Trash talk: Vietnam slowly sinking under mountains of waste

The oceans are spewing up what one of the world's biggest plastic polluters is dumping into them, and it's not pretty.

It started when An Dang, a 26-year-old living in Hanoi, watched a plastic straw being pulled out from the bleeding nose of a sea turtle in Costa Rica. The Youtube video was an instant hit and the whole experience gave An a wake-up call.

An Dang.

“I felt the pain as if it was my own nose,” he recalled. “Then I realized that straws are not as harmless as they look. They are ubiquitous where I live, and they are so small that nobody notices them, no matter how many they use every day, even my environmentally-spirited friends.”

In July, An announced on the Facebook page for his online vegetarian food store that he was going to start selling stainless steel straws for anyone interested. He also knocked on the doors of restaurants and cafés in Hanoi, asking them to stop using plastic straws and replace them with the steel alternative. Four have joined his cause so far.

An ad of stainless steel straw on An's Facebook page. "Coming soon," it reads, "A straw that does not hurt the environment."

“The stainless steel straws last much longer than the bamboo ones, which have to be thrown away after three or four months," An explained. “The single-use plastic-lined paper ones produce just as much trash as plastic straws, and they are 10 times more expensive.”

By the time we chatted on the phone, An was waiting for his second shipment of stainless steel straws to arrive in Vietnam.

“People have been messaging me on Facebook to order the straws for themselves and their friends,” An said. “Some restaurants and cafés in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City have also shown an interest in the idea and have ordered a few dozen to pilot them.”

It’s not the perfect solution for the environment, I know,” he added. “But at least it helps reduce the amount of plastic waste we throw away every day.”

From his visits to cafés and kitchens, An estimated they throw out from 30 to 80 plastic straws per day.

His idea is not as far-flung for Vietnam as it sounds.

The 12mil-view Youtube video of a sea Turtle with Straw up its Nostril. (Warning: Strong language).

In fact, it is possible that the straw wedged in the nose of the poor turtle on the other side of the Pacific came from his own country.

In 2015, Vietnam was named among the five countries that dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined. Ocean Conservancy, an environmental non-profit, said in a report that 60 percent of the plastic trash flowing into the seas originates from fastest growing economies in China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

“These countries have recently benefited from significant increases in GDP, reduced poverty and improved quality of life.” the U.S.-based organization explained. “However, increasing economic power has also generated exploding demand for consumer products that has not yet been met with a commensurate waste-management infrastructure.”

With average GDP per capita growth of 6.4 percent a year since the 2000s, Vietnam has had to deal with the mounting pressure of trash left behind from rising consumerism, particularly in the cities.

In 2014, the country threw out 12 million tons of solid waste, and it is estimated that urban areas alone will be dumping 22 million tons per year by 2020, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

At the same time, Vietnam is also struggling to collect its waste. While most trash in the cities is collected each day, it's a different story in rural areas and the suburbs, where two-thirds of the population live. Only 40 to 60 percent of waste ends up in dumps, while the rest is discharged into canals and rivers that flow into the sea.

The pristine island of Binh Ba.

Con Vanh Beach, in the northern province of Thai Binh.

Do Son Beach in Hai Phong.

Co To Island in Quang Ninh Province.

Trash mars beaches across Vietnam. Photos by VnExpress.

Recycling? Careful what you wish for

In the same report, Ocean Conservancy calculated what needs to be done by the five worst polluters to help reduce nearly half of the plastic that spills into the seas by 2025.

The good news is Vietnam has already developed a plan to deal with trash by 2025, which focuses on recycling. In the National Waste Management Strategy, the government has set goals of collecting and treating up to 90 percent of solid waste in urban areas, “85 percent of which will be recycled or reused to produce energy or organic fertilizer.”

The bad news is Vietnam does not have the facilities to achieve this goal.

Most waste is simply being dumped - from left-over food to plastic bags, rubber, and yes, plastic straws - into landfill sites across the country, where it is left unsorted and untreated.

85 percent of the waste in Vietnam is being buried without treatment in landfill sites, 80 percent of which are unhygienic and pollute the environment.

Pham Trong Thuc, Director of Renewable Energy Department, the General Department of Energy at Consultation Workshop on Biomass Power Investment Guidelines for Vietnam in Hanoi on August 18, 2017

The national 3R campaign (reduce, reuse, recycle), a shining example of the efforts being made by Vietnam a few years ago, fizzled out when it became apparent the waste people were sorting was just being dumped into the same bins anyway and carted off to the nearest dump.

“Vietnam’s current collection scheme discourages sorting,” Le Hung Anh, a waste treatment expert from the Ho Chi Minh Industrial University, said in a recent interview with VnExpress International. “The state-run environment agencies in charge of collecting trash would have to buy more carts and trucks, and employ more manpower to collect the waste separately. They don't have the money to do that; they can't make a profit out of it.”

As a result, he argued, plastic recycling firms lose ground to smaller establishments, such as household-level recyclers.

They source their material from the waste pickers, locally known as ve chai, who go from door to door to buy used bottles and cans from houses, plastic cups from cafés and restaurants and anything recyclable they can find on the street. And that excludes straws and colored items, such as plastic bags.

Only about 20 percent of municipal plastic waste has enough value to incentivize waste pickers to collect it; what remains is therefore more likely to leak into the ocean.”

Ocean Conservancy concluded after hailing them as the unsung heroes from the “informal recycling systems”.

A woman sorts through recyclable plastic soft drink bottles in Xa Cau Village outside Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham

However, the prevalence of these informal recyclers poses more of an environmental challenge than a solution.

“The recycling process on such small-scale is a concern as it is unregulated,” Hung Anh said. “In the so-called 'garbage villages', for instance, they mix all kinds of items together to produce chips or flakes to sell to factories or to make new plastic products. This creates serious health and environmental risks on a large scale, not just groundwater contamination from the washing and air pollution from the heating process.”

In 2015, a recycling medical waste scandal shocked the nation when syringes, infusion tubes and the like were retrieved from different garbage villages around Hanoi and made into plastic tableware such as disposable spoons and straws, as reported by local media.

90 percent of recycling facilities don’t have someone in charge of environmental matters, 94 percent don’t have waste water treatment systems, and 84 percent don’t have the equipment to treat waste gas.

Ho Chi Minh City Waste Recycle Fund

Ocean Conservancy has advised Vietnam it can start treating its waste issue using four solutions – expanding the network of waste collectors; minimizing the leakage from landfill sites; incinerating garbage to create electricity; and building recycling plants.

While there is little evidence much is being done to actually address the problem and meet the high goals set by politicians, the pressure is growing visually.

A few days ago, the second wave of ocean garbage in a month hit the once pristine Mui Ne Beach, forcing Phan Thiet Town to send in excavators to remove the debris.

Trash dumped by locals and fishermen at sea is being washed back to haunt them, but locals seem to have got used to it.

“There’s always a lot of trash washed ashore between June and August,” said a resort owner. “Tourists aren't happy about it, and it stinks.”

“The only solution is to stop it at the source,” said Dang Thanh Tien from the town’s environment department. “We have to clean up the ocean.”

But as An Dang and the sea turtle know, it's not the ocean that's at fault in Vietnam.

Story by Nhung Nguyen

Photos by VnExpress, Reuters

By Nhung Nhung