Phnom Penh’s Waste Back to Pre-Pandemic Levels

Phal Phone, Cintri garbage collector, is picking up trash at households in Chamkarmon district. Photo by Ou Sokmean.
  • Ou Sokmean
  • June 30, 2020 10:57 AM

As businesses reopen their doors, Cambodia’s plastic problem rears its head once more.

PHNOM PENH--The gradual return to normality in Phnom Penh has been reflected by the resurgent hum of traffic, the open signs on bars, restaurants and cafes, but now—according to the city’s garbage collectors—even the volume of waste generated by the city has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Chhun Savong, a garbage collector employed by Cintri, said that he was originally optimistic after having seen a decline in the amount of waste generated in Chamkarmon district where he works. Over the course of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, he noted that more people were staying home and the closed businesses meant there was less rubbish littering the streets.

“When our country reported a surge in COVID-19 cases, we saw less waste in public areas, and that allowed us to easily perform our tasks and most importantly we could get back home early because there was not much work,” Savong said, also acknowledging the potential environmental benefits.    

However, as restaurants and other businesses have begun reopening, demonstrating that life has been exponentially moving away from the lockdown mentality since May 2020, Savong has seen the volume of waste in Chamkarmon district creeping back up.

“It has skyrocketed. I would say that the amount of trash in my district right now has risen to same level it used to be in the pre-COVID-19 days,” he said, adding that at the peak of the pandemic he was only collecting 3 tons of garbage a day. This is now back to 5 tons each day, roughly the same amount generated before COVID-19 reached Cambodia.

Director of Cintri Tuon Sipheng agreed that between late January and April 2020, when Cambodia was witnessing a surge in COVID-19 cases, the amount of trash in the capital significantly declined in public spaces.

“During that period, the amount of trash in Phnom Penh dropped from around 3,500 tons a day to just between 2,400 to 2,500 tons,” said Sipheng.

Cambodia reported its first COVID-19 case in January 2020 which involved a Chinese national and the infection reached peak in late March 2020. As of June 30, the total cases stood at 141 with 11 patients remaining hospitalized.   

According to Sipheng, Phnom Penh now produces over 3,000 tons of wastes a day, almost matching the pre-COVID-19 levels.

But it’s not just public spaces and commercial entities generating more trash, residential garbage is also on the rise, according to Phal Phone, another Cintri garbage collector.

“As I pick up trash from households in Chamkarmon district, I see it’s [trash] also on the rise. During the first four months of the year, we could collect all waste without any problem,” said Phone.

“But since there has been a slowdown in infection, trashes mount again. Thus, we are almost unable to collect all of them [trashes] given that we are doing it two times a day.”      

According to Ministry of Environment’s 2019 report, Cambodia generates over 4 million tons of waste annually—20 percent of which is plastic. The volume of waste was expected to be rising by 10 percent annually. 

When asked how much plastic accounts for the total waste during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sipheng said he could not provide exact data. But Phone claimed plastic waste really accounted for a big fraction of the total amount of rubbish he collected during that period, especially single use plastic products such as plastic packaging and cups.    

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Neth Pheaktra also said he did not have the specific data to hand regarding plastic waste during the pandemic. 

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