The Cambodian Recycling Economy. Waste Fantasies, Circularity and Infracycles in Phnom Penh

Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, Goethe-University Frankfurt/Main 


This project was part of my PhD research that was funded by the DAAD and Goethe-University Frankfurt/Main and supported  by the Heinrich-Boell Foundation in Phnom Penh.

Being on the street in Phnom Penh
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This research has examined the recycling infrastructure, the movement of recyclable waste, and the daily practices of waste pickers in the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. With the help of a processual approach, it shows how the infrastructure has been built from the bottom-up, as waste pickers, depot owners, and others interrelate with other parties in the city, and how these interactions lead to waste circulating through different cycles along the trajectories of the whole recycling infrastructure. In this context, infrastructure is something that temporarily emerges as a result of multiple smaller infracycles that render the urban system of recyclable waste disposal functional.

Embedded in a past marked by colonial and international occupations, the recycling economy is strongly connected to notions of wealth and modernity – as are its primary products, plastic and aluminum. This is due to foreign powers laying the groundwork for a trade and political infrastructure so that a rampant marketization could burst into Cambodia in the 90s, deluging the country with synthetic materials. The recycling infrastructure in Phnom Penh is further entangled with the material “waste” and the daily practices of waste workers, who breathe life into the structure by practicing the infrastructure and maintaining it through repair work, strategies of pity, and narratives about flexibility and freedom. Through (inter-)dependencies between single actors of the infrastructure, that are part of an social hierarchy, the infrastructure stays stable and manifest itself by the recurrences of the daily practices that refers to it. Moreover, recycling practices enact constantly new materials, composing waste as a knowledge bundle, a mundane item or an object of desire that give the infrastructure its vivid and dynamic form. The whole infrastructure is also entangled with other interplays that negotiate topics (in-)directly related to waste “outside” of the infrastructure as the notion of sustainability that enacts new forms of urban sociomateriality and naturecultures, which eventually transform the city.

However, waste materials may change their form and aggregate status, becoming fluid and elusive. In doing so, they thwart attempts by holistic waste management systems as they undergo alliances and comradeships with other waste workers, functioning as hosts for multi-species in ruin sites, witnessing their liveliness and naturalness. Wasteworlds are emerging. Oozed out from waste handling practices, from circular economy models, and pericapitalist places, these sociomaterial constellations pursue material policies at wastelands influencing the status quo of climate change, and also define how the city is made. 

Recylable Waste Infrastructures

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