Ho Chi Minh City – Kieu Anh Tran heads down a small alley to her workshop in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District. Her team is busy inside, washing plastic tarpaulins and cutting patterns to make backpacks, bags, and wallets from the discarded material.
In Vietnam’s southern city and commercial hub, there is no official recycling system. The city’s more than 10,000,000 inhabitants produce approximately 9,500 tonnes of domestic garbage every day. If Tran didn’t recycle the tarps that were once used as truck covers and shop awnings, they would also be heading to the dump.
“We recycle plastic every day, we know how bad it is. But when you hear about it in the large scale and you hear about how many tonnes of trash is coming out of Saigon … it is so stressful,” Tran told Al Jazeera, using the city’s former name.
“When you work on this kind of thing you have to stay positive. It can drag you down to think you can’t help much,” she said of her business making bags out of used tarps.
Ho Chi Minh City authorities have been given the task of controlling waste management. They also contract private and public companies to collect rubbish and run landfills that dump it. But the expanding city is producing ever more waste, and Ho Chi Minh City’s two main landfills are filling up.
The United Nations’s first intergovernmental negotiations to agree on a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution are currently under way. Vietnam is among the countries that are participating in these negotiations. Top 5 Nations contributing to ocean plastic will be focusing their attention on countries that control their waste.
For those living near the city’s dumps, action cannot come quickly enough.
Tuan Nguyen lives about 10km (6 miles) from Ho Chi Minh City’s largest dump, Da Phuoc. The stench of decaying rubbish fills his home when the wind blows in his direction.
“The smell is very bad even from 10 kilometres away … It is a very unacceptable situation,” he said. “Not any single [piece of] Properly managing waste [and] the volume of Da Phuoc is increasing day by day.”
Only 27 percent of plastic waste produced in Vietnam each year can be recycled.
After a revision to Vietnam’s Law on Environmental Protection went into effect this January, the country’s municipalities were made responsible for sorting and recycling waste. There is no official recycling program, despite the fact that there aren’t any enforcement or implementation.
Ho Chi Minh City officials have suggested incineration and conversion of waste into energy as the best solutions to the city’s waste problem. Under a management plan that runs until 2025, landfills will gradually be closed and 80 percent of the city’s waste will be converted into energy through incineration.
Cu Chi District hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction in August 2019 of a $400m waste to energy plant. This was one of three projects. Sparklers were dressed in business clothes, and wearing hard hats as they shoveled sand.
Vietstar Joint stock Company was scheduled to open in 2020. It will have a capacity of processing 4,000 tonnes of rubbish per day by 2021. Tam Sinh Nghia (and Tasco) also opened waste-to-energy facilities in 2019. They were each designed to process the same amount of rubbish. 6,000 Each day there are tonnes of waste.
None of these projects were completed.
Part of the problem is the country’s national power development plan, the still to be finalised PDP8, which will specify the country’s energy mix from 2021 until 2030, and lay out a vision towards 2045.
Vietnam pledged at last year’s climate talks to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but at this year’s just concluded summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, it failed to reach a funding deal with G7 countries to support its clean energy transition.
The Ministry of Industry and Trade released a revised draft of PDP8 on November 11. It outlined an increase of coal power up to 2030 and a decrease of renewable energy targets.
Vietstar claimed that PDP8 was what prevented the company from launching operations. Local media reports that Tam Sinh Nghia, Tasco and the approval process are being held up by bottlenecks.
Although Ho Chi Minh City’s waste-to-energy plans are at a standstill, other parts of Vietnam are embracing incineration as an energy source.
In July, the country’s largest incineration plant began operating in the capital, Hanoi. It can burn up to 4,000 tonnes dry waste per day and generates as much as 15 megawatts for the national grid.
But while some see the potential for controlled waste incineration, others worry about the effect on people’s health.
“There are a lot of negative impacts of incinerators. As a zero-waste solution, incineration is a false solution, including waste-to-energy,” Xuan Quach, coordinator at Vietnam Zero Waste Alliance, told Al Jazeera.
Quach claims that incineration releases greenhouse gases and chemicals like dioxins and furan. He also says that it does not encourage recycling or discourage the use of plastic.
In 2019, Vietnam’s plastic industry contributed $17.5bn to the national economy, equivalent to nearly 7 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).
Yobel Novian putra, Global Initiative for Incinerator Alternatives is worried about the potential dangers of burning trash.
“Dioxin is one of the most toxic group of chemicals,” he said, citing that the chemical has been shown to cause cancer and long-term hormonal issues which can be passed down generations.
In 2020, a study in the USA found that women living 10km (6.2 mi) away from solid municipal waste incinerators were at higher risk of developing breast cancer. Burning rubbish and poor waste management have also been linked to the development of “cancer villages” across Vietnam.
And while Ho Chi Minh City’s waste-to-energy plants promise advanced technologies to minimise toxic emissions in the burning process, Putra worries about a lack of oversight.
“There is no credibility,” Putra told Al Jazeera. “Transparency is an issue when you’re dealing with private companies.”
Hong Quan Nguyen (director of the Institute for Circular Economy Development Ho Chi Minh City National University) believes that incineration is not a good solution. However, it could help reduce waste overflows at landfills and promote the circular economy with increased energy output.
“When we’re talking about circular economy solutions [waste-to-energy] is just better than the landfill … you can collect some energy for Ho Chi Minh City,” he said. “We have to make sure the solution has no environmental impacts … we have to do it carefully.”
Although there is no formal recycling program in Ho Chi Minh City (ve chai), waste pickers are the main force behind recycling. They earn a small income collecting metal, plastic, and cardboard and selling them to informal recycling centres.
The ve chai don’t collect what is left over from businesses and households. Solid municipal waste is often not sorted or treated and plastic is often piled or buried alongside food waste.
Da Phuoc, located in Binh Chanh District and approximately 45 minutes drive from Ho Chi Minh City’s centre, was inaugurated in 2007. The landfill covers 138 hectares (341 acres), but with about two-thirds of the city’s waste trucked to Da Phuoc, space is running out.
Nguyen and other Da Phuoc residents meet up in Facebook groups to discuss issues related to the waste site. While previous protests have been ignored and messages sent to city officials about closing the dump were not received, they are not giving in.
“In the next few months we will go together to submit a letter to the officials,” Nguyen said. “I plan to ask city authorities to stop burying garbage and use new technology to handle it properly.”
Residents claimed the landfill was polluting waterways in 2017, after residents noticed a thick foamy layer on the surface a nearby river.
Residents became concerned about the potential health risks to their health as well as for the livelihood of fishing businesses by blocking the entrance to the landfill overnight.
Vietnam Waste Solutions (VWS), the owner and operator of Da Phuoc, criticised residents for “spreading rumours” and scaring their workers. The company claimed that the foamy, bad-smelling water was due to the mixture of the water and sand used in construction at the landfill. The company was also fined $66,100 in the previous year for illegally disposing of waste.
VWS President and CEO David Trung Duong also runs a waste management company in the United States – California Waste Solutions. From Nguyen’s perspective, corruption has played a role in the landfill being able to continue operations despite poor management. He said that despite claims from the company’s CEO that waste would be treated and sorted with advanced technology, the lack of proper management has led to the pollution that plagues residents.
“The volume of Da Phuoc is increasing so they cannot tolerate it any longer,” Nguyen said of those calling for the landfill’s closure. “I am very, very sad and disappointed about the government.”
Residents are taking matters into themselves, as there is no citywide strategy for managing waste.
Along with Tran’s business making bags from used tarpaulin sheets, some stall holders at local markets have set up refill stations to reduce plastic waste while others have begun to use paper packaging for foods, shouldering any additional cost.
Nguyen Ngoc Annh is the leader of a small group of volunteers in District 3. This team organizes rubbish collection drives at many locations throughout the country. In October, the non-profit led 150 volunteers to collect rubbish in Ho Chi Minh City’s Thu Thiem Ward and collected 100 bags of rubbish within two hours with the support of local authorities.
Anh started her non-profit in the wake of a trip to Vung Tau. This coastal city is just two hours away from Ho Chi Minh City. She saw children making sandcastles from a mix of sand, plastic waste and sand on the beaches.
“Years ago, we lived in an environment where we could live freely and play without any plastic,” she told Al Jazeera. “But the younger generation nowadays, they have to bear the burden of our habit of destroying the environment.”