Trash Talk: Community Leaders Are Fighting Ocean Plastic Trash in Vietnam

Nicole Portley, Marine Campaigner
Date: December 17, 2017

Plastic trash is choking our oceans. Meet Dr. Xuan Thi Quach, who is cleaning up one of the world’s top ocean plastic polluters: Vietnam.

Vietnam has a rapidly growing economy and plastic has become the material of choice.

“The plastic industry in Vietnam is booming,” Xuan told me on a recent visit. “Plastic things have replaced most traditional items, like baskets and bags, even in rural and mountainous areas where materials are easily found to make traditional things.”

Plastic straws, soda bottles, shopping bags, and thousands of other plastic items are easily discarded, and many end up leaking into the ocean from poorly constructed landfills that fill to capacity in record time.

“Our environment is drowning in plastic trash,” Xuan said.

Vietnam’s staggering waste problem is bad for nature and for people. Plastic trash that escapes into the ocean breaks down into small pieces that are swallowed by fish that may end up on our plate and feed us the plastic’s toxins. Other trash is burned in poorly constructed incinerators that are spewing dangerous pollution into the air.

Xuan is committed to solving this problem because she knows first-hand how pollution harms people’s health and the natural world.

She grew up in a family of rice farmers about 100 miles southeast of the capital, Hanoi. Xuan was a child farmer herself, working the rice paddies after school. Back then, unaware of the health risks, rice farmers sprayed the crops liberally with toxic herbicides and pesticides.

In the 1990s, Xuan left the rice fields to study environmental management with a specialization in water. As part of her education, she lived in Japan for two years. Her studies were an eye-opener.

Xuan started understanding why so many of the animal species she’d seen in the paddy fields in her childhood had disappeared. Not only the blood-sucking leeches she had feared so much when working in the fields, but fish, small shrimp, and small crabs. She also found out that her father and several of her family’s neighbors had been diagnosed with cancer.

But her time in Japan did not just clarify for Xuan the connection between toxic pollution, environmental damage, and diseases like cancer. It also inspired her latest goal: to solve Vietnam’s toxic trash problem.

On my recent visit to Vietnam, I joined Xuan and other local activists to visit several landfills and she told me that in Japan she was stunned to see how clean it was and that people separated organic waste, recyclables, and trash in their own homes—because each household was billed for the amount of trash it produced.

In Vietnam, composting is not common, and trash separation is poor due to a lack of technology, awareness, and financial incentives for households and businesses.

In one composting center Xuan and I visited we saw compost littered with shards of glass and plastic. A landfill turned our stomachs, so bad was the smell of rotting organic material mixed in with the trash.

Garbage pickers ensure that lots of plastic waste is recycled. They find items they can sell to recyclers for money. Photo: Nicole Portley

But during this trip, Xuan and I didn’t just witness the stunning scale of Vietnam’s trash problem. We also started working on solutions.

Xuan is now trying to change how Vietnam produces, uses, and disposes of its trash, especially plastics. Living in the coastal city of Da Nang, she heads the City of Da Nang’s NGO think tank, Center for Consultancy on Sustainable Development (C4SD).

Her group, Pacific Environment, and ally Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives Asia Pacific convened local activists and government officials to discuss how to improve Vietnam’s waste management.

Xuan kicked off the first meeting of the new Vietnamese Zero Waste Alliance in Da Nang, co-sponsored by her organization C4SD, GAIA, and Pacific Environment. Here, Xuan (front row, center) and I (front row, second on the left) are signing our coalition agreement.

Some of the solutions we’re pursuing now include: motivating people to separate their trash via financial incentives; improve the construction of landfills to prevent leaks into the ocean; phasing out toxic incinerators; and halting the rampant production and usage of throw-away plastics.

I’m confident that, with sufficient financial resources and the right technical expertise, we can solve this problem and protect our oceans from this tsunami of plastic trash—causing damage that some experts liken to the climate change crisis.