Vietnam's trash bins carry plenty of food for thought

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   December 6, 2020 | 07:21 pm PT
I have had the time to “study” the trash bin for a while, having begun sorting waste at home almost 20 years ago.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

The key finding of this study has been that food waste could make up almost 90 percent of my family's garbage – leftover food, vegetables, fruit peels, used tea leaves, coffee grounds, egg shells, bones and seafood waste, all wet and smelly.

Take this to the national level and it is worth mentioning that even though Vietnam is not a "rich" economy, the proportion of food waste in the country's garbage is nearly twice that in rich countries.

For every 10 tons of waste produced in Vietnam, five to eight tons are biodegradable organic waste, most of which is food waste, according to a World Bank report. The more developed a country is, the lower the proportion of food waste in its produced waste - an average of 32 percent compared to 57 percent in less developed countries.

Let's not talk about why "the poor" produce a lot of food waste yet, that's another article on its own. Instead, let us just focus on the waste treatment part of it. Just by separating food waste alone, we could already successfully resolve at least half of the current waste crisis in Vietnam.

Seven years ago, I was invited to speak at the Global Green Hub Korea and tour the Sudokwon Landfill Site. This is the largest waste treatment complex in South Korea with a capacity of 15,000 tons per day, one and a half times that of Ho Chi Minh City's Da Phuoc Landfill and three times that of Hanoi's Nam Son Landfill. Sudokwon serves the 25 million residents of Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi.

So I saw first hand a world-leading model of transforming waste into resources. Food waste is turned into biogas, fertilizer and animal feed, packaging and paper into solid fuel, and glass and metal are recovered. In the end, only inert and non-recyclable matters are buried. Leachate is treated and used to water plants, while biogas from food waste, the wastewater treatment area and the landfill is collected and burned to produce electricity. The electricity produced by the Sudokwon Landfill alone can provide for nearly 450,000 people, which is equivalent to the entire population of Vietnam's Hue.

Unlike the other odor-filled landfills that I have visited, the Sudokwon Landfill Site is more like a park. It has also become a tourist attraction near Incheon. The South Koreans have turned a place that everyone would typically steer clear of into a place for recreation, entertainment and education about the environment. As they bid farewell, Sudokwon's leaders gifted each of us a green card with the phrase "waste into resources" gilded using gold recovered from waste.

I chose to talk about Sudokwon because the tale of South Korea's waste had a beginning not dissimilar to the stories of trucks being blocked from entering landfills in Vietnam.

South Korea's remarkable economic growth over three decades from 1960 also brought with it the headaches of environmental degradation, including a spike in the amount of waste. Similar to modern-day Vietnam, rapid industrialization and urbanization in South Korea reduced the availability of land for burying waste. "Landfills anywhere, but not in my backyard" became the people's motto. The country's leaders have since completely changed their waste management policies, and switched from building as many landfills as possible to reducing waste before it is even produced.

Starting in 1995, South Korea applied widely the policy of charging garbage collection fees based on volume, aiming to reduce the amount of waste consigned to landfills.

Recyclable waste such as plastic, paper, glass and metal were separated from other wastes and collected separately for free. Non-recyclable waste destined for the landfill had to be put inside standard plastic bags sold at supermarkets in eight different sizes: 2, 5, 10, 20, 30, 50, 75 and 100 liters. Separate charges applied to special types of waste such as large electronics items, furniture and construction debris. These were collected on request.

However, landfills continued to smell because food waste was still buried. In late 1996, residents of the Seoul-Gyeonggi area blocked all trucks carrying wet food waste from entering the landfill sites. The constant pressure forced South Korea to ban the burying of food waste in 2005. In 2013, the country also started charging collecting fees for food waste based on weight. Thanks to these drastic measures, the reduction and recycling of this source of organic resource finally took hold and flourished.

After 18 years of struggling with waste, the amount of garbage per capita in South Korea dropped by 28 percent. The proportion of waste for landfills reduced from 80 percent to just 16 percent. In particular, the situation of 99 percent of food waste being buried was reversed to being "processed." Today, the country does not need more land for landfills. Instead it collects revenues of more than $1 billion a year.

Sorting at source and adopting a holistic approach will determine the success or failure of Vietnam’s waste management policies and implementation.

The goal and the means

A woman walks past a pile of trash on a Hanoi street, which was formed after people blocked a landfill in protest, October 26, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

A woman walks past a pile of trash on a Hanoi street, which was formed after people blocked a landfill in protest, October 26, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Firstly, I hope the nation’s managers do not confuse the goal with the means. The government's ultimate goal is to reduce waste and increase the recycling ratio in order to lessen the pressure on the environment. The charging of fees is only a means, a regulating tool. If they are too focused on collecting money from the people while sorted waste is still buried, the policy will backfire spectacularly.

The application of new garbage collection fees, if not accompanied by a reformation of the infrastructure for receiving, transporting and recycling garbage, would rob people of any motivation to cooperate with the process.

Additionally, I believe the priority in waste management at the national level should be food waste. Once this wet and heavy type of waste has been isolated, the remaining dry waste would be easy to handle. Ho Chi Minh City currently plans to sort waste into "recyclable" and "other" waste, while Hanoi’s sorting categories are "burnable" and "non-burnable."

With such classifications, the final destination for food waste would still be landfills. Without drastic measures to separate food waste and eventually ban its burial in landfills as South Korea has done, Vietnam would only stop at increasing the recycling proportion of valuable dry waste. And this is something the garbage collectors are already doing well, albeit not in a hygienic way.

Landfill burial is still the "preferred" method in major Vietnamese cities. There are 904 landfills across the country, of which 725 are unhygienic. The waste crisis will worsen as the mountains of garbage get larger and space for landfills get smaller.

Meanwhile, even as we become aware of and conversant with macro decisions and their impacts, each of us should be more responsible with our trash bins at home, minimize food waste and willingly sort it out instead of dumping all waste into one plastic bag.

Waste treatment begins at home.

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

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top