I’ve never tried lifting 18,000 metric tonnes of anything and given the scrawny noodle arms that have been bestowed upon me by a lifetime of typing at a laptop instead of picking up heavy things, I doubt I’d be the man for the job. If 18,000 metric tonnes caught your eye for being oddly specific then you’re one of the sharper bowling balls in the alley. This is the approximate amount of plastic waste Vietnam generates on a daily basis, as reported by Tuoi Tre News in April this year. The Stone Age may have seen off the last of the woolly mammoths, but does the Plastic Age herald the end of human civilisation? As the planet chokes and wheezes on our insatiable lust for convenience, disparate groups in Vietnam and beyond are waking up to the reality of our plastic age problems, but for the đồng nát ladies of Hanoi, our plastic trash is their plastic treasure.
In case you hadn’t guessed, the đồng nát ladies are the often unseen, surely unsung heroes of Hanoi, riding through the vehicular mayhem, rain or shine, to collect the accumulated waste from the streets. Ever wondered what happens to your trash when you leave it outside your gate. Đào Thị Hiên knows, “I started working as a đồng nát lady in 2001, so I guess that makes 17 years of picking up rubbish.” Đào is candid as we sit on the path of her route, just outside one of Hanoi’s many waste collection HQs, but there is no denying the difficulty of her life. She is completely reliant on the discarded trash of others. “I’m on the bike in the morning at 7.30am and I’ll be cycling around until 11am, collecting rubbish from houses, businesses – the Hanoi National University of Education always has a lot – then after lunch, I’ll look for more rubbish to bring back here [the HQ] until about 8pm.”
This is Đào’s life, seven days a week, week in, week out, non-stop. She can’t afford to stop, neither can any of the đồng nát ladies. “Most of us don’t do anything else besides this – there’s no time – we just go home and rest before we do it all again the next day.” Đào operates within the Cầu Giấy District, where she estimates she collects between 50kg and 60kg each and every day. “I’ll take anything I can find, plastic, metal, glass or paper – anything that the recycling companies will pay for.”
Đào explained the process that your empty water bottles go through once you’ve left them outside your house. Đào or another đồng nát lady will most likely cycle by your house, collect anything that can be recycled from your rubbish bags and repeat this process until they’ve gathered enough to return to the waste collection HQ. It is here that the trash is sorted through – towering piles of various materials adorn the front of the HQ beside us and throughout the course of our conversation there is a steady stream of women constantly flocking to and from the area exchanging their collected waste materials for cold hard dong. From here, the managers of the HQ will sell the trash they bought on to a recycling company – each one specialising in a different material, with most of the trash destined for somewhere outside of Hanoi.
“A kilogram of scrap metal fetches VND5,000 – it’s the most valuable – a kilo of plastic is worth VND4,000 and glass bottles earn us just VND300 per bottle. We sell it here at the HQ, they sell it to companies based in Bắc Ninh or Hưng Yên, it’s hard work and risky too.” Đào warns that there is plenty of chance for large pieces of scrap metal to fall on her or her colleagues, but also the necessity of their work dictates that they’re on their bikes constantly – whatever the weather. The level of physical exertion alone is hardly commensurate with the cash value of their haul, but throw into the mix the risk of injury and exhaustion, on top of the baseline fact that Đào and her colleagues have to root through the discarded waste of Hanoi’s inhabitants and you start to get a picture of just how trying the life of the đồng nát ladies truly is.
“My children are all out working, so they support us financially occasionally and my husband works in a rice paddy back in his hometown, so I need to work every day just to survive.” With no guarantee that there’ll always be enough rubbish to go around, I wonder how Đào remains so cheery throughout our meeting. Thankfully though, one upside to the sweltering squalid summer of Hanoi is that people are drinking more water. “This time of year there are always more plastic bottles outside every house and business that I visit, which is good for me.”
Anyone with eyes in their head can see that Vietnam’s economy has been gaining momentum in recent years. Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) reported that “Consumer expenditure has been increasing steadily in Vietnam, in particular due to rising incomes amid strengthening economic activity. During 2010-2016, the median disposable income rose by about 46%.” More disposable income means more consumption and even if it’s only trickled down to Đào in the form of trash, it’s something that she’s noticed. “I see more and more waste – of all materials, but especially plastic – consumption is increasing for everyone around here.”
Various groups across Vietnam – including Keep Hanoi Clean and Zero Waste Saigon – are making leaps and bounds with campaigns to reduce the level of plastic waste that currently hangs around Vietnam’s neck like a millstone. With these efforts gaining momentum, I asked Đào if she was worried that something like a ban on plastic would hurt her livelihood. “If there’s no more plastic, I’ll still collect metal, paper and glass, so unless everyone starts recycling everything themselves, I’ll still have work and I don’t see that as a potential scenario that I’ll have to deal with.”