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The quiet heroes of the plastic crisis

November 14, 2023
tags:#plastic pollution, #recycling, #Vietnam, #Waste Management
by:Toh Ee Ming
In the Global South, there is a growing initiative to support vulnerable informal waste workers embedded within global business value chains.

In the Soc Soc District in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, black rolling hills bear the weight of a substantial mountain of solid waste. Namson landfill, Hanoi’s largest landfill, receives approximately 5,000 tonnes of domestic waste daily. 

Here, throngs of informal waste workers pick their way through overflowing rubbish, scouring for high-value waste that they can sell to junk shops, collection and recycling companies for cash in order to support their families.

An estimated 10,000 people – largely poor, uneducated female migrants from rural areas  – work as informal waste pickers in Hanoi city. With little-to-no personal protective equipment like gloves and boots, they work in perilous conditions, exposed to potentially hazardous materials, toxic fumes and toxic liquid from mixed waste. Worse still, they are at risk of sexual assault when collection takes place at night. 

It is a precarious job, exposing pickers to unstable income, limited healthcare and a lack of social protection.

Vietnam counts among the top-five plastic polluters in the world, according to the World Bank. An estimated 3.1 million metric tons of plastic waste is discharged on land in Vietnam annually. At least 10 per cent of this mismanaged waste, comprising single-use, low-value items such as plastic bags, food containers and straws, leaks into waterways.

Plastic pollution is a significant problem in Southeast Asia, where the region's rapid economic growth, widespread urbanisation, high reliance on single-use plastics and consumption patterns have resulted in the extensive buildup of plastic waste. This is further exacerbated by occasionally inadequate waste management infrastructure, struggling to cope with the rising trends.

As a result, vulnerable communities bear the brunt of air pollution due to open burning, contamination of water sources, the emergence of diseases in open dumpsites and the absence of effective waste management systems.

A crucial role in global recycling

The World Bank estimates that there are 15 million informal waste workers globally, the majority of whom are routinely exploited. But, increasingly, the world recognises that waste pickers play a crucial role in global recycling - collecting and sorting as much as 60 per cent of recycled plastic waste

Recently, a slew of initiatives have been launched in the Global South to uplift workers in the plastic waste management chain. This is particularly timely since the United Nations Environmental Programme unveiled the Zero Draft of the Plastics Treaty on 4 September.

The document outlines ambitious measures and options to address plastic pollution in anticipation of upcoming negotiations in Nairobi this month, laying the groundwork for a legally binding global plastics treaty.

Efforts in Vietnam

In Vietnam, a quietly revolutionary programme has been unfolding.

NGOs like the Center for Environment and Community Research (CECR) have been working on projects addressing the plastics recycling value chain, with a focus on improving the lives of waste workers in Vietnam, particularly in Da Nang, a green coastal city committed to waste recycling.

In 2018, CECR embarked on a community-based recycling model in residential areas across the Son Tra and Thanh Khe districts in partnership with the local Women’s Union and Da Nang River Watch.

The model centred on the collection of plastic and other recyclable materials donated by households and businesses in the community, which were then sorted and sold by committees of the Women’s Union. These committees were involved in all stages of the model’s implementation, from formulating work plans and preparing household commitment agreements to monitoring project activities.

In addition, fishing boat crews have been educated on sorting and bringing their plastic waste back to shore. These fishermen, who spend months at sea, used to dispose of plastic packaging.

Since the initiative launched, over 21,000 households, as well as fishing boat crews, market vendors, schools and hotel and restaurant owners have begun segregating waste at source and committed to recycling plastic waste. 

In Hanoi City, CECR also trained women on health and safety measures, waste management and plastic recycling, which led around 300 women to become strong advocates of waste recycling in their communities.

It also created a new system where informal workers pick up sorted waste directly from people's homes and sell it to recycling companies, eliminating the need to visit landfills and providing a more stable income.

"I am very proud that more than 200 informal collection women have access to training programmes on labour safety and environmental knowledge," Doan Vu Thao Ly, CECR’s deputy director, told FairPlanet. "The women shared their voices, connected more with collection and recycling facilities and companies to improve their income, and were recognised by the government [and] women’s unions for their contributions in reducing and recycling waste in Hanoi and Da Nang city."

The Vietnamese government is aware of the issue, and recently approved the National Action Plan on Managing Ocean Plastic Waste to 2030 (NAP). The country also pledged to reduce its plastic waste volume by 50 per cent by 2025.

Most recently, Decree 8/2022, focusing on the enforcement of specific articles in the Law on Environmental Protection 2020, has established targets for January 2026 to cease the production for domestic consumption and imports of non-biodegradable plastic bags. This decree also mandates a gradual reduction in the production and importation of other Single-Use Plastics (SUPs) until a total ban is enforced in 2031.

Ho Chi Minh City has also explored the formalisation of independent waste collectors through licensing, although unintended trading and aggregation of collection permits by larger operators forced the city to modify its strategy. Informal workers are now required to form legal entities such as cooperatives, which can participate in legal tenders and contracts. 

Building inclusive and resilient recycled plastic supply chains 

There has been growing momentum to create responsible supply chains for recycled plastic, as companies gear up to deliver on their sustainability commitments in the face of increased scrutiny from regulatory bodies such as the European Union.

The Circulate Initiative (TCI), a non-profit, recognised that there was a need for a single, commonly accepted framework and measurement tool for businesses seeking to embed responsible sourcing practices within their supply chains. 

In June, TCI launched the Responsible Sourcing Initiative, supported by funders like Minderoo Foundation and The Coca-Cola Company. 

"The informal workers’ experience - shaped by persistent marginalisation, lack of social safety nets, vulnerability to human rights abuses, and insufficient incomes - cannot be ignored in the broader pursuit of a circular economy for plastics," said TCI.

The initiative has set targets to improve livelihoods for an estimated 50,000 informal waste workers. It hopes to align over 25 global brands, investors, recyclers and aggregators by 2025 through an action-oriented framework that forms a shared understanding of responsible sourcing, success metrics and progress tracking.

It also plans to collaborate with local partners across the full value chain to identify and invest in projects in India, Indonesia, Kenya and Vietnam to improve human rights practices and increase the supply of responsibly-sourced recycled plastics. 

Knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer learning are integral components of the project, and TCI seeks to assess impact and disseminate insights from local initiatives to replicate successes in other markets.

The initiative also aims to conduct research in collaboration with global and local partners to address knowledge gaps and offer localised supply chain assessments.

Earlier this year, TCI brought together over 60 companies, including informal waste worker associations like African Reclaimers Organisation, collection centres such as Prevented Ocean Plastic Southeast Asia, recycling companies and brands.

For example, CECR has played a crucial role in aiding TCI to comprehend Vietnam's ecosystem of stakeholders involved in plastic waste value chains. CECR has assisted in mapping ongoing initiatives dedicated to informal waste workers in the country, allowing TCI to pinpoint areas for potential collaboration.

Coca-Cola has been named among the world’s top plastic polluters for five years running, according to Break Free From Plastic’s 2022 global brand audit report. According to Yumi Nishikawa, World Wildlife Fund's Plastic Smart Cities Lead, the fact that the TCI project is supported by companies like Coca-Cola "is a positive development, as it acknowledges the importance of this issue and shows corporate willingness to better understand and integrate a more humane approach towards a growing human rights issue in the waste sector."

However, addressing the plastic pollution crisis "requires much more investment and engagement from the corporate sector on a range of topics that span reduction and reuse in addition to collection and recycling," she told FairPlanet.

A high proportion of the waste is managed thanks to informal waste workers who play "a critical, and often unacknowledged" role in the plastics-value chain, said Nishikawa. When businesses get involved with projects engaging or supporting informal waste pickers, she stated, it is crucial that the project directs significant support towards systemic, long-term change.

There is a concern that many corporate engagement projects with waste pickers tend to be limited to one-off donations of equipment or protective gear, she added.

But the WWF has seen a growing number of waste picker groups asking for increased support directed at activities that will work towards their recognition and integration into the waste management system, such as a waste picker service fee in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, access to land and infrastructure for their work and safer working conditions, Nishikawa said.

In the lead-up to the global plastics treaty being established, a growing number of countries are coming together to combat plastic pollution.

For instance, Southeast Asia has seen various national and local efforts made to ban single-use-plastic and the implementation of EPR policies in countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, albeit with varying levels of progress and commitment. 

Singapore's rag-and-bone men (known as 'karang guni'), for instance, have been reported back in 2019 to collect nine times more recyclables than the national recycling scheme. As one of Singapore's earliest recycling advocates, karung guni individuals traditionally go door-to-door weekly to collect newspapers, electronics and other discarded items. These men are aware of what types of trash can be recycled and how to avoid cross-contamination of waste. 

On the ground, the WWF has seen a plethora of innovative projects being undertaken by local governments, implementers, civil society organisations and communities. These initiatives includes community waste banks, nature-based alternative packaging, reduction and reuse efforts among municipalities and more.

But despite this encouraging progress, there have been attempts to water down a future treaty by pushing for voluntary approaches and non-binding measures, which the WWF sees as a  "continuation of the harmful business-as-usual practices that will present challenges for reaching the goal of a planet free from plastic pollution," said Nishikawa.

Whether this will truly move the needle on plastic waste remains to be seen, as the TCI project only addresses one point of the value chain, said Kiranjit Singh, APAC regional head at the market research firm Ipsos Strategy3.

Speaking to FairPlanet, he pointed out that the plastic production industry is still "a massive employment and revenue generator." The e-commerce sector, for instance, uses plastic packaging extensively, and although supermarkets are starting to charge for single-use plastic bags, you can still find it at mom and pop shops. "Single-use plastic should be made less accessible," he added. 

'The time to act is now'

"We have a historic opportunity, now, to set a higher standard for global environmental cooperation at a time when our world teeters on critical natural and climate tipping points," Nishikawa said. The treaty, she believes, must be formidable enough to reduce the accelerating impact of plastic pollution and "designed in a way that benefits the people working with waste management in the informal sector."

"Global rules must be created to create a cleaner, safer and circular plastics economy without pollution," she concluded. "We hope the treaty’s negotiators will seriously consider these aspects, and that the solutions at the global level endorse socially inclusive and transparent transitions."

Image by Alex Promois.

Article written by:
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Toh Ee Ming
Embed from Getty Images
throngs of informal waste workers pick their way through overflowing rubbish, scouring for high-value waste that they can sell to junk shops, collection and recycling companies for cash in order to support their families.
Embed from Getty Images
An estimated 10,000 people, largely poor, uneducated female migrants from rural areas, work as informal waste pickers in Hanoi city.
Embed from Getty Images
In Hanoi City, CECR trained women on health and safety measures, waste management and plastic recycling, which led around 300 women to become strong advocates of waste recycling in their communities.