Dirty business: The hidden workers who deal with waste in Vietnam’s capital

By Hoang Phuong, Duc Hoang   April 18, 2018 | 06:00 am PT
Workers collect, classify and recycle all kinds of waste just to earn a little bit extra.

Minh has lived in Hanoi for 10 years, but still doesn't speak fluent Vietnamese.

He comes from an ethnic minority group based in the north of the country, but moved down to the capital to earn a living as a waste disposal worker in a residential building.

Minh does not get the chance to practice his Vietnamese very much because concrete walls separate him from the rest of society, and the only connection he has with other people is a waste pipe.

Minh does not know exactly how old his two sons are. All he knows is that they quit school early to follow him in the waste business. 

Minhs wife and older son clean up the bunker of garbage under a residential building in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Do Manh Cuong

Minh's wife and older son clean up the bunker of garbage under a residential building in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Do Manh Cuong

Leaving his home in the mountainous province of Ha Giang, 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Hanoi, Minh now works in a hot and suffocating basement collecting waste to sell for recycling as a source of income for his family.

Nhu, Minh’s wife, and their older son also help out.

On a hot summer's day in Hanoi, when rotten garbage is spilling out of the carts, a new bag of waste flies down the pipe sending rotten food, pottery and diapers into the basement.

With dirty water splashing on his shorts, Minh's son silently kicks a soft drink can outside, where his younger brother is waiting to collect plastic, metal and paper for recycling.

Minhs youngest son recycles the waste. Photo by VnExpress/Do Manh Cuong

Minh's youngest son recycles the waste. Photo by VnExpress/Do Manh Cuong

Like many other low-income countries, Vietnam spends big on collecting and transporting waste, and the cost for waste collection makes up more than 80 percent of the total sum it spends on waste treatment, according to the World Bank.

But only 46 percent of the waste is properly categorized and treated. 

Developed countries spend 10 percent on collection thanks to the application of machinery, and 90 percent of the waste is processed correctly.

Nam, another refuse worker in Hanoi, and his wife, Tuoi, came from a remote village in Nam Dinh Province, more than 62 miles south of Hanoi. The city’s environment office gave Tuoi an official job while he failed to receive an official contract. He works as a freelance collector and gets paid directly from the workers that “hire” him, without insurance or benefits.

When he first started collecting waste, the foul was unbearable, he said.

It was in the hot summer of last year, he was pushing bags of waste when one of them split and started leaking. The stench practically stunned him, and he skipped meals that day.

“I was a farmer and I'm used to the smell of mud, soil and fertilizer, but I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

It took Nam two months to adapt to the new job, and now he's impervious to the waste.

Nam as a waste collector on the street of Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Do Manh Cuong

Nam as a waste collector on the street of Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Do Manh Cuong

These migrant waste collectors in Hanoi are typical portraits of a workforce that has been acting as the backbone for the waste system in big cities around Vietnam, the world’s 34th biggest economy. They are paid to collect waste, but at the same time, they have found themselves an extra source of income through recycling, and that extra cash is available due to the vast amount of plastic used in Vietnam.

Vietnam is one of the biggest consumers of plastic in the world, standing at 17th out of 109 countries, according to the World Bank.

In 2015, the nation was named among five countries that dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined. Ocean Conservancy, an environmental non-profit organization, said in a report that 60 percent of the plastic trash flowing into the seas originates from fastest growing economies in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

“These countries have recently benefited from significant increases in GDP, reduced poverty and improved quality of life,” the U.S.-based organization said. “However, increasing economic power has also generated exploding demand for consumer products that has not yet been met with a commensurate waste-management infrastructure.”

In 2014, the country threw out 12 million tons of solid waste, and it is estimated that urban areas alone will be dumping 22 million tons per year by 2020, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

At the same time, Vietnam is also struggling to collect its waste. Only 40 to 60 percent of waste ends up in dumps, while the rest is discharged into canals and rivers that flow into the sea, said the organization.

“A system for classifying waste does not exist in Vietnam. We tried to develop a project for that but it didn't work,” Tran Thi Quoc Khanh, a member of the Committee of Science, Technology and Environment under the country’s legislative National Assembly, told VnExpress.

The stories of Minh, Nam and their children reflect the country's failure to find an effective way to collect and treat waste.

The project that Khanh mentioned was financed by Japan back in 2004 when Hanoi started to classify waste in three different categories, but it quickly disappeared.

“Workers throw all the trash into their carts eventually, so there is no need for classification. We just put our garbage in a plastic bag and throw it away,” one Hanoi resident told local media.

It is impossible to recount the number of times authorities have talked about “mechanizing,” “automating” and “improving the efficiency” of waste collection over the years.

And in the eyes of an insider like Nam, the situation is the same as it has always been. “People put everything into a bag, and in some cases, there is even no bag at all,” he says, showing his hands scarred by broken glass.

“It would be unfair to blame it all on local residents when there is only a trashcan in front of their house without any spaces for classification,” Khanh says.

“The city is in dire need of an effective waste collecting and classifying system, even if it costs a lot," she adds.

But whatever the authorities are planning right now will be a story for the future, maybe even the distant future, given all the failed projects Vietnam has tried to implement.

For now, collecting, classifying and recycling waste are still a manual job done by silent workers who have to struggle day by day to get used to the odor, the cuts on their hands and whatever mixture of so-called organic and inorganic trash they have to search through to find something to sell.

On the International Womens' Day last March, Nam managed to buy a red rose for his wife with money he earned from selling scrap. He had to put in an extra VND7,000 for the VND35,000 flower though.

But his attempt to add color to life was not taken so well. His wife, who came home past midnight that day, believed that the money could have been spent on a decent meal with meat.

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