Date of Award

Winter 12-12-2023


John Van Buren


The modern influx of consumer goods and waste from Western, capitalistic economies to Southeast Asian countries has amassed unprecedented amounts of solid waste. With no pre-existing, formal recycling infrastructure, managing recyclables fell to the informal sector. Driven to informal work by slow job growth, limitations to educational attainment, no pre-existing capital, disability, landlessness, or gender norms, a surplus of urban recyclers have emerged to uphold a waste commodity chain that returns value to discarded material while cleaning up urban environments. Despite providing an invaluable service, these waste pickers, buyers, and depot workers are rarely treated with respect by their communities or academia. This has limited reformative action, such that researchers at the School for Field Studies decided to continue a survey-based study to map the precarious environmental and socio-economic position of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s urban recyclers. Chapter 1 first outlines and compares results from said 2022 and 2023 survey cycles, alongside their implications for relevant ecosystem services. Said conclusions are then used to support surplus labor and survivalist livelihood theories in chapter 2 that mirror the population’s environmentally unjust, economic reality. Chapter 3 continues to contextualize by exploring how the history of Western production and international waste management has created a setting that facilitates the vulnerability of urban recyclers today, many of which are women also facing a disproportionate domestic burden that is thoroughly addressed in chapter 4. Only then, with an established understanding informed by urban recyclers themselves, does chapter 5 assess whether formalizing the informal sector is a viable solution, how such an undertaking should occur, and who should bear the responsibility.