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Inside Saigon's Grassroots Carton and Aluminum Recycling Plants

With plastics claiming many of the headlines worldwide and constituting a major issue in Vietnam, scant attention is being paid to other recyclable materials, namely cardboard and aluminum.

On any given day, in every neighborhood, local collectors can be seen pedaling bicycles or driving motorized carts, piling on mounds of flattened cardboard boxes and bags of aluminum cans. These industrious individuals, along with trash collectors, are at the forefront of the recycling industry in Saigon.

Living in proximity to recycling centers in District 7, I have trod the dusty, two-kilometer-long path along Dao Tri Street numerous times, bearing witness to the daily parade of local collectors gathering their materials. This labor-intensive work is mostly carried out by women who have migrated from rural areas. Talking with a few of them, I found that their lives are generally not easy, having left family and farm for higher wages in Saigon. They live together to defray costs and send funds back to their families each month.

I asked one of the women, Uyen, about a typical day in her life. She generally starts her daily rounds at 7am, when stores open. Stopping primarily at mini-marts that get daily deliveries of goods in cardboard cases, she completes the first sweep by 11am. From there, she delivers her haul to a collection shop or “recycling middleman.” She is paid VND2,000 per kilogram of flattened cardboard. Most of these women have established good relationships with stores and businesses in the area and receive their flattened boxes and cans, as opposed to them being left in the street for collection.

Uyen dropping off her morning haul of cardboard and cans at the collection center.

After a brief lunch break, she begins a second collection cycle, at times supplementing her haul with plastic bottles (for which she is paid VND7,000 per kilo) or flattened aluminum beer cans (at VND19,000 per kilo). Her day ends around 6pm, unless another collection sweep is warranted. Belying the fact that this is a day job, I have seen these collectors working late into the night, separating the various materials for delivery the next morning.

Late-morning delivery activity at the collection center.

Members of my friend Hung’s family have been acting as recycling middlemen or collectors/processors for over 20 years, and have developed a rapport with a number of these grassroots laborers. Their family business collects and separates plastic bottles, scrap plastic and metal, aluminum cans and cardboard.

Hung (center) and his family at their recycling collection center.

Su, Con and Muoi separate assorted plastic into the proper containers.

They alerted me to a cardboard drop-off run, so that I could drive with them for a short distance to the recycling facility and witness the process. Entering a cavernous building, roughly the size of a basketball arena, the truck is first weighed with its complete cargo; then unloaded onto the floor. The truck is then re-weighed after disgorging its load, and the vendor is then compensated on the delivered weight of the cardboard.

Truck after truck arrived, and suddenly the building was transformed into a beehive of activity. Two bulldozers wrangled the growing mounds of cardboard toward the conveyor belt. The bales, which average 1,100 kilograms each, emerged inexorably from the compactor to await their stacking onto a flatbed truck for delivery to a larger processing center.

An employee at the compacting facility sorting packing material from the cardboard boxes.

One of the two bulldozers pushing boxes onto the compacter unit. Finished bales are in the background.

Operating the cardboard compactor forming the bales.

The cavernous cardboard facility with compacted bales in the foreground.

Speaking with the plant manager, Nam, I was told they handle three types of cardboard: foldable boxes, like a cereal box; rigid boxes, like computer or phone boxes; and corrugated shipping boxes, for moving and storing goods.

According to Cardboard Balers, a company based in the United Kingdom, recycling cardboard requires just 75% of the energy needed to make new cardboard, so it makes sense that recycling cardboard is a more sustainable option than cutting down trees to make virgin paper products. Cardboard is made from wood fiber, so recycling saves both landfill space and trees. Most cardboard products can be recycled, including boxes, paper towel and the inner rolls of toilet paper, which also reduces the amount of paper which countries have to import. Recycling one ton of used cardboard saves approximately 46 gallons (174 liters) of crude oil, while the majority of the world's shipped products use cardboard packaging, so it's advantageous to recycle from a cost-benefit perspective.

After returning from the cardboard run, I sat with Hung to get his perspective on recycling. “My uncle started this business about 30 years ago, and my dad studied from him and opened his own business, with another uncle handling machine parts for recycling,” he shared.

Hung discussing the future of recycling in Saigon.

The business has changed over the years as it grew.

"Twenty years ago they just bought plastic, aluminum and metal. Now we take in a variety of products, including cardboard,” Hung said. “Loyalty is a big part of the equation when it comes to attracting collectors. We pay a fair price and the locals know they can trust us. Everyone’s involved. My dad runs the business now and drives the truck to the various processing centers. My mom supervises the scale and payments, and [the team and I] do the heavy lifting.”

The rotund, heavy-duty sacks which hold aluminum cans top off at around 60 kilograms each, and the ones for plastic bottles can top 90 kilograms.

Hung lifting a delivery of cardboard onto the scale as his mom, Muoi, watches and records the weight.

Hai, Hung's dad, sews shut one of the massive bags containing plastic bottles.

Muoi recording deliveries at the shop.

Su lifting a huge bag of aluminum cans.

Hung went on to explain that he expects to graduate from university later this year with a degree in environmental engineering. When I asked if he would then join a larger recycling company, he said that he would apply his knowledge to help grow his family business, but he also wants to pursue a PhD in the field.

A similar scenario of truck weighing before and after unloading was evident when I accompanied the team on a run to out to Binh Chanh District to the aluminum can recycling center there.

Crushed aluminum cans before being baled.

Unloading 10 bags of aluminum cans and miscellaneous metal items, weighing up to 750 kilograms in total.

As to the future of recycling in Saigon, Hung reflected that other countries or states have comprehensive policies in place, whereas Vietnam still has no complete plan which includes tax exemptions or incentives. So if waste facilities become overloaded, he hopes this will drive new policies to address the issue. Looking ahead, he would like to concentrate more on plastics, and even buy a machine that cuts and washes small volumes of plastic for more efficient recycling.

While plastic and other man-made products continue to be major issues as urbanization spreads across the country, the intelligent use of recycled materials, such as cardboard and aluminum cans, can help alleviate some of the strain on the city’s resources, and the people doing this back-breaking work should not be overlooked.

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