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Vietnam’s unsung recycling heroines have livelihoods ruined by Covid-19

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 14/10/2020 Sen Nguyen in Hanoi
a woman holding a bicycle: Nguyen Thi Phuong, who runs a collection centre in Hanoi, disassembles an old bicycle wheel to sell on the valuable parts to recyclers. Photo: Sen Nguyen Nguyen Thi Phuong, who runs a collection centre in Hanoi, disassembles an old bicycle wheel to sell on the valuable parts to recyclers. Photo: Sen Nguyen

Luong Thi Huyen makes a living out of recycling what others discard. The 55-year-old earns about 100,000 dong (US$4.31) a day in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi collecting and sorting a wide variety of waste by hand.

"I buy from established sources like shops and restaurants. Cardboard boxes, plastic, iron, whatever they have I will buy," said Huyen, who migrated from the northern province of Hung Yen in 2010 so she could support her son through university by picking and sorting trash.

Huyen is among the thousands of informal workers who are unsung heroines - many of the pickers are women - in Vietnam and around Southeast Asia dealing with the region's mounting waste problem.

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They buy recyclables from households and businesses, which they resell through middlemen to the facilities where the materials are finally recycled, beginning the process again.

a person standing in front of a building: Luong Thi Huyen heads out on her bicycle to collect recyclables in Hanoi. Photo: Sen Nguyen © Provided by South China Morning Post Luong Thi Huyen heads out on her bicycle to collect recyclables in Hanoi. Photo: Sen Nguyen

According to a 2017 report by the United Nations' Environment Programme, pickers play a part in every stage of the waste management process from collection and transport to disposal in all Southeast Asian nations except Singapore, which stands apart thanks to its well-structured waste management system that sees much of the country's refuse incinerated to generate energy.

Their contribution is especially valuable in a region where few recycle - overall recycling rates among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations being less than 50 per cent - yet the pickers themselves receive little to no recognition, either in the official data or in society more generally. And this year's coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse.

Consumption of single-use plastics such as surgical masks and disposable cups has shot up since the advent of Covid-19, leading to ever more waste for pickers to collect - a thankless task that comes with no social security benefits, nor a share of government pandemic relief.

"The sector in Vietnam is often portrayed as dirty, poor and the bottom of the social status scale," said Kasia Weina, co-founder of Evergreen Labs, a project development organisation based in the city of Da Nang that has conducted a study of the informal waste sector with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Vietnam. "This is rooted in cultural misunderstanding, misperceptions and ignorance."

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Despite their work often being of major benefit to municipal waste operators, Weina said the pickers often have to buy all their own equipment and have no access to insurance or any other type of social safety net.

"During the outbreak in March (Vietnam's second), I went home for three months and was hungry," Huyen, the picker, said. "I had no income. I came back (to Hanoi) in June to start working again. I put on a mask but I was very afraid."

About one-third of Vietnam's population aged 15 or above - some 31.8 million workers in total - have either lost their jobs or had their working hours cut in the year to September, according to a report by Vietnam's General Statistics Office released on October 6.

Many of the country's businesses have been left reeling or had to shut down completely, meaning less rubbish for the informal waste workers to collect - hitting their incomes as a result.

Due to a global reduction in the price of oil, the price of recyclable material has fallen more than 50 per cent
Nick Beresford, UNDP's resident representative in Cambodia

Nguyen Thi Phuong, 44, has run a collection centre in Hanoi with her husband for around 20 years and trades with about 30 informal workers like Huyen, but "because of Covid-19, people couldn't make money, they shop less so they discard waste less," she said.

A migrant from the northern city of Nam Dinh who was an informal waste picker herself for two years, Phuong said the amount of recyclables brought to her and her husband's centre has decreased by almost 70 per cent this year over last - the couple usually buy anything they consider valuable and separate the materials into categories before they are picked up in trucks by other aggregators and taken to factories in northern Vietnam for recycling.

In neighbouring Cambodia, informal waste workers are suffering a similar fate. "Recyclable waste is still collected, sorted, and sold as it was before, but due to a global reduction in the price of oil, the price of recyclable material has fallen more than 50 per cent," said Nick Beresford, the Phnom Penh-based resident representative of the UNDP in the country.

The subsequent loss of income has forced many Cambodian families to cut back on how much they eat, according to the UNDP, while many workers are fearful of catching Covid-19 through the influx of medical waste such as disposable masks being mixed in with recyclable materials.

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According to a 2019 report published by the German Corporation for International Cooperation development agency, a general lack of recycling infrastructure in Cambodia means much of the material collected by waste pickers is sold on to middlemen who export it to Thailand and Vietnam.

Bangkok-based Diane Archer, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) who is part of a project that seeks to give Thailand's informal waste workers the chance to benefit from innovations in waste management, said her team's initial results show most workers have seen their incomes plummet this year, as they are finding less material to collect and the price of recyclables has fallen.

"There is still a lack of basic data such as on how many people work as informal waste workers, but addressing health and safety, particularly protective equipment like gloves, could be a good way to start engaging with (them)," she said.

Nguyen Thi Phuong piles up cardboard boxes for recycling in front of her workshop in Hanoi. Photo: Sen Nguyen © Provided by South China Morning Post Nguyen Thi Phuong piles up cardboard boxes for recycling in front of her workshop in Hanoi. Photo: Sen Nguyen

Bangkok alone is thought to save an estimated 500 million baht (US$16 million) a year in waste management costs thanks to the recycling done by its legions of informal waste workers, Archer said, citing a 2018 study conducted by SEI and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

According to an investigation commissioned by US-based group Ocean Conservancy and released in June, the informal waste sector in Indonesia and Vietnam is more pervasive in solid waste management than generally acknowledged and properly financing it could help provide incentives for pickers to collect more low-value plastic waste that so often ends up in the ocean.

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Weina of Vietnam-based Evergreen Labs said there should be initiatives to integrate informal workers into municipal collection schemes and recycling operations to give them semi-formalised opportunities.

"This would empower the local municipalities' waste efforts while simultaneously providing these workers with the benefits they seek from the government," she said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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