In Vietnam, waste pickers fight the climate crisis, but with no social safety net

Without being formally recognised, Vietnam’s vulnerable waste workers cannot organise themselves to demand better working conditions and receive lower prices for the trash they collect. They also face increasing competition.

A waste picker at work in Vietnam
An estimated 10,000 to 16,000 people work as waste workers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city on a daily basis, and they play an integral role in managing Vietnam’s growing waste problem. Image: Hong Trang Vu

Nguyễn Thị Phương describes herself as a full-time waste picker. As she smashed a discarded old 32-inch television to bits to salvage its valuable components, Phương explained that she needed to hurry up. She had found the TV in a public trash bin, which meant that the state-affiliated sanitation worker was responsible for its disposal. 

Very quickly, she extracted copper wires and the plastic frame from the TV monitor. She was happy that she had already earned VND200,000 or almost US$8.5 in one afternoon.

“These days, copper has the best selling price,” said Phương.

It is not hard to spot a waste collector, often a female migrant, in Hanoi or other major cities across Vietnam. They are often seen riding a bike navigating the hustle and bustle of the city, balancing a bamboo pole over their shoulder with two baskets hanging from it, or pushing a trolley along the road if their collected waste is heavy.

They are addressed according to the materials they collect in Vietnamese –  Đồng nát (which means broken copper) is the more commonly used word for waste pickers in the north, while ve chai (bottles) is the more popular name in the South. They trudge kilometers every day to search for and sift through household items, sometimes rummaging through landfills, dumpsites and public trash bins to recover recyclables.

An estimated 10,000 to 16,000 people work as waste workers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city on a daily basis, and they play an integral role in managing Vietnam’s growing waste problem. Like in many countries in the Global South, waste pickers provide the sole means of solid waste collection for municipalities, often at little or no cost.

With roughly 13 million tonnes of plastic waste discharged into the ocean each year, Vietnam is among the world’s top 10 marine polluters. But the country has a rudimentary waste management system, and collection remains informal and self-organised. 

More than 90 per cent of recycling in Vietnam is carried out by informal workers, mostly in craft villages, where people do the work to supplement their earnings from agricultural work. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified solid waste and its management as significant factors in contributing to climate change. Without these waste pickers, waste in cities would be left unmanaged and add to the climate burden.

Despite their important role, waste pickers are vulnerable and marginalised. Even with a large presence of 15 to 20 million waste pickers globally, they are rarely included in the registered urban workforce. Without being formally recognised, they are not eligible for health benefits, cannot organise themselves to demand rights and better working conditions, and continue to receive lower prices for the waste they collect.

A waste worker cruises down a Hanoi street on her bicycle

A waste worker cycle down a Hanoi street carrying recyclables in styrofoam boxes. Image: Hong Trang Vu

Collect, segregate, recycle

Phương acquired her skills by learning from her friends and family members. With her toolkit comprising a pair of gloves, a mask, a magnet and a trash grabber, she taps bags of garbage to determine the presence of plastic bottles or aluminum cans. She does this by dropping them to the ground to listen to the sounds they make.

Malleable plastic items can be sold at a low price. Sometimes, she receives sellable items for free from individuals looking to get rid of their rubbish. In exchange, she offers to assist them in cleaning their yards or disposing of items that are unusable or unsellable, such as old windows.

“The price [of discarded items] is in decline, so I have to work harder,” said Phurong, who is proud of being able to raise her two children with an income from waste.

Despite occupational risks, Phương remains upbeat. She earns about VND7 million to VND8 million (US$300 to US$340) per month from daily waste picking and occasional cleaning jobs. 

The job is gendered in many ways. Her brothers are also waste pickers, but as they are more knowledgeable about electronics, they focus on seeking e-waste and building a network of providers that reach out to them mostly by phone. Yet she, her sisters-in-law and mother-in-law spend time looking for discarded items of all kinds. 

Formalisation? Unrealistic and uncommon

In Vietnam, household waste is typically not separated at the source. However, for sorting, categorisation, and cleaning, waste pickers like Phương are not remunerated.

Once waste pickers are formalised, they will be in a better position to demand rights, increase the amount the collect and charge higher prices.

Without these benefits, not all waste pickers are as fortunate as Phương to be able to receive and resell a stable amount of waste. Thoa, from Hà Nam province, who had been working as a waste picker for 15 years in Hanoi, gave up in 2023 and moved to the South to work as a helper in a restaurant.  

Phương also acknowledged that the competition is getting tougher. Restaurant and bar employees also keep recyclable waste that they can sell, as do female street cleaners.

“Many people have become waste pickers part-time,” said 39-year-old Phương.

Yet, Vietnam’s efforts to formalise work have often left waste pickers at a disadvantage. For instance, state agencies provide general training without any guarantee of a job afterwards. Like other waste pickers elsewhere, Phương does not receive any social protection and cannot afford to purchase medical and social insurance.

“I have to work until I cannot work anymore,” said Phương. She takes days off when it rains because she is concerned about falling sick. 

A waste picker walks down the street in Hanoi

A waste picker walks down a street pulling a trolley of trash. Image: Hong Trang Vu

Bringing in the private sector 

In 2022, Vietnam introduced an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy. EPR places responsibility for the full life-cycle of their products on producers and importers. Producers will have to make financial contributions that will support the waste management system, including collection, sorting, recovery and disposal.

“Currently, stakeholders working with waste pickers are mainly recycling and sustainability businesses or non-governmental organisations. Large companies, if they intend to work on recycling or collection, will work with specialised and seasoned stakeholders,” said Phạm Hương Quế, project manager of Plastic Beast, an awareness campaign funded by the European Union and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Lê Thị Lệ, operations manager of TONTOTON, a Saigon-based enterprise that provides plastic credit solutions for all types of plastics, said it is important for for-profit entities to involve informal waste workers for both economic and social justice reasons.

“It would help improve their social status and provide income for independent waste workers, who oftentimes lead a precarious life,” said Lê. 

Nguyễn Văn Tuấn, director of Vietcycle, a recycling firm, said that he learned from his experience in managing short training programmes that there are challenges in training informal waste pickers.

“It is very hard to train them for prolonged periods, because they are not used to being in a classroom,” said Nguyễn, a former waste picker himself. “Also, they often have difficulties understanding scientific terms for different types of plastic.”

Following the advice of various NGO-organised initiatives, Mao, a Hanoi-based waste picker, joined support groups on Facebook for internal immigrants and informal workers in Hanoi. While the groups offer moral support, the main challenge is to find new sources of recyclable waste or new clients to improve their income. 

“They [NGOs that have reached out to her] do recommend places to pick up waste, but they are all far from my place,” said Mao. “It is tiring to travel far. Plus, I do not know waste depot owners there.”

“Part of the purpose of EPR also requires waste pickers to be a link in the system and helps them enjoy more benefits,” added Quế. “Personally, I think if stakeholders working on recycling or collection can help purchase waste at a stable price, it will not only help waste pickers generate more income but also help improve waste collection quality.”

Phương does not think much about receiving state support and views her job as “stable”. Nor does she think of changing her job.

She wishes for more luck though. More recyclable materials would mean that she does not have to travel back and forth many times each day. “I hope waste prices will be stable as well,” said Phương.

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