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Tracing the Reincarnation of Plastic Waste in Saigon's Informal Recycling Workshops

The text message said to be ready at 4:30am at my street corner, where I would be picked up for the drive to the plastics recycling center. I had been wanting to visit the site for this article and thinking that we had hours of travel ahead, so I didn’t question the time.

Walking up the street, surrounded by stillness, I reached the corner rendezvous spot 15 minutes early. But I was not alone. A few itinerant recycling collectors peddled their carts along District 7's Dao Tri Street. I was then caught like a deer in the headlights of the flatbed trucks setting out with their container loads from the port, their beams piercing the ink-blue sky. A taxi driver stopped for a smoke. And the lone jogger turning into the block was more startled to see another person at this time of night. “Beats the morning heat,” he shouted, as to mask any lingering fear.

Container truck headlights piercing the night along Dao Tri Street.

Right on time, their truck lights flashed, and Hai and Su beckoned me into the cab. I settled in and closed my eyes, anticipating a quiet drive. Yet Hai drove the truck with abandon, while a pair of speakers rigged on the dashboard blared soulful Vietnamese ballads and 1980s rock tunes. I certainly couldn’t fall asleep. It was reminiscent of my past working and driving in the middle of the night. Once off the main highway in Binh Chanh District, we bounced along one-lane rural roads that have probably not seen a grader in years.

Not even an hour since departing when Hai parked the truck behind another in front of a locked tin gate. “C’mon, coffee time,” he shouted as he swung the truck door open. Walking 50 meters to a roadside store, the shopkeeper brought out comfortable folding chairs and iced coffees for the slowly expanding circle of drivers and a few of the plant workers now gathering.

I now understood the rationale for the pre-dawn start. Trucks are only allowed in one at a time to unload, and the process takes around an hour per truck. It’s best to arrive early and avoid the long queue.

A muted orange dawn was now washing over the sky. It was just after 7am when I accompanied Hai into the first building, which produces planter pots from recycled plastic. The technician was just firing up the heating unit, as Hai showed me the rather simple-looking but efficient process. After sorting and grinding the plastic into small chips, they are fed into a tube, then super-heated and extruded into long strands. These spaghetti-like ribbons are then passed through a cooling pool and, at the other end, are chopped into small pellets. In the adjacent room, the pellets were being injected into four large molding machines which produced the pots. At a final station, drainage holes were punched into the bottom of each planter.

Ground plastic chips being converted into plastic pellets.

Plastic pellets prior to being sent to the molding machines.

A technician at one of the molding machines for plastic planters.

We then proceeded to another building, where I viewed ground red plastic components being heated and converted into a molten, dough-like stream, which was then extruded into flat ribbons. The ribbons then passed through a Rube Goldberg-like series of spools and posts until they were flattened and spun into a master roll of colored strapping tape.

Scrap red plastic is heated and fed into an extrusion machine.

Ribbons of tape follow a convoluted series of spools and posts.

The final assembly area for the colorful spools of strapping tape.

While these areas hummed with a quiet efficiency, the most energetic was a buzz of activity in the sorting area. Plastics are first grouped by type and then by color. The women sat cross-legged, every few meters, with large Crayola-colored tubs in front of them. A steady chatter pervaded the room but did not deter the process. With surgical precision, they peeled labels and tossed the now-bare containers into color-coded bins. Belying his age and slight build, an elderly gentleman hoisted sacks of colored plastic onto wheel barrels for the trip next door to the shredding area.

Workers separating plastic containers by color and size.

Lifting bales of separated, colored plastics for shredding.

Breaking down larger plastic objects for shredding.

Just outside this building, the trucks are backed into the receiving area where the contents are off-loaded, weighed and stacked to await processing. A growing fortress, with walls of baled plastics, was now enveloping us.

Su and Hai unload the bales to be weighed and then stacked. The load totaled 1,020 kilograms.

There was a practiced choreography between the forklift operator and the dexterity of the worker stacking the enormous bales.

Sifting through the fallen debris for usable plastic components.

Through an interpreter, I asked a couple of the women in the materials-separating room how they felt about their jobs as part of the overall recycling effort. “For us, it’s steady work. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of plastic to repurpose,” one said. Another added, “As long as people keep using these products, our income is secure.”

A worker efficiently removes labels from plastic containers.

Since China’s ban on plastic imports took effect in January 2018, much of that by-product was diverted to Southeast Asian countries, such as here, in Vietnam. Coupled with growing urbanization and the fondness for single-use products, plastic accounts for between 12% and 16% of all waste in dumps in Saigon, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. It is estimated that these types of plastics will take a few hundred years to break down. And what doesn’t get recycled or placed in a landfill, inevitably gets dumped into the ocean.

As an example, Saigoneers love their fresh smoothies and coffee drinks. What is not realized is the scant percentage of the single-use plastic drinking cups, dome covers, straws, wrappers and holders that are recycled.

And that’s just one product. Walking through a supermarket, one sees the myriad products that rely on plastic packaging or are made from molded plastic. Wasteful packaging is another sticking point. A memory card purchased for my camera, for example, came encapsulated in enough plastic packaging to hold four more items in same the box.

Lifting and moving huge bales of plastic waste.

An acquaintance of mine, who preferred not to be named, was an environmental lawyer in her native Brazil for 10 years before taking a two-year hiatus to travel and teach in Southeast Asia. “I always try to teach and raise the awareness level of students of the need to use sustainable practices in everyday life," she said.

"It’s hard to undo years of modernization and unchecked growth without realizing the longer-term consequences. There are a number of positive initiatives being undertaken here, but it will only be through education, that we can start raising the awareness levels, especially of the younger generations.”

I spoke again with Hung and Hai and asked how they saw their role in the overall scope of the recycling effort.

Hai replied: “We are in a bridge role between the local collectors and the larger recycling companies. If the individuals or small recycling companies didn’t have a resource like us, I doubt they would know where to buy the materials from.”

Hung added that they envision the business to grow for 60-70. "It’s a culture of the user who has to learn to separate and recycle the various plastics. It’s not like Japan or Taiwan," he said. "There is minimal segregation of waste at the source here, so it becomes more labor-intensive and ultimately costlier. It will need a massive awareness campaign and mind-shift to get people to change their ways when it comes to recycling."

[Top photo: A gooey stream of melted red plastic]