Trash In Vietnam: A Problem too Big to Sweep Under the Rug
“Trash In Vietnam: A Problem too Big to Sweep Under the Rug” by Rebecca Stone
As I walk down the bank of Hậu River, To-go boxes float as freely as Water Hyacinths down the murky waters of this large tributary of the Mekong River. Trash has become an ever-increasing problem in most developing countries since the introduction of disposable containers made out of materials like Styrofoam and plastic. A combination of mass production, consumerism, globalization, and a touch of laziness has switched the attitude of the entire world away from reusable items that you can wash and reuse to ones which you can simply discard after you are done. Vietnam is no exception to this problem. The lack of funding for managing waste, along with a “out of hand-out of mind” mentality leaves a lot of trash unclaimed and left as a reminder of the great impact that humans can have on our environment.
As cognizant beings, humans have more power to help the world than any other life form on the planet, but we also have to power to destroy it. So many fail to realize that our day-to-day actions have an immense impact on the natural world around us. During my time in Vietnam so far, I have watched a man finish his lunch on the train and throw his entire Styrofoam container, plastic bag, empty water bottle and utensils out of the window. I have seen cows, monkeys, and stray dogs chewing on trash left by careless people. And just last night, I stopped a little girl from throwing her candy wrapper into the water after she had finished her treat.
After talking with a student of Biotechnology at Can Tho University, it seems that it is simply engrained in the mindset of the Vietnamese people to discard their trash on the ground. “I was walking with my friend one day” she said, “and I had just finished my water and was looking for a trash can to throw my empty bottle in. I asked my friend if she knew where I could throw it away and she replied, “Oh yes, let me take care of it.” She grabbed the water bottle from my hands and tossed it over her shoulder into the street.” This student went on to explain to me that people may be educated about the right way to dispose of their waste, in school or otherwise, but it is very hard for people to make that connection between what one learns and their actions in life. As Americans we have had it hammered into our brains that littering is bad, but we still produce more trash per person than any other country: a staggering 2,076lbs a year.
Americans may know how to use a trashcan, but the Vietnamese have a mindset that has been engrained with recycling. While reducing may not be in the forefront of people’s minds, reuse definitely is. In rural areas, most wastes from agricultural cultivation are reused and either fed to livestock or used in compost and fertilizer. Reusable and recyclable wastes are also being separated by waste pickers, and then sold to the recycling business. In the capital city of Hanoi, waste pickers recycle approximately 20 percent of the municipal waste. In fact, while I was sitting in the park in Saigon drinking out of a big bottle of water, two women separately came up to me asking me if I was done with my bottle so that they could take it from me.
Apart from recycling, other “green” initiatives are starting to take place. In Ho Chi Minh City, foreign investors are undertaking several projects on landfill gas recovery for electricity generation. By reducing greenhouse gas emissions they are eligible to receive “carbon credits” under the Clean Development Mechanism of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change. These credits can be sold in international markets, resulting in revenues for landfill operators.
Vietnam is a country filled with beauty in its landscapes and its peoples, but the staggering amount of trash not only detracts from that beauty but poses severe environmental and health risks. Along with a need for increased government funding for municipal waste management, the government and mass organizations should encourage awareness of the trash problem in and out of the education system. Campaigns should highlight the importance of accountability for ones waste and promote the view that clean is beautiful and healthy for the people and the environment. This will be a great challenge in the coming years but paramount to the wellbeing and positive future of this beautiful place.