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Ever Wonder What Happens to Your Plastic Bags? Ask Vietnam's Ve Chai Army.

Lacking an effective official scheme, Hanoi relies on an army of informal workers to recycle its waste — a situation that hasn't changed over the last four decades.

A white arch draped in bunting splits the sky of Hung Yen Province into two worlds: one of polluted, yet still breathable air; the other stifled by a nauseating odor of melting plastic. “Welcome to Minh Khai,” the red banner reads.

Plastic invades every alley, lying in assorted heaps that swallow the sight of masked waste workers. Under a whitish haze of truck dust and plastic fumes, teenage boys perch on top of overloaded tricycles; topless men sip dusty cans of Saigon beer; and kids swim in the murky water of the village pond.

In one home, Hoang, a former soldier, paused as his wife Ngoc and three workers briskly fed a melting machine used plastic bags and watched it churn out molten plastic as hot as 400 degrees Celsius. For over ten years, their 100-square-meter front yard has been their workshop; their kitchen and bedroom lie only a few meters away from groaning engines. Yet Hoang and Ngoc, both 64, don’t seem to mind. The melting and pelletizing machines, which cost them roughly VND1 billion (US$44,000), bring in US$50 a day and, recently, allowed the family to afford a sleek black SUV.

Hoang by his new car (left) and super-hot melted plastic oozing out of a machine (right).

Hoang and Ngoc, like 1,000 other households in Minh Khai, started off as sweet potato farmers. No one remembers which family was the first to turn their backyard into a workshop, but many soon saw the economic value of plastic waste, a resource never low in supply.

Minh Khai’s recycled plastic is never far from returning to the market. Villagers make new bottles and bags out of recycled pellets, but also sell them to domestic companies or to China, where production is cheaper. Supplied by an army of junk buyers and scrap collectors, the village is one of the largest plastic recycling hubs in the Red River Delta. In 2013, the Hanoi Urban Planning Institute estimated that there are over 10,000 collectors in Hanoi working to fuel the informal network.

Unlike recyclers in Minh Khai, the lives of most trash collectors have not changed thanks to the business of handling waste. Last year, 50-year-old Phung Thi Lu sold her farmland in Ba Vi and moved to the southern outskirts of Hanoi, hoping to keep an eye on her 28-year-old son, a compulsive gambler. Though she’s glad to make USD9 a day collecting and selling used plastic containers on her rusty bicycle, Lu worries they will soon run out of money.

Phung Thi Lu moved to Hanoi from Ba Vi to try and earn money by collecting waste.

Lu, Hoang and Ngoc are typical examples from an informal network that has been keeping trash out of landfills and turning it into cash, in a country where cities like Hanoi lack an effective recycling scheme. Recyclables account for only 8-18% of total waste collected, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) estimated in 2015; meanwhile, the informal sector already handles 8-15% of total solid waste, MONRE says in another report. Every day, Hanoi produces up to 6,000 tons of solid waste, nearly 60% of the total waste of the Red River Delta, yet, officially, it doesn’t recycle any. Instead, trash is sent to landfills or incinerated.

The role of informal recyclers was first highlighted by researchers as early as 1989, continuing through the release of an intensive report on the sector by Vietnamese architect Dr. Dao Ngo in 2001. Thanks to informal recyclers, almost all recyclable waste in Hanoi is indeed recycled, Dao observed. “There is scant evidence of ‘waste being wasted’ in Hanoi,” she concluded. “Food scraps from hotels and restaurants are collected for pig farms, and even mango seeds are recycled by shampoo manufacturers.”

Almost two decades later, informal recyclers in and around Hanoi are still very resourceful: chicken carcasses are turned into fertilizer, feathers are made into brooms and human hair is collected for wigs. Recycling villages, each specializing in only one sort of waste, are scattered around the Red River Delta. While Minh Khai, Trieu Khuc, Trung Van and Xa Cau deal with plastic; Duong O in Bac Ninh recycles waste paper; Quan Do, also in Bac Ninh, trades scrap metal; and Dong Mai in Hung Yen receives lead.

The good news for people like Lu, Hoang and Ngoc is that waste levels are not going to shrink any time soon. The amount of urban solid waste created is rising 12% per year nationwide, according to a 2016 report by MONRE. Despite existing efforts, informal recyclers were not able to save Vietnam from being named among the top five nations putting the most plastic waste into the sea in 2017 by Ocean Conservancy, together with China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Ocean Conservancy, despite hailing informal workers as the unsung heroes of Vietnam’s recycling industry in a 2016 report, warned of the challenges posed by this spontaneous model. “Only about 20% of municipal plastic waste has enough value to incentivize waste pickers to collect it; what remains is therefore more likely to leak into the ocean,” the organization observed.

In Minh Khai, recyclers also make new bottles out of imported virgin pellets.

Driven only by economic values, the recycling business tends to fluctuate. Take plastic, for example, which is made from petroleum. Oil prices have been falling for a couple of years, reducing incentives for global plastic recycling industries. In September 2016, making new plastic became less expensive than recycling it, Marketplace reports.

Pollution, health concerns and fire risks pose even greater problems. In 2015, local media reported 200 cases of children suffering from lead poisoning in Dong Mai. That same year, local media unearthed a shocking medical waste scandal after plastic tableware such as single-use spoons and straws were found to be made from syringes and medical tubing. This January, a scrap warehouse full of warheads exploded in the scrap metal recycling village Quan Do, killing two children and leaving six others injured.

Ngoc, from Minh Khai, shakes her head when asked if her new-found wealth has come with any health trade-off. She claims her family has gotten used to the nausea and headaches that new workers experience, through she tells her employees to be careful not to get burnt by molten plastic. “It does burn you, sometimes,” she tells Saigoneer.

In Vietnam, health insurance and social welfare are still out of reach for informal waste pickers and unregistered recyclers. Above all, a public attitude against ‘the trash people’ prevails: they are considered poor, dirty and lower class. “Scavenging is a symbol of backwardness and a source of municipal embarrassment,” as put by Dr. Dao, the architect, or “symbols of urban environmental deterioration, human degradation and lost hopes,” as interpreted by Dr. Michael DiGregorio, the Asia Foundation's Country Representative in Vietnam.

A trash collector helps prepare materials for transportation.

According to WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment), some countries with previously repressive policies against waste pickers have made real progress. In 2010, Brazil recognized waste picker cooperatives as service providers and, as a result, waste pickers now have access to the National Health System, as do all Brazilian citizens. In 2013, Colombia’s capital city, Bogota, launched a payment system for waste pickers in exchange for their recycling services. In the Philippines, the Department of Social Welfare and Development designed a special assistance program that has helped informal workers, including waste pickers, since 2005.

Having observed the industry for almost two decades, Dr. Dao told Saigoneer that neither this public attitude towards the informal sector nor government policy has changed since she first researched the issue in 2001.

“What it takes first is that we recognize their role,” she emphasized. “If they can’t calculate the risks for themselves, the government must step in.”

Yet the researchers warn that a long-term solution doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of waste pickers and junk buyers. “Incentivizing the informal sector can only be a temporary fix,” she explains. “Expensive solutions, like recent high-tech incinerators, are prone to fail as people are always stuck solving others’ mistakes. Without a complete [waste] system it will be very difficult to intervene.”

Vietnam attempted sorting domestic waste at the source from 2006 to 2009 with the help of JICA (the Japan International Cooperation Agency), but soon went back to its old practices because the sorted waste was simply being dumped all together at the nearest landfill. Nowadays, most Vietnamese can only vaguely remember the national 3R campaign by its signature song, which was repeatedly broadcasted on national TV almost ten years ago.

Trash invades every alley in Minh Khai.

Yet for the people of Minh Khai, a town which was blacklisted as one of the 439 worst polluters in the country in 2013, criticism about pollution, health risks and fire hazards is nothing new. These days, villagers are less hesitant when it comes to justifying their means of making a living. In fact, most are actually much more assertive about their roles.

Catching up with Saigoneer on the dusty streets of Minh Khai, 40-year-old recycler Tuan Anh and 31-year-old Linh both grinned:

“Where would the plastic go if our village didn’t exist?”

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