For three decades, 700 households in Minh Khai Village have been making a living from trash.
The path to Minh Khai Village, 20 kilometers southwest of downtown Hanoi, is typical of the countryside in Vietnam. Green trees and rice fields run alongside.
But visitors don’t need a sign to know when they’ve reached the village. The distinct smell of burnt plastic and black smoke coming out of workshops sets the locality apart.
The village is “adorned” with plastic bottles, bags, milk tea cups, straws and wrappings make up an unusual decoration for this village in Hanoi’s neighboring province of Hung Yen. For decades, villagers have been working, living and sleeping next to the seemingly endless piles of trash. Unlike most people, they welcome trash.
“Trash is the source of our income. Everything that I have today comes out of trash,” said Hoa, a 65-year-old who owns a recycling workshop with 10 employees.
Hoa’s family is among 700 in Minh Khai Village that have been recycling plastic waste and producing plastic pellets for over 30 years. With Hanoi lacking an effective recycling scheme and its dumping grounds almost full, the village has become a major unofficial recycling hub that handles plastic from northern provinces and even developed countries like Japan, Canada and the U.S.
Local reports say the village, at its peak, imports up to 1,000 tons of plastic scrap a day. Paper and non-plastic material are removed before being melted in 400 degrees Celsius heat, stretched into long strips, cut into pellets and sold to buyers, who use them to make plastic products.
Villagers say many of their buyers are from China, where the recycling of plastic is not done on environmental concerns.
Trash piled up on the two sides of a road in Minh Khai Village. Photo by VnExpress/Dat Nguyen.
To get into the business, a workshop owner like Hoa needs to invest around VND1 billion ($43,162) on machines and equipment, and pay VND100 million ($4,316) a month for electricity to operate them.
Selling about 30 tons of pellets a month at the price of VND17,000 (73 cents) per kilogram, the workshop brings Hoa a monthly revenue of VND500 million ($21,581).
“There are good and bad months, but with the money from trash, I feed my children and send my grandchildren to schools,” said Hoa, sitting in her living room with a well-crafted set of wooden furniture seen in many middle-income households. Her grandchildren watched cartoons on a large ultra-high definition TV set.
Hoa’s family has made a habit of using only the backdoor to enter the house. The front door is blocked by piles of plastic scrap standing taller than most people. The backyard is also dedicated to trash and recycling equipment, just a few steps away from her kitchen.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m rich, but thanks to trash, I make much more than working as a farmer.”
Like Hoa, many villagers in Minh Khai have abandoned their farming for recycling plastic waste, which gives them a far better income.
Trash has attracted farmers beyond Minh Khai. Many farming families in neighboring provinces, even ethnic minority households from the northern provinces of Son La and Ha Giang, over 300 kilometers away, have taken to this vocation.
Linh is among the immigrants. Living 10 kilometers away, she and her husband came to Minh Khai looking for a job a year ago as their small farm was making losses. An income of over VND4 million ($173) a month from recycling trash is much more reliable than farming, helping the couple bring up two growing teenagers.
“I can work with trash 10 hours a day or more, come rain or shine, as long as my children can go to school. Trash is the last thing people want, but we rely on it.”
Plastic scrap are stretched into long strips before being cut into pellets. Photo by VnExpress/Dat Nguyen.
Of course, this vocation exacts an environmental price. Minh Khai is a heavily polluted village. People wear masks most of the time as the black smoke billows out of hundreds of workshops in the village. Pollutants in the dark-colored water in local ditches far exceed safety limits.
Nguyen Dinh Nhon, deputy chairman of the village, said that without the job, villagers would die of starvation, but with it, they die slowly of diseases. With generations involved in the trade, it is hard to convince families to quit.
Minh Khai burns and buries up to 40 tons of plastic trash a day. The air is filled with the smell of melted plastic from the burning ground, which is located next to a cemetery. Burnt trash now is piled up to a height of four meters and villagers say they might not be any space left in the burning ground after a few years.
“Of course we know there are health risks, but it’s our job, and there isn’t much we can do about it except trying to give our children a better education so they can go to work in the cities,” said Duong, a workshop owner who has three children, one of whom goes to college in Hanoi.
A man rides past piles of trash in Minh Khai Village. Photo by VnExpress/Dat Nguyen.
But Duong and other recyclers in the village now have more urgent matters to worry about than health risks. Vietnam last year issued a regulation to limit scrap imports after China said no to trash. Over 8,500 scrap containers were stuck at Vietnamese ports as of July because of the regulation, which has meant that Minh Khai residents are struggling to find material to keep their livelihood going.
After media reports put the village in the spotlight for pollution last year, local authorities started to limit the selling of recycled trash to reduce the production of plastic pellets. Villagers say pellet prices have dropped by 20 percent, as a result.
“Buying (trash) and selling (pellets) has become more difficult now. I have not been able to sell these packages since February because buyers are asking for extremely low prices which would mean I lose money,” Duong said, pointing to dozens of pellet bags in his front yard, worth about VND200 million ($8,628).
Last month, Duong had to let five employees go as the amount of work has reduced. Family spending has also been cut. Duong doesn’t plan to give upon the business yet, but when asked whether it would recover in the future, he shook his head.
“In this village, no trash, no money.”