Will the sorting of waste at source become a non-starter?

August 17, 2022 | 04:54 pm PT
Trinh Phuong Quan Architect
Vietnam plans to start sorting waste at source later this month, but I hear no mention about how it will be collected and transported.

That worries me.

Seven years ago, I got to spend nine months living and studying in Ghent, a small, beautiful ancient city in Belgium with many well-preserved medieval castles and churches.

I rented a cheap room for students. On the first day, the landlord gave me a tour of the house, showed me how to use the heater and kitchen utensils.

In the kitchen, there was a corner with two steel frames holding a blue plastic bag and a yellow plastic bag with "IVAGO" printed on them, as well as a cardboard box next to the bags.

The landlord told us that our waste must be sorted thus: the yellow bag for daily household waste; the blue for plastic waste, aluminum cans and milk cartons; and the big box for cardboard, pizza boxes and glass bottles, especially beer bottles.

Then, after posting a waste collection calendar on the kitchen wall, he asked us to check the dates then decide among ourselves who would take out the garbage on which day. The calendar was colored yellow, blue and brown to indicate the days the bags of that color would be collected.

Garbage trucks would drive around the streets from 5 a.m., collecting the yellow bags weekly, the blue bags every two weeks, and the box of paper and glass waste once a month.

Belgium has a temperate climate and is cold all year round so kitchen waste like meat, vegetable and fruit peels could be kept in the yellow bags for a whole week without going rancid or starting to smell.

If caught dumping household waste into public trash bins, we would be fined EUR120 (US$123) and an extra EUR250 for the cleaning fee, which was a huge sum then. My monthly living expense in Belgium was about EUR650.

The yellow bags for household waste were quite expensive, at EUR18.4 for 10 big bags while the blue bags for recyclable waste were much cheaper, at EUR6 for a roll of 20 bags. The bags were sold for the same price across the city. This was to encourage people to sort their waste more carefully instead of dumping everything into the yellow bags.

This episode with sorting waste and taking out the trash came to mind when I heard that Vietnam was making a drastic move, carrying out waste sorting at source with the introduction of Decree 45/2022, which takes effect on August 25. Under the decree, households and communities that do not sort their waste in accordance with regulations would face fines of up to VND300 million ($12,800).

A trash collection truck in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

A trash collection truck in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

The goal of waste sorting was set a long time ago. In 2007, Hanoi had already piloted a waste sorting at source campaign in Hoan Kiem District. Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Can Tho have also piloted such projects but none of them could be persisted with for long due to a lack of synchronization in the collection, gathering, transportation and treatment processes.

The sorting of waste over all these years, therefore, has been in the hands of scrap dealers.

With the country producing nearly 65,000 tons of solid waste daily, including about 9,500 tons in HCMC and over 6,500 tons in Hanoi, waste sorting at source, while difficult, is still an imperative for proper treatment and recycling. The implementation of this task in many countries around the world can provide good reference models for Vietnam.

Belgium is a country famous for its rational and efficient waste sorting and recycling, only behind Germany in Europe. In addition to separating waste into yellow and blue bags as they have been doing, Vietnam's big cities could raise people's awareness by regulating the types and prices of trash bags. If someone's garbage fails to meet the regulations, including the regulation on the types of bags, waste management companies would have the right to refuse to collect the waste.

In Singapore, where I currently live, the National Environment Agency is responsible for managing and monitoring waste sorting and collection. In shopping malls, schools, markets and food centers, there are blue 660-liter bins dedicated to recyclable waste with four color-coded compartments: glass, paper, plastic and metal.

Domestic waste is cleaned and collected daily to avoid odors and insects as Singapore has a hot and humid tropical climate.

From a young age, people in the island country are taught to sort their garbage into organic, recyclable and non-recyclable waste. This dissemination is carried out actively and vigorously. At food centers and wet markets, there are illustrated notices and instructions on waste sorting posted everywhere.

However, not everything is perfect and successful. In Singapore, the culture of using plastic bags and single-use spoons and chopsticks is still prevalent. This is easily noticeable when I go to the supermarket and see that each item is put into a separate plastic bag. Plastic bags are free and you can ask for more without limit.

In the Pandan Gardens area where I live, daily household waste in the public apartment buildings is collected in a plastic bag and dropped down the garbage chute. Centralized garbage chute, a typical feature of most social apartments and high-rise apartment blocks, allows residents to easily dispose of their waste directly from their own kitchens, not having to take their recyclable waste all the way down to the ground floor.

Such garbage chutes are also common in many apartment buildings in Vietnam, and this is a huge obstacle to the goal of sorting waste at source.

The designs of these apartment buildings cannot be changed immediately, so awareness raising and advocating for people to change their mindset would be the first important step.

But even if households are conscious of it, efforts to sort waste at source might still be a futile exercise if the garbage collection and transportation processes continue as before and the content of different colored bags are mixed together en route to landfills.

I haven't seen the authorities announce any solution to the process of transporting sorted waste. I am worried. Will this much needed move turn out to be a non-starter? I hope not, fervently.

*Trinh Phuong Quan is an architect. The opinions expressed are his own.

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