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Inside Nhật Tảo Market, Saigon's Biggest Informal Recycling Center

The areas around Nhat Tao Market, spanning the border of District 10 and District 11, are well-known for their bustling economy of second-hand electronics and machines.

Discarded electronics from the city and higher-income countries end up in this part of town, where local residents — mostly working class and/or migrants — salvage their value by informally disassembling, repairing and reselling them.

On two sides of Nhat Tao, Vinh Vien and Ly Thuong Kiet streets, stores that sell new and used electronics are juxtaposed by tiny booths, where workers fix broken remote controls, transformers, or radios. The narrow alleys and sidewalks are usually occupied, as vendors lay out and sell large bundles of broken tablets, laptops, and phones on white sheets while mechanics break down TVs or air conditioners with bare hands and exposed faces. At times, some e-scrap traders — clad in large hats, masks, and long-sleeved jackets — push around carts stacked with electronics recently bought from informal recyclers or trash collectors.

Most of the people here have worked in this trading and recycling system for more than 20 years. Yet, current workers and store owners do not remember when exactly the industry emerged and prospered. Those I interviewed could not answer what brought them to this job in the first place, either. They just knew as a child, they continued their biological or in-law families’ business, or as a migrant who moved to this part of town, they followed what their local neighbors were doing.

Their families have continued this labor through generations because it provides them with a reliable source of income. One store owner explained to me that "this work makes a lot of money,” as he and his family know how to salvage parts of thrown-away electronics, make new machines or fix broken appliances from those parts, to recover value from what are perceived as useless machines.

Although most talked about how economic profits brought them to the job, a few workers also described how their work played a useful role in local life. One guy posed a rhetorical question: “If I did not fix these electronics or sell cheap second-hand ones, how could people have things to use?” Their work does not just serve themselves economically, but also serves their neighbors’ needs for electronic repairs, and thus sustains community life.

This work blends with everyday activities, such as eating, chatting and living. Sitting in front of her disassembling store, a woman trimmed and sorted out wires with her bare hands while taking sips from a drink sold by the street vendor stationed next to her. A few old men were talking and listening to the portable radio resting next to disassembled machines emitting toxic chemicals.

On the opposite side of the road, a male worker was eating a late lunch encircled by piles of electronic parts, while his fellow workers were breaking down TVs nearby. The sound of power tools and the vapor of oil and chemicals permeate the quotidian routines of residents living in the apartments above.

Although it is important not to reduce the local people to absolute passive victims of e-waste, and thus recognize their agency in making lives out of these discarded technology, it is also equally essential not to romanticize such “choice” as completely free, or assume that their work is harmless.

Many workers here are working-class migrants that lack the social and cultural capital to access good employment opportunities. Most end up having to take on physically strenuous and poisonous labor like e-waste recycling. Although those around Nhat Tao have relied on the recycling economy for generations, the toxicity from discarded machine accumulation and processing remains a critical danger for those working and living with it. This precarious situation prompts us to think critically about the issue of environmental injustice, in which lower-income people are more likely to bear the consequences of consumerist discards and environmental pollution.

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