Students in Cambodia recently undertook their final field trip for the Environmental Ethics and Development course and we went to the dump! In Siem Reap there is a single open landfill site which is used for the disposal of municipal solid waste.

There are several development and environmental challenges surrounding the rubbish dump which necessitate deliberation of the role of ethical decision making in environmental governance. This site, like many in Southeast Asia, is of rudimentary design, with no liner or other containment systems, and can potentially have serious environmental impacts including soil pollution, ground water contamination from leachate, and air pollution. There are also issues of potential social harms as over 200 informal waste pickers, of all ages, scavenge for rubbish to provide supplementary incomes for their families. They collect anything that can be sold, from organic matter for pig feed to plastic containers, bags, and cans. The waste pickers are susceptible to potentially hazardous health impacts from rotting matter, toxic fumes, and dangerous materials.

After foundational classes and a meeting at the office of the waste collection company, students visited the landfill site. On the site, students identified potential environmental and social harms and interviewed waste-pickers. Issues of best practice governance and stakeholder responsibility were examined in relation to the public/private sector partnership that exists for waste collection in Siem Reap. Students also took into consideration the fact that currently only about a quarter of the town’s residents and businesses are paying for rubbish collection. Students were able to draw on environmental justice principles and ethical frameworks learned in class to consider the pertinent governance issues, particularly who is responsible of minimizing and managing the harms present at the landfill site.

A wonderful addition to our field trip this semester was that the students donated some personal protective equipment in the form of rubber boots and gloves for waste pickers. The donation was made via the Kaliyan Mith Foundation that has a well-respected and established program of providing clean water, access to health care, and equipment for waste pickers to minimize the risks of scavenging. The donation was spearheaded by Hollins student, Lan Nguyen.

→ River Ecosystems & Environmental Ethics Semester Program in Cambodia