WasteAid’s Circular Economy Network is beginning to take shape. Here, we hear from Tram Nguyen, our Project Manager in Ho Chi Minh City, on the challenges faced by the informal waste sector.
Grassroots problems can only be solved through a deep insight of the issues. Therefore, contextual analysis of solid waste management in Ho Chi Minh city (commonly known by its previous name Saigon) plays an important role within the scope of WasteAid’s project, funded by Huhtamaki.
I have always been surprised by the way waste pickers are listed as the informal sector because to me it sounds like they are doing something wrong. This post will give a closer look on the informal sector amidst the complexity of solid waste management in Ho Chi Minh city.
“Informal” is often defined as illegal or unregistered activity. As a consequence, this sector suffers from a lot of difficulties.
In Ho Chi Minh city, informal waste pickers are often “non-native Saigoners” who leave their rural hometowns for Ho Chi Minh city to provide a better life for their children. After being introduced by friends and spending some time with them, I found that one of the main benefits of doing this kind of work is the independent nature of the work and the flexible working hours. As a result, they have no social security benefits and are often socially marginalised. Waste pickers are often paid in terms of the value of the recyclables and not their service to society including segregation and collection.
This means that waste pickers often have fluctuating income levels which very much depends on the materials they can pick up. For example, copper scraps have higher value than plastic scraps. Even in the plastic categories, intact and clean Styrofoam boxes will be more valuable than plastic bags. This fluctuating income level was even more evident in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic had a strong hit on the economy. As a consequence, the price of oil reduced, leading to the fact that the price of recyclable materials fell by 50%. Although there was a governmental subsidy package of 1 million VND/month in 3 months, not everyone could access this package.
In terms of health, these waste pickers are more opposed to risks because they have to dig out the mixed waste which often contain human body droplets, without any personal protective equipment.
Given the fact that segregation at source is not strictly followed in Ho Chi Minh city, informal sector waste workers play an important role in the circular economy by collecting recyclables directly from households or from trash bins and more importantly, creating livelihoods for many people.
According to the National Environmental Report in 2019, the average recycling rate is 10%. However, in Ho Chi Minh city, this can be expected to be more because the recyclable streams have already been separated from the daily waste by the waste pickers.
At the moment there are some groups of young start-ups who have inspiration in waste to wealth ideas and apply technology and knowledge on waste management to pick recyclables in a better way and earn up to 60-70 million VND/month. I do hope more and more groups will develop and connect with each other and receive training on the right way to separate materials and increase the quality of recyclables so that the products are easily accepted by bigger organisations, thus receiving higher prices and a formal recognition.
This is why WasteAid has recently launched its circular economy hub, connecting different stakeholders from local and global organisations to share ideas, stories and lessons learned to help us tackle these issues and create a circular economy.
For more information and to join the network, please visit circulareconomynetwork.co
WasteAid’s two-year programme to build a Circular Economy Network in Johannesburg, Ho Chi Minh and Guwahati has been generously sponsored by global packaging company Huhtamaki.