Hanoi blames metal, plastic recycling for near-fatal air quality

By Tat Dinh, Thanh Lam   December 27, 2019 | 12:37 am PT
Opinions remain mixed as Hanoi holds neighboring craft villages responsible for dire air pollution.

The capital's authorities identified "smoke from production facilities in the city and neighboring areas" as one of 12 causes of long-term hazardous air pollution, though these claims are refuted by villagers.

Some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the northeast of Hanoi, Man Van Tan makes sure the door of his house is closed firmly, shielding it with a sheet of canvas around the clock.

In case of visitors, the door is opened only slightly to let them in. Once inside, Tan removes the plastic cover from the couch before taking off the sheets draped over the table, tea pot and cups. The same method is applied to his bed, clothes, television and all other furniture.

Tan has been living like this for over a decade. In order to endure the smog and dust, his neighbors in Van Mon Village have done the same.

Smoke is seen billowing from facilities recyling metal in Van Mon Village of Bac Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Du An

Smoke is seen billowing from metal recycling facilities in Van Mon Village, Bac Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Du An.

Man Xa Commune, Yen Phong District of Bac Ninh Province, an eastern neighbor of Hanoi, includes five villages. Two of them, Quan Do and Van Mon, are famed for their metal smelting and salvage operations.

On January 3, a warhead explosion dismantled five houses in Quan Do Village, killing two. Less than one kilometer away, Van Mon lies hidden behind thick black smoke stemming from 400 chimneys, nearly 24 hours a day.

As village head, Tan joined the metal business in 1968 when Van Mon was home to only six facilities that cast aircraft wrecks and bomb casings into pans and pots.

These days, as many as 400 metal focused facilities are up and running across the village. With high profit, low input cost and simple technique, no one wants to quit.

In 2011, the Center for Natural Resources and Environment Monitoring of Bac Ninh released a survey stating the amount of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and suspended dust in the village surpassed national technical regulations on the environment by four-five times.

Some 20 kilometers from Tan’s facility, the air quality index for Van Ha Commune of Hanoi’s Dong Anh District has remained at hazardous levels since the beginning of the month, with the district administration claiming the process of burning and recycling metal in Van Mon Village was to blame. The district had more than once sent a petition requiring Bac Ninh authorities to deal with pollution caused by its craft villages.

Bac Ninh is home to 62 craft villages and 32 industrial zones covering a total area of almost 865 hectares (2,140 acres). In 2008, the province contributed three names to the list of craft villages across the country that "cause serious pollution, especially air pollution" in a national environment report by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

These include Van Mon, and two bronze casting villages of Dai Bai and Quang Bo. The three are all situated in residential areas.

Workers cooking metal waste for recyling in Van Mon Village of Bac Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Du An

Workers smelt metal waste for recycling purposes in Van Mon Village, Bac Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Du An.

Tan said his own facility casts more than one ton of metal and discards around 300 kilos of ash each day on average, but he could not tell which kind of fumes his facility and the entire village have been sending into the atmosphere via its 40-meter-high stacks.

"It cannot reach as far as Hanoi," he said with conviction.

Hanoi itself is home to many craft villages. The master plan on protecting the craft village environment until 2020, with a vision to 2030, states that by late 2017, the capital hosted 1,350 such villages operated by 170,000 households.

Four of the eight production types are among those not encouraged by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, due to the high risk of environmental pollution. These include dyeing, tanning, plastic recycling, and recycling of construction materials (lime, bricks, tiles, stone).

20 kilometers south of Hanoi, Binh Minh Commune of Thanh Oai District is home to around 200 facilities slaughtering livestock and poultry and processing animal bones into cattle feed. They are also located in residential areas.

In order to prevent environmental pollution, the capital in 2012 approved a project to build a concentrated slaughtering facility stretching 42 hectares (104 acres) and costing VND111 billion ($4.82 million). Initially scheduled for completion in 2015, the facility has never come to life and four years after it was abandoned, what was supposed to become the facility is now used as a gathering point for animal bones.

Every morning at six, Nguyen Kim Mung, 50, travels all the way from his home in Binh Minh to the inner-city to collect bones discarded by restaurants, who have grown accustomed to his visits during the past 12 years. A bucket of bones is always ready for him to collect. Mung is proud of his "fly-like job," saying it has helped save Hanoi from tons of trash.

Taking the bones home, Mung picks whatever meat and cartilage is left to sell to fish farmers before selling the bones themselves. There are some 20 bone whole-buyers in Binh Minh, each purchasing nearly one ton every day before selling it to facilities producing animal feed, including those in China.

Bags of animal bones are put together for being processed into animal feed in Binh Minh Commune of Hanois Thanh Oai District. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh

Bags of animal bones await processing into animal feed in Binh Minh Commune of Hanoi's Thanh Oai District. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

By last year, Hanoi had 988 livestock and poultry slaughtering houses, 95 percent small scale and using regressive techniques, discarding a series of hazardous sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia into the atmosphere.

15 km from the yard where bones are collected in Binh Minh lies Xa Cau Village in Ung Hoa District, the biggest plastic recycling area in Hanoi with 170 households in the business. Every day, from early morning to late at night, the village’s main road serves hundreds of three-wheeled transport motorbikes filled up with bags containing anything from plastic bottles to home appliances and electronic waste. It is estimated over 200 tons of plastic are brought here each day.

Villagers sort the best plastic for recycling before ditching the rest into canals and fields before they are burnt.

As one of the first to start the plastic recycling business in Xa Cau seven years ago, Nguyen Tri Dung, 36, said his facility processes two tons of plastic each day and releases 20 kilos of waste. Every month, he spends VND3 million ($130,000) hiring trucks to dump the waste at the city’s landfill.

Small-scale facilities cannot afford hiring trucks to transport their waste so instead discard it either inside or outside the village, Dung said.

"Even when they burn the waste, we have to accept the smell since we are all in the business," he added.

Those employed in craft villages like Tan, Mung or Dung are fully aware of the negative impact their livelihoods have on the environment, though all insist on proof their businesses have caused air pollution across Hanoi.

Yet Hanoians living nearby are sure these craft villages cause air pollution, with the city administration list bolstering their beliefs.

In 20 years studying craft villages, Dang Thi Kim Chi, vice chairwoman of Vietnam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment, said fumes emitted by craft villages do affect Hanoi but the impact is not very significant and those villages should not be on the list 12 reason list.

She suggested the city study further and evaluate the contribution rate of each group of causes instead of coming up with a mere list, which works "more like a prediction and an explanation."

Hanoi has targeted to have all its industrial zones complete their concentrated wastewater treatment systems by next year.

Bac Ninh has the same target for its industrial areas and craft villages.

Bac Ninh's Department of Construction approved a project for a concentrated craft zone set to be completed in 2020. The project is expected to stretch 26.5 hectares, cost VND490 billion ($21 million) and create jobs for 3,200 laborers. But as for fumes, the province wants each facility to invest in their own systems to collect and treat their gas emissions in accordance with current environmental standards in Vietnam.

The air quality index for Hanoi has remained at a constant alarming level, especially since September.

Air Quality Indexes (AQI) recorded by IQAir AirVisual, a Swiss-based air quality monitoring facility, in Hanoi frequently stayed above 150-200, even crossing the 300 mark. AQI levels above 100 are considered unhealthy.

On AirVisual scales, Hanoi topped the list of cities with the worst air quality in the world, from over 10,000 monitored more than once in late September.

Hanoi suffers extreme air pollution around 300 days a year, a 2016 report by the World Health Organization stated.

City authorities have identified PM2.5, formed by carbon, nitrogen and other metal compounds, as the main culprit in its worsening air pollution.

Low air quality has also been blamed on large-scale construction, the high proportion of private vehicles and heavy industry activities, such as steelworks, cement factories and coal-fired plants that discharge carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, and nitrogen oxide, all extremely harmful to human health.

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