In the spotlight: Celebrating Phnom Penh’s unsung heroes

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The exhibit aims to make the ‘edjais,‘ the Kingdom’s informal waste pickers, visible to the public eye. Miguel Jeronimo

In a country with no formal recycling system, edjais – the Kingdom’s informal waste pickers – have taken the noble responsibility of collecting plastic wastes which are haphazardly thrown on the streets of Phnom Penh.

To honour their commitment to the environment, Portuguese photographer Miguel Jeronimo launched a month-long photo exhibit on January 8, at the capital’s Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, featuring the recycling process in Cambodia that’s often ignored by many.

“The exhibition follows the trail of the informal recycling system in Cambodia, from when a piece of plastic on the street is collected by an edjai to all the steps of its processing until it is exported to Vietnam or Thailand for recycling,” he says.

The exhibit aims to make the edjais, who Jeronimo says have remained in the background, visible to the public eye. He notes the unfortunate discrimination and apathy they receive from the public despite the honourable task they do every day in the sweltering heat.

“It’s also a homage to the figure of edjais, in the hopes of breaking the stigma that have been placed upon them, as well as making the public see the value they bring in keeping the streets clean and helping mitigate the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill every single day. I think that’s the main role of the edjais.

“The whole recycling process in the Kingdom relies on these ‘invisible soldiers’ that roam around the streets in search of plastic, aluminum cans, cardboards and other recyclables,” says Jeronimo.

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The exhibit will remain open to the public until February 8 at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, located at Street 200 in downtown Phnom Penh. Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre

A Vietnamese national and a resident of Cambodia for the past three decades who goes by the alias Kim Phuc, says he buys sorted plastics, such as bottles, coffee cups and so on, for 500 riel/kg ($0.12). The unseparated plastics, he buys for 300 riels/kg ($0.07).

“He [Kim Phuc] often washes and cleans the plastics by hand, then crushes them to be sold for export to factories that manufacture plastic chairs, baskets and other items,” says Jeronimo.

Kong Vanny, a homeless single mother of three who makes a living as an edjai, rings her bell to signal her passing along the streets of the capital. Families come out of their homes at that moment to sell whatever recyclable waste they have.

“Street edjais can make from $2.5 to $7.5 a day depending on luck, the weather or their health condition. A day missed means a day without money to buy their daily needs.

“Despite their poor living conditions, they’re the ones who make a difference by turning around 11 per cent of the total waste into recyclables,” notes Jeronimo.

After compression, the sorted wastes are strapped and exported to neighbouring countries.

Cambodia, Jeronimo says, does not have proper waste-processing facilities to manage the amount of trash it produces.

With Thailand banning all trash imports next year, and Vietnam following suit in 2025, the Kingdom is feeling the urgency to come up with solutions soon.

“Some local organisations are starting to tackle this issue. For instance, a recycling facility in Battambang town processes high- and low-density polyethylene by sorting, cleaning, cutting and melting plastics into compact sizes.

“On a greater scale, the Japanese firm Gomi Recycle 110 is building two factories in the special economic zones of Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng province. Both factories can process two to three tonnes of waste a day and transform it into eco-bricks for construction,” he says.

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Portuguese photographer Miguel Jeronimo launches a photo exhibit featuring the ‘edjais,‘ the unsung heroes of Phnom Penh streets. Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre

Another concern, says Jeronimo, is the management of wet waste such as leftover food, rotten vegetables and hospital waste lying carelessly in a collection centre, among all sorts of other trash.

“Hazardous waste, such as hospital waste, are dumped in bins or placed on the street as if they’re non-hazards. They are left there for the edjais to unknowingly touch and sort through with their bare hands. This could be toxic for them or lead to infections,” he says.

Without edjais, no waste would be recycled. Thus, the public should start giving them the respect and gratitude they’re due, says Jeronimo.

It’s a tough life they lead as it is, he adds, so we must care for them as they play a vital role in the fight against the climate and waste crises.

Sponsored by Ali Al-Nasani of Heinrich Boell Foundation, the exhibition will remain open to the public until February 8 at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, located at Street 200 in downtown Phnom Penh.

For more information about Miguel Jeronimo’s exhibits, follow him on Instagram at migueljeronimophotography or call (+855) 10 298 091.