Trash for cash: Yangon’s freelance garbage collectors

Yangon’s freelance garbage collectors are cleaning up dirty streets, but there’s a suspicion some of them may be part of the problem.

By JARED DOWNING & THIRI HAN | FRONTIER

Ma May Kyaw Linn, 31, likes her job. That is not to say she likes getting up at four each morning for the two-hour journey from the outskirts of Yangon. Nor does she like the sore back she gets from pushing a rusty trash cart through the maze-like streets of Mayangone and Sanchaung townships, hollering until she can barely reply when her kids welcome her home at the end of the day.

As a single mother, she could do worse than being a door-to-door garbage collector. She doesn’t mind the smell and the flies anymore and her cart won’t complain if she gets sick one day or her mother can’t care of the kids.

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

After yelling it for almost 10 years, her cry of ahmint! (garbage) has morphed into something unintelligible, but Ma May Kyaw Linn’s regulars know her voice. “I have customers who wait until I come by to bring their garbage,” she said.

A handful of other freelance garbage collectors roam her turf, but they don’t squabble. They, too, have their own regulars tucked away among the hundreds of apartments jammed together along streets too narrow for the garbage trucks from the Pollution Control and Cleansing Department (PCCD) to squeeze through. The residents would rather pay a few hundred kyat than lug their trash to municipal dumpsters or, for many, just drop it out their back windows, adding to the rivers of refuse that have become a fixture of a city struggling to manage the waste of about five million people.

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

“[PCCD] only comes around at certain times and stays at the end of the street, but we go right up to people’s houses every day,” said Ko Mae Lay, another street collector, referring to the garbage trucks from the Yangon City Development Committee.

Ko Mae Lay, who does not live in Sanchaung but grew up there, works from 7am to 2pm or 3pm and makes about K5,000 or K6,000 a day.

Ma May Kyaw Linn appreciates the job’s flexibility, which she said is one reason why women are attracted to the work.

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

Neither seemed to think the job had a negative image. On the contrary, neighbours sometimes ask them to make deliveries or invite them into their homes to do odd jobs. Ko Mae Lay said the most lucrative days were when people hired him to help them move out and sent him home with their unwanted possessions.

“When they bring the trash, we talk about their families and what has been going on,” he said. “After so many years it is like I am a part of their lives.”

Ma May Kyaw Linn and Ko Mae Lay own their push carts, but others lease them from one of the many big, private and illegitimate trash collection outfits that supplement the YCDC’s efforts. Although YCDC employees, whether driving garbage trucks or pushing carts of their own, work to a timetable and only appear at certain times, the freelancers are on hand every morning to make your trash disappear.

That is to say, disappear from your block. Where the freelancers dispose of the garbage depends on whom you ask. An official at the PCCD’s Sanchaung office said residents sometimes called to complain about collectors dumping garbage in canals or of piles of trash that mysteriously appeared in front of their houses.

If these corner-cutters include Ma May Kyaw Linn and Ko Mae Lay, they did not admit it.

“I bring the trash down to the PCCD office and put it in one of the trucks,” Ma May Kyaw Linn said. “The office usually leaves us alone, but sometimes they want to make an example and impound our carts. You have to pay 40,000 kyat to get it back.”

Ending the cat-and-mouse game between the public and private sector might be a key first step to cleaning up Yangon, said Friedor Jeske, a German consultant with Italian NGO Cesvi, who has spent several years working on independent recycling and waste management projects in the city.

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

Freelance garbage collectors in Yangon. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

One of Mr Jeske’s pilot projects, Lan Tan (“clean street”), set out to find a solution to de-facto “communal dumps” in alleyways and vacant lots by arranging discussions among city officials, community members and the private collectors.

“It was a complete failure,” Mr Jeske said. “The municipalities are completely stuck. They cannot accept the [private] collectors, and they cannot fill the needs.”

But, Mr Jeske argued, the private sector has already proved itself in a related industry: recycling. Recycling in Yangon is a complex system of freelance collectors, neighbourhood sorting houses and large-scale wholesalers. Its defining features are, first, that the government is not involved, and second, that it is remarkably effective. PCCD has estimated that only about five percent of Yangon’s trash is recycled, but Mr Jeske estimates it could be as high as 20 percent.

“The current structures seem well developed and efficient on all levels and can only become endangered through the fast socio-economic change of the city itself,” he wrote in a report.

Meanwhile, the public sector treats freelancers such as Ma May Kyaw Linn at best with a grudging blind eye, but that is good enough for her. She is content to remain one small, quietly necessary piece of the vast, complex and shifting machinery that runs Yangon, which will always produce trash in abundance. For now, Ma May Kyaw Linn is happy to make it disappear.

Title Photo: Maro Verli / Frontier

By Jared Downing

By Jared Downing

Jared Downing is an American journalist from Colorado and Alabama. He likes podcasts, radio theatre and hitchhiking and collects cans of sardines from around the world.
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