In the process of aspiring to improve people’s lives, we naturally focus on increasing productivity and wealth, and bringing education and jobs, especially to those who are under-served. Those who see the immense potential in Vietnam want changes to occur more rapidly, but rapid changes do not occur without a higher rate of consumption. With increasing consumption comes an increasing amount of by-products (including solid wastes), and we sometimes forget to consider how much waste we produce when making consumption decisions.
State of Solid Waste Management in Vietnam
As of 1996, Vietnam produced an estimated 5.9 million tons of solid waste per year. The figure more than doubled to 12.8 million tons of solid waste per year by 2006 and a Columbia University study has projected that solid waste production will be over 20 million tons per year before 2010. Urban areas contribute a disproportional amount of waste; they make up only one quarter of the country’s population, but contribute to half of the solid waste. Furthermore, while wastes from rural areas have a higher concentration (60-75%) of organic substances which are more easily degradable, wastes from urban areas have a lower concentration (50%) of organic substances and higher concentration of non-degradable substances such as plastic, metals and glass.
Current waste collection is concentrated in urban areas, where collection ranges from 70-76%, depending on the city’s size. Only 20% of wastes get collected in affluent rural areas, and collection in poorer rural areas are near to non-existent. Without waste collection, people resort to disposing of wastes by throwing them into nearby rivers, lakes or land sites, burning or burying; this may be dangerous as they can lead to uncontrolled fires or release dioxins into land sites, water streams and atmosphere.
The waste management system in Vietnam appears to receive nominal attention even though municipals identify waste management as a top environmental priority. As the above study stated, waste management is poorly managed, lacks the technology and human resources, and is insufficiently funded. According to a recent article from EcoSeed, Vietnam’s Ministry of Construction announced the building of solid waste treatment plants to support urban wastes, but allocates only US$2.3 million of funding to the project over a 10-year period.
A Micro View at the Habit of Dumping Household Wastes (Littering)
During a visit to Vietnam, a friend and I were driving around the city when he told me of a foreigner’s opinion about Vietnamese people. The foreigner concluded that Vietnamese people probably did not love their country very much, for if they did, they would not litter their country so. At the time, I thought it was shallow to make such a drastic conclusion based on one general observation. The basic infrastructure to collect trash was poorly operated, resulting in overflowing trash bins, so people had little choice on how or where to discard their trash.
As I think back to the opinion that the friend passed on to me, I think it struck my friend just as it still strikes me because there is a grain of truth to it. Littering is undoubtedly ubiquitous on city streets, in the countryside, and in river streams and lakes. Any reasons used in an attempt to justify for littering, including the inadequacy of local municipalities to fulfill their responsibilities, is inexcusable.
Vietnamese people do love their country very much. However, the system of individually collecting refuse for periodic collective disposal is a rather recent application–one which needs to be addressed more urgently as urbanization continues to spread. At the level of the individual, Vietnamese people need to internalize the habit of properly disposing refuse. Perhaps the habit may be formed in a way similar to the acceptance of smoking bans for enclosed public places in some US states or municipals. Smoking bans began as a public regulation, but people eventually grew accustomed to discarding cigarettes when in enclosed public places in order to show consideration of others that share the space. Vietnamese municipals need to promote the idea and practice of proper refuse disposal in order to show consideration for the land that they and their descendants will continue to call home.