then they’ll get some benefit.”

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