Several cities and provinces in Vietnam are reopening after a so-called tragic fourth wave of COVID-19. Along with societal and economic losses, waste generated from daily routines and medical facilities has become a huge consequence and the country must learn how to deal with the overwhelming waste.
In the fourth wave of the pandemic from 27 April 2021 until the time of writing, Vietnam has recorded almost 815,000 cases, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. Over 54.6 million people were tested, complying with contact tracing measurements, and this produced massive waste from medical facilities and testing sites. Across the country, particularly the southern provinces of Ho Chi Minh City, Binh Duong, Dong Nai, Long An, and Can Tho City, millions of medical masks and waste from daily life were generated.
I hate plastic waste but I had no choice since I needed to order supplies online and depended on deliveries.
E-commerce, necessities, and food delivery activities also contributed to the unprecedented amount of plastic waste. Ms Nguyen Thi Yen Trinh, a local living in District 7 of Ho Chi Minh City, said that everyone was afraid of becoming infected with coronavirus and the poor were concerned about insufficient food. No one cared about environmental issues such as plastic trash reduction, she noted. “I hate plastic waste but I had no choice since I needed to order supplies online and depended on deliveries.”
Enormous medical waste
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Vietnam (MONRE) does not have the official statistics on waste generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, yet many areas have recorded significant high numbers. For instance, the average amount of waste related to COVID-19 is 78 tons per day in Ho Chi Minh City, a COVID-19 hot spot in Vietnam. In a peak month from 9 July to 8 August 2021, the medical waste in Vietnam's largest metropolis reached 2,673 tons, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment of the city. This is the number of waste from 280 quarantine facilities, hundreds of temporary hospitals, and testing sites. In order to handle the huge amount of medical waste, apart from two available treatment plants, the city authority had to ask MONRE to grant permission for three more companies specializing in the handling of hazardous COVID-19-related waste. The waste treatment capacity in the city can currently reach a maximum of 120 tons per day in preparation for worse situations.
Situated next to Ho Chi Minh City, Binh Duong province has recorded 18–20 tons of waste per day from treatment and quarantine facilities, and around 20 tons of segregated hazardous waste per day from isolation areas. In another neighboring province of Dong Nai, with hundreds of isolation and blockade areas and nine field hospitals, the amount of hazardous medical waste generated has been about 5.4 tons per day.
The situation is similar in the Mekong Delta, particularly the city of Can Tho, the (epi)center of the region. In addition to almost 600 tons of household waste, including garbage in blockade areas, the city also generates more than 5 tons of hazardous medical waste every day. This amount of garbage is collected from 32 concentrated isolation areas, 11 field hospitals, and contact tracing test sites throughout Can Tho.
In addition to almost 600 tons of household waste,
the city also generates more than 5 tons of hazardous medical waste every day.
Mr Nguyen Chi Kien, Deputy Director of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment of Can Tho, said that at first, it was challenging to collect medical waste since the outbreak escalated swiftly, leading to congestion. The city had to sign a contract with a hazardous waste treatment company from Binh Duong to transport hazardous medical waste every day. Complying to the policy of COVID-19-related waste treatment of the Ministry of Health and MONRE, garbage will be sorted at the source, put in yellow plastic wrap, tied, and sealed with tape. Each bag is labeled with a warning of containing infectious substances that cause disease before being put in a lidded bin, then transferred to collection and treatment places.
“Despite the regulations, many community testing sites did not comply fully, leaving garbage in violation of regulations. The department had to continuously issue official letters requesting it to be rectified and the situation generally got better,” said Mr Kien.
He also pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase in plastic waste was inevitable. When the outbreak occurred, people were forced to remain in the blockade areas, but goods still needed to be exchanged and transported. Everyone used plastic wrap and bags, although the previous campaigns calling for plastic waste reduction were quite effective.
Free plastic bags: a costly price for the future
At the beginning of October, southern provinces and cities in Vietnam simultaneously eased social distancing, replacing Governmental Directive 16 with Directive 15, which included allowing movements on streets, interstate transportation, and business operations of less than 10 people. After the economy was severely damaged, more than 90,000 businesses withdrew from the market or went bankrupt due to the pandemic, and 2.4 million workers lost their jobs. National and local authorities are under pressure to find ways to live with COVID-19 and recover the economy.
After months of strict traffic controls, people are pouring into the streets without the need for permits from the local authority. In Ho Chi Minh City, Binh Duong and Can Tho, streets, convenience stores and supermarkets are bustling again. It is easy to observe plastic bags and cups as well as foam boxes everywhere as shopping activities are reactivated, and food and beverage services are back in operation but only for takeout.
“No one brings food containers from home to the street to buy pho or vermicelli for breakfast for the whole family. They carry it with a lot of plastic bags even though they have heard about the harmful effects of microplastics or the negative impacts of plastic waste to the environment,” said Assoc. Prof. Le Anh Tuan from the DRAGON–Mekong Institute, Can Tho University. “COVID-19 seems to be the reason why people are not concerned about the non-immediate hazards of plastic anymore. While plastic waste may be a convenience for the present, it will be a disastrous price for the future.”
COVID-19 seems to be the reason why people are not concerned about the non-immediate hazards of plastic anymore. While plastic waste may be a convenience for the present, it will be a disastrous price for the future.
In a price-stable market (i.e., fixed-price market) in the center of Can Tho City, which is licensed by the local government to operate during the pandemic, plastic bags and antiseptic alcohol are two items available for free. Ms Tran Thu Lieu, the owner of a vegetables and food shop on Tran Van Hoai Street, said that many people no longer carried bags to the market due to COVID-19. “People like to use plastic bags to separate things in each bag. They spray alcohol to disinfect the outside to avoid alcohol wetting the food inside, then put things together in one bigger plastic bag.” Ms Lieu's shop uses 4–5 kg of plastic bags in different sizes daily, costing about USD 10. “Every morning, I hang a few kilograms of plastic bags at my shop so people can take them to store goods. Some careful people use two to three layers of plastic containers,” she recalled. It is similar at convenience stores and supermarkets. Like free hand sanitizer, plastic bags are overconsumed.
Mr Le Hoang Vu, the owner of Nang Bep Vermicelli restaurant in Can Tho, admitted he did not remember how many foam food containers were used. “Perhaps almost 100 orders per day, I had to use two boxes and 3–4 plastic bags for each, to store multiple ingredients, even chili peppers were put separately,” he shared.
In search of solutions to address waste
The total amount of garbage collected significantly decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but plastic waste alone increased from 10% to 15%, according to Mr Nguyen Thach Em, Director of Can Tho Urban Joint Stock Company, a garbage collection and treatment plant in Can Tho. “We only distinguish two types. Hazardous waste will be treated separately according to hazardous waste regulations, while plastic waste is collected with household garbage, even in the blockade areas. All were transported to burn,” clarified Mr Em.
Regarding the increase of plastic waste, Prof. Nguyen Huu Dung, Director of the Vietnam Institute for Urban and Industrial Environment, highlighted that currently on average, each Vietnamese household uses about 1 kg of plastic bags per month, except the two big cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with about 80 tons of plastic waste discharged into the environment every day. It is ominous that the classification, recovery, recycling, and treatment of plastic waste is very modest. Only about 11–12% of plastic waste and plastic bags are treated and recycled, the rest is mainly buried, burned, and discharged into the environment.
Only about 11–12% of plastic waste and plastic bags are treated and recycled,
the rest is mainly buried, burned, and discharged into the environment.
Facing the situation of hazardous medical waste from the outbreak, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Mr Vo Tuan Nhan has signed an official dispatch to provinces and cities requesting the implementation of a number of urgent measures in environmental protection. The document requires provinces and cities to strengthen inspection of medical facilities, treatment and patient care areas, as well as isolation areas to collect, store and transfer domestic and medical waste. The Ministry also asked local authorities to guide organizations and individuals to strictly implement measures to manage medical and domestic waste generated during the pandemic at places including workplaces, dormitories for workers, households, commercial centers, supermarkets, markets, restaurants, apartments, and funerals.
Vietnam's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) provides a list of 77 waste treatment facilities that have been licensed to handle hazardous waste, including medical waste. The agency also suggested that provinces and cities that have hazardous waste treatment facilities must create favorable conditions to support medical waste treatment upon request from other provinces. Previously, the National Steering Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Vietnam also issued guidelines for waste management and hygiene in prevention and control of the COVID-19 pandemic, which detailed the stages from classification, collection, transportation, and treatment of wastes with risks of spreading COVID-19, for provinces and cities to follow.
The need for citizens to adapt with COVID-19 changes
The fourth wave of COVID-19 pandemic from late April 2021 until now has caused multiple challenges to Vietnam. Besides the loss of its citizens and economy, a huge amount of plastic and medical waste has emerged, posing an unprecedented difficulty to the nation. Meanwhile, Vietnam still does not have a sufficient system of waste classification.
Although provinces and cities are gradually reopening, COVID-19 continues to exist, without knowing when the pandemic will end. Given the situation, besides efforts from the government and the environmental industry, people's consciousness needs to change. First, they ought to comply strictly with the government's environmental regulations. The second step is to change their own daily habits, such as using cloth masks that can be reused 20–30 times instead of one-time using medical masks. It may be a small action, but imagine with millions of people making changes together, it will reduce a huge amount of waste generated, and ultimately minimize the negative impact on the environment.
Le Dinh Tuyen is a journalist at Thanh Nien Newspaper covering environment issues in Vietnam and Mekong region. His main focuses include water resources, fisheries, riparian communities' livelihoods, salt water intrusion, climate change, pollution, education, health etc. along the Mekong River, especially in the Mekong Delta.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.