Plastic waste is considered a global environment problem and Vietnam has been listed as one of the heaviest countries struck by it in the world. Some actions have been implemented to fight against the issue such as “White pollution”. However, changing awareness and behavior remain biggest challenges.
It is estimated that Vietnam discharges more than 1.8 million tonnes of plastic waste, only 27 percent of which is recycled, a report from Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment says. Plastic consumption per capita in Vietnam has increased sharply from 3.8 kg per person in 1990 to 41.3 kg per person in 2018. Plastic waste can be seen in cities, at sea, rivers or rice fields. In the Mekong Delta, the so-called rice bowl of Vietnam, a lot of toxic plastic waste from bottles, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers are poisoning the environment.
Hazardous waste from rice fields
In early November, when water from the upstream recedes down of Mekong River, it is also the time farmers start winter-spring rice. This is the largest rice production season of the year and also the season fertilizers and pesticides are heaviest used.
On the river bank, next to the 4,000m2 rice field of Mr. Thach Hoang, 50, from My Hoa hamlet, Thien My commune, Tra On district, Vinh Long Province lies a pile of used pesticide bottles and plastic packages.
"People throw them here. Usually, there is a place to leave them in each rice field and they will be burnt at the end of the season," Mr. Hoang said adding that burning is the way he has been using to destroy the toxic waste ever seen without any knowing whether it’s harmful to health or not.
Along national highway No. 53 from My Hoa hamlet, Tra On District, Vinh Long Province to Tra Vinh Province, lie thousand hectares of one-month old rice field.
Heavy rain has suddenly forced Nguyen Van Dung in Cay Diep hamlet, Thien My Commune, Tra On District of Vinh Long Province stop spraying pesticides on his 1.6 hectare rice field.
Lighting a cigarette to warm his body up while hiding himself from the rain, Dung said he had been growing rice for more than 44 years.
“There was only one crop when I was young. We seldom had to use pesticide. It’s now three crops a year that requires a lot of fertilizers and pesticide,” he said adding that the cultivation was year around so the gap between crops was only between 10 to 15 days.
Rice would not be able to grow properly without fertilizers and pesticide.
“I have to spray six different types of pesticide to kill channeled apple snails, grass, worms and insects,” the 64-year-old farmer explained.
After each spray, Dung takes all of the containers home with him and spare a corner in his house for them.
He sells those recyclable and burns or buries the rest.
“Not everyone do like I do. Many people just throw them into rivers, canals or at the field,” Dung said then carried on mixing the pesticide with his bare hands when the rain stopped and continued his work. There was no protection on his body.
Talking about handling hazardous waste from agricultural production, Nguyen Hoang Chuong, Chairman of Dong Thanh Commune People's Committee, Binh Minh Town, Vinh Long Province, said that the commune has about 1,400 hectares of rice and fruit land but there were only 15 waste bins for this type of waste. They were donated from social organizations for people to dump their waste during the production season. The authority would come to collect after every 3-6 months.
“In fact, very few people use those bins. There is no regulation on fining people who discharge the waste to the field. We could only advise them not to do so,” Chuong said.
According to the Vietnam Environment Administration, agricultural production in Vietnam generates about 9,000 tonnes of hazardous agricultural wastes each year, mainly pesticides with a high amount of them contain toxic chemicals. Around other 50 tonnes of residual plant protection substances are being stored in warehouses across the country and 37,000 tonnes of confiscated agricultural chemicals are kept pending on decision.
Across the agricultural production areas of Vietnam today, such as rice and fruit growing areas in the Mekong Delta, industrial crops in the Central Highlands, or planting areas for vegetable and fruit neighbouring provinces of Hanoi, fertilizer and pesticide waste have not been collected and treated properly. Statistics from the Plant Protection Department - Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Vietnam show that every province and city in Vietnam discharge about 50-100 tonnes of hazardous waste from agricultural production each year. On average, farmers discharge about 1-1.5kg of packaging, bottles and cans to the environment for each hectare of rice or other crops. The amount doubles or triples with industrial crops.
The pollution in cultivation areas such as Mekong Delta has worsen by the current garbage discharge.
“Each year, the Mekong Delta produces about 25 million tonnes of rice, but the land and rivers have to swallow 2-3 million tonnes of fertilizer and 0.5 million tonnes of agricultural chemical medicine. Therefore, water in the river lost its selfclean ability and people turned around to rely too much on underground water. This leads to a quicker subsidence,” Nguyen Huu Thien, an Independent Ecologist of Mekong Region, said.
Half way actions
Walking me to the hazardous waste bins near the placed near a star apple farm, Tran Van Chien from Truong Long Commune, Phong Dien District, Can Tho City said that he stopped burrying or burning waste since he had a bin. His 3-hectare farm is one part of the 45.5-hectare fruit plant Cooperative, Truong Khuong A. The cooperative spends around one billion dong (USD$43,000) on on fertilizers and pesticides each season.
"It’s not a small amount of waste disposal so that is why the cooperative was chosen as a pilot programme ‘protect the environment together with farmers’ collecting hazardous waste in agricultural production,” Chien said.
Started by Department of Plant Protection, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development from 2013, the program has been implemented in 22 provinces and cities in the Southern part of the country. So far, 167 farms growing key export plants such as rice, dragon fruit, grape fruit, mango, star apple and longan have dumped toxic waste as required. Currently, the program has built 756 holes for pesticide packaging on the field and farms.
It aims to raise awareness of environmental protection, guide farmers from safe and effective use of agro-medicine to collecting and destructing of hazardous waste. Over the past 7 years, the program has mobilized farmers to collect and destroy more than 60 tonnes of used pesticide packaging from the field. However, according to Ms. Pham Thi Minh Hieu, Director of Crop Production and Plant Protection Department under Can Tho Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, even the programme itself encountered difficulties in treating the waste.
“The bins are deep into the fields, so the specialized truck can get to all of them to collect. Therefore, farmers have to take them out by motorbike regarding how that might spread the toxic substance,” Hieu said and added that transportation also violated safety regulation but “no other choices”.
According to Hieu, it is impossible to manage the situation on the field but only in those large production areas. It depends mainly on farmers changing habit, which has been tagged to burrying and burning garbage for many years.
Hazardous plastic waste from agricultural production is not only "poisoning" fields, it is becoming an obsession in the water resources from rivers to the sea.
Sitting on the motorboat of Le Van Nguyen, a resident of Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, I was really shocked by the pollution of the Duong Dong River, the main source of fresh water for the island's residents. Nguyen said local people were very proud of Phu Quoc because this beautiful island is well known worldwide.
The fast-urban development, however, has brought a heavy consequence on the environment.
Untreated sewage and garbage can be seen everywhere from rivers and streams to the beach. On Duong Dong river, nearby Hung Vuong bridge, there is a winding section near the seaport, the garbage gathered up by the waves forming a floating raft of plastic wrap, plastic bags, bottles, Styrofoam boxes, torn mesh pieces. Rotting fish body stuck into the raft has formed a stench in the air when the boat drifting through. Nguyen had to stop every now and then to remove the trash from the propeller. It costed him 5 minutes each.
Crossing the section under Nguyen Trung Truc bridge with a chicken market on one side and Duong Dong night market on the other side, even though many boats anchored to do businesses they could not cover the pile of trash floating around. These waste rafts will be flooded away when the tide comes. Vice Chairman of Phu Quoc People's Committee Pham Van Nghiep acknowledged that households, businesses, especially food and drink industry along the riverside has been discharging sewage and garbage directly into the river for a long time. In addition, fishing boats are also the culprit.
According to Nghiep, environmental workers has collected more than 3 tonnes of rubbish a day only in 2km section from Hung Vuong bridge to the seamouth.
“Local authorities at all levels have strengthened raising awareness for households and businesses but it has yet reached to the desired result as punishments for violation are not strong enough to deter. Only a small number of businesses got fined for their violations and household businesses are free of touch,” said Nghiep.
Likewise, in Can Tho, the capital city of Mekong Delta, the canal system is being persecured by garbage. Ten years ago, it was a popular route for tourists visiting Cai Rang floating market and returned to the city center through a small canal in the North. The route follows Muong Khai River through a small canal to Rach Ngong, Khai Luong to Ninh Kieu wharf, guarded by coconut palms and and luxuriant sonneratia on two side, has now closed due to heavy smell and plastic pollution.
The deadly convenience
According to Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, each household in Vietnam consumes around one kilogram of plastic bags a month or 35 plastic bags a week on average.
If see the fact that just only Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City discharge 80 tonnes of plastic made products to the environment every day. The daily amount of plastic cups and straw disposed from cafes and restaurant is uncountable.
Le Thanh Truc, 36, an environmental officer in Can Tho, said that as life become busier with a fast growth of online/app-based food and drink delivery service, the amount of plastic waste being disposed has also increased.
“Many people choose online food and drink delivery service instead of eating out in hot weather or heavy rain. It’s very convenient to order by a phone application or to call. If there are only 10 people who eat that way, there will be hundreds of plastic bags, cups, boxes and straws disposed after,” Truc said. “They take few seconds to produce and few minutes to use but a century to decompose without any special treatment.”