Saigon's waste management isn't working, and citizens are paying the price

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   August 28, 2019 | 11:43 pm PT
The most ambitious waste management facility in Saigon never lived up to its expectations, but the damage it has done is increasingly evident.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

The first time I visited Saigon's Da Phuoc Integrated Waste Management Facility was in 2008, about a year after it went into operation. I was in charge of several environmental projects for a U.S. fund in Vietnam. The second time was five years later, when I worked as an expert for a tech firm in Europe. That time, my job was to assess the technologies the facility used to generate electricity from the garbage it collected.

We were impressed. The facility, the most ambitious waste management project ever in Vietnam, was to get a waste sorting factory, a compost plant, and a hygienic burial site equipped with U.S. technologies.

The waste would be recycled, the compost would be used for agriculture and export and the resulting methane would be used to generate electricity for the entire facility. Thus there would be less trash to be buried, which would save resources and protect the environment.

Everything looked perfect on paper. Only, most of it never happened; only the burial site managed to go into operation.


"Because the city did not deliver us sorted trash as it promised," explained Vietnam Waste Solutions (VWS), which invested in the facility.

We had no choice but to come back empty-handed.

Another time when we visited Da Phuoc, we were invited to inspect its waste sorting operations, the compost plant and power generator. Again, there was nothing to inspect: everything was spotless, pristine. They had never been used, not even once.

Every time I went there I encountered that foul, revolting smell that just screams Da Phuoc. But while I only have to suffer that smell once in a while, people living near there have endured it day after day for years. The smell comes from the facility’s leachate evaporation pond and landfill. Both of them produce substances which not only pollute the environment but also affect human health.

An aerial view of the Da Phuoc Integrated Waste Management Facility in Saigon’s Binh Chanh District. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

An aerial view of the Da Phuoc Integrated Waste Management Facility in Saigon’s Binh Chanh District. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Several questions stuck with me: Why can other businesses manage to produce compost from unsorted trash, but not VWS? Why does VWS keep burying its trash? Why does Saigon keep giving VWS more and more trash every day while it merely buries them?

Considering the fact that Da Phuoc has been in operation for close to 12 years, several of its burial sites must have accumulated more than enough landfill gas, which could be used to generate electricity. But VWS has never done so. Moreover, in the first place, the pipeline systems necessary to collect the gas are virtually non-existent. This is why the gas and the stench eventually find their way out and have been terrorizing Saigonese noses for so many years. And people are powerless to do anything about it.

To stop the smell and the pollution, Saigon needs to approach the problem technically, legally and financially.

First, it needs to collect all the gas produced by the landfill before either using them to generate electricity or burn it up. This needs to be done right now and continued for at least several decades after the facility eventually shuts down.

Second, it needs to hire an independent consultant to assess the damage Da Phuoc has done to people's health and the environment. This will help determine if the losses and damages are not too severe to keep Da Phuoc operating at least until 2025.

Third, there needs to be a limit to the volume of garbage sent to Da Phuoc even if there is a new contract to do so. This is important because if Da Phuoc gets to treat 10,000 tons per day, no investor would bother to join the game as there would not be enough trash left for them.

Finally, it is not too late for Saigon to adopt garbage sorting and recycling technologies. Taking small steps would do: sort and recycle plastic waste first, then move on to organic ones. Either burn up the rest to generate electricity or bury them as usual.

Urban waste management is no easy task. We need to see at least 50 years ahead to properly deal with our rubbish, and cannot hope to wing it year after year.

And we must remember that the purpose of waste management is to safeguard people's health and interests first and foremost, not investors'. Only by going forward with such a mindset can we hope to deal with this smelly problem once and for all.

*Nguyen Dang Anh Thi is an expert on energy and environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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