With no bins in sight, trash will remain on Vietnamese streets

By Le Thi Thien Huong   May 4, 2018 | 08:12 am GMT+7
With no bins in sight, trash will remain on Vietnamese streets
A woman collects garbage at a dump in Bac Ninh Province, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, June 5, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Blaming dirty streets on 'irresponsible individuals' is convenient but does nothing to solve the problem.

I first saw a plastic bag in 1992 when I was in secondary school. A classmate had “nicked” one from her mother’s store in the local market to show it to me. Up until that point, I only knew of sedge bags and plastic baskets my mom carried every morning to the market for grocery shopping.

As I marvelled at the white bag, which had a smooth and cool feeling, I thought to myself “how light and beautiful.” Back then, people treated plastic bags with care, some families even washed and dried them for multiple uses.

Over 20 years have passed since then. I no longer live in Vietnam but I return every year only to witness the staggering changes to my hometown.

I see luxury cars parked around fancy buildings. But what pains my heart is how the streets are littered with garbage everywhere I go. Plastic bags are now present in every household. People use them once, then throw them away. They come in all shapes, sizes and shades; they flutter in the wind from streets, parks to beaches and markets. They don’t just devalue Vietnam’s public image. They are also the number one global polluter.

As I watch the trash epidemic plague my hometown, I am inclined to feel for rather than blame our waste collectors. They probably try their best.

The female worker who collects waste everyday in my parents’ neighborhood always has to push a huge, rusty and ramshackle cart overflowing with trash bags. The lady always stops at the foot of a slope, out of breath, looking around for anyone who could help her push the cart uphill to the collection point.

One time, I decided to stop by and lend her a helping hand while wearing high heels and a flowery dress. As we gathered our strength, the cart barely moved.

In the 21st century, when people enthusiastically discuss about the sharing economy, the concept of mechanization is still a distant reality for Vietnam’s waste management industry.

Besides the fact that plastic bags are overused in Vietnam, the apparent lack of waste sorting is a major factor contributing to the country’s pollution problem. Organic waste is thrown in together with glass bottles, paper, plastic containers, medical waste and even chemicals...

Many countries already have an efficient waste sorting and treatment system developed decades ago.

In France where I live, environmental fees are already included in our tax money. The monthly fee I have to pay, which is calculated based on the house’s size, number of occupants and the city’s waste treatment capacity, amounts to $13.

In return, the city council gives each household two trash bins: a yellow one for recyclable waste, and a green one for non-recyclable waste. In some cities, people can collect from the city council separate trash bags for recyclable and non-recyclable waste every month.

As for jars and bottles, residents can store them in a white box. On a fixed day every week, people would put these boxes in front of their houses, which would then be collected by workers.

Those who fail to sort their waste are slapped with a hefty fine. This explains why people living in France are very conscientious when it comes to sorting their waste, adults and children alike.

Some cities even want to push their trash-sorting with scheme for raising backyard chickens which would feed on kitchen scraps.

Thanks to the country’s waste collection efforts, the sight of trash bags lining the streets is unheard of in France. Sorting also makes recycling easier and cheaper.

I’ve heard about modern waste treatment technologies being applied in Vietnam to no avail. The problem lies in the fact that people simply do not sort their waste.

Sorting waste remains to be a job reserved for informal scrap collectors. That’s why we have those controversial scrap villages. With no proper waste management system covering collection, sorting and treatment, our cities continue to be dirty while treatment costs remain high. There goes the public image of Vietnam.

Every time a holiday season comes and ends, it would be no surprise to see the most famous tourism destinations be filled with trash. And surely people will talk about it.

But while it might be easy to attribute the littering to some “irresponsible individuals,” the truth is the government has failed to offer proper incentives for effective waste disposal.

When it’s difficult to find a trash bin, with no option for recyclable items, it’s hard to blame it on “irresponsible individuals.”

As Edward Humes said in his famous book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”: Our trash is not just something we create; it also reflects who we are, and where our society is heading to.

*Le Thi Thien Huong is a Law professor who earned her PhD in Intellectual Property in Poitiers University, France.

 
 
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