My father grew up in Xà Cầu—a small plastic recycling village in rural Vietnam. Visiting his hometown many years ago, I was horrified by the noxious smoke rising from piles of burning plastic and polystyrene. “What are they doing Dad? Why is the smell so terrible?” He explained about household-scale collecting, sorting, washing, and heating of plastic trash. Unlike the official Hanoi plastic waste collection and recycling system, in his village plastics were collected by an informally organized group of waste pickers. The plastic was then processed by families as a small business.
Unfortunately, their recycling processes create serious health and environmental risks for the workers and the community as a whole. Washing and melting the plastic uses an excessive amount of water and energy plus produces giant clouds of toxic smoke. Many plastics were unrecyclable so they were dumped and usually burnt, polluting the air with dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls. Plastics can emit toxic fumes when heated and PVC fumes can cause asthma. The smoke from the charcoal and wood fires used to heat plastic adds to air pollution in the village. The wash water was not treated effectively and was discharged directly to waterways thus polluting drinking water supplies, irrigation, and fish stocks. The technology and equipment used were old and inefficient with minimal safety and protection for the workers and the environment. In a 2017 report by Ocean Conservancy, Vietnam was listed as one of five countries dumping the most plastic litter into the ocean. The report also notes an estimated 2,500 tons of plastic waste discharged across Vietnam daily. This plastic waste usually ends up buried in garbage dumps from which it is collected by waste pickers and sold to family-owned businesses that do plastic recycling.
Early this year, the Vietnamese government made efforts to ban single-use plastic products. Customers of large beverage businesses such as Phuc Long and Starbucks have demanded packaging changes to reduce plastic waste; it is hoped that company management will respond. To manage its huge plastic pollution problem, Vietnam needs to go beyond a ban. The country must focus significant resources on creating a high-capacity, safe and efficient plastic recycling system. Rural areas such as my father’s hometown are unlikely to soon benefit from such high-capacity systems however. What is needed are resources and technical support for non-urban areas. The government, NGOs, and local authorities need to work together to recover biomass for fuel and teach communities about sorting waste and managing it better. New processing technologies and plastic craft skills training for village workers would also be necessary for creating environmentally-friendly plastic recycling in Vietnam. Corporate policies that require businesses to collect and recycle their own plastic waste and are also needed.
Plastic pollution is a burning issue not just in Vietnam but in every country in the world. Each of us can be part of the solution, not the problem. Let’s keep plastic waste from choking our oceans and poisoning our environment. Stop using single-use plastic items and replace them with sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives instead. Let’s end the burden of plastic pollution for our future. Support policies that ban single-use plastics and require businesses to be responsible for recycling their own plastic products. We may not be able to fix the recycling system in rural areas in the near future, but as long as we acknowledge the severe environmental impacts of plastic pollution, big changes will come sooner or later.
Make a change today with a few simple steps: educate yourself and your community about the many dangers of plastic pollution. Find out how plastic waste is recycled in your area. Stop burdening Vietnam and other nations with this toxic legacy. Adopt more eco-friendly habits in your daily life. Our environment will die without our help.