Saigon has an army of private garbage collectors who complement the efforts of the public utility but also find stuff they can sell.
Two of them are Tran Manh Du, 55, and his son Tran Manh Duy.
They work from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. every day, seven days a week, collecting waste from over 400 households in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District and taking them to the city garbage collection company’s trucks.
He makes the collection agreements verbally with households without the involvement of the company or city. They pay him VND15 million ($645) a month.
Sorting to sell
Duy and Du would tear open trash bags and sort the garbage they collect into two categories: stuff they can sell and cannot sell.
The former includes plastic and metal.
The non-sellable things include organic waste, dead animals, paper, and styrofoam, and are destined for the city garbage trucks and eventually landfills.
Du (L) and his wife Vo Thi Cuc sort sellable trash at their home on August 5, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
“Whatever the demand, I try to find them. Bottles and metal I collect every day, but sometimes there is other stuff. For example, today somebody asked me to find avocado seeds for them,” Du told VnExpress International, squeezing an avocado he found in the waste to remove the seed and put it in a plastic bag full of avocado seeds.
“I’m used to this job. But it doesn’t mean I don’t know it stinks like crazy. When I first started, the stench gave me constant nausea and headaches for the first month or two, but I couldn’t stop because I had a family to take care of.”
At the end of their day father and son dump the sellable items at home to sort and sell them every few days. Du said by then there are usually 100 kg of stuff.
The sellable trash is sorted into five different categories: beer cans, infant formula/food cans, plastic delivery boxes, plastic bottles, and metal.
Du and his wife Vo Thi Cuc spend around three hours sorting and earn around VND1 million ($43) each time. They sell mostly to scrap collectors, recyclers and factories which use scrap for manufacturing.
Pham Van Khanh, 59, said he works with dozens of garbage collectors like Du in HCMC’s Districts 5 and 10.
Reports by non-profit Environment and Development in Action (ENDA) show similar work is also being done in Districts 11 and Thu Duc.
Hien, 55, a scrap collector in Binh Thanh District who did not want to reveal her last name, said she buys plastic, metal and sometimes plastic bags from waste collectors or goes around herself looking for these items to sell to scrap shops.
But her income is irregular. It is unclear how many scrap collectors like her there are in the city.
There were around 4,000 independent garbage collectors like Du’s family in 2016, according to the city Department of Natural Resources and Environment. They collected 60 percent of the city’s waste while the city’s official garbage collectors handled the remaining 40 percent, it said.
But their number could be higher now.
Most of them are middle-aged, non-high school graduates like Du, according to ENDA, which works with more than 1,600 of them in HCMC. It organizes training workshops and social welfare programs for them.
People like Du make for a unique workforce because they adapt to Saigon’s idiosyncratic infrastructure characterized by labyrinthine alleyways where the city’s trucks cannot go in to collect garbage.
Tran Manh Du (L) and his son Tran Manh Duy on their way to collect garbage in Binh Thanh District, HCMC, July 2019. The vehicle they use, a trademark of unofficial waste collectors like them, is a motorbike with a 660-liter trailer attached to it. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
Du said: “Our self-made vehicle is small and compact, so it is easy to pick up trash from households inside deep alleys. The city trucks are too big, plus they can’t even park at the mouth of the alleyway because they would block the traffic.”
Depending on the district, the trucks and garbage collectors have a rendezvous to transfer the trash.
In February the HCMC government approved a VND3 billion ($129,000) project that would help unofficial workers like Du collect 350 tons of plastic waste a day for recycling. They can sell the items they collect to scrap collectors or plastic recycling firms. The project, funded by ENDA, aims to reduce pollution caused by plastic and reduce the garbage going into landfills.
Bui Trong Hieu, chairman of the HCMC Urban Environment Company Limited, said of the 8,700 tons of trash discarded daily, plastic accounts for 1,800 tons but a mere 200 tons are collected for recycling.
Nguyen Toan Thang, director of the city Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said at meeting in May that 76 percent of the city’s waste is buried.
The majority of the trash Du’s family collects every day is plastic. Cuc, 51, told VnExpress International: “In the last 10 years we have been seeing a lot more plastic. It’s so huge it’s scary. Before 2000, there wasn’t this many.”
Du said: “I know it is highly polluting. But if people here were not to use plastic, we would not have much to sell.”
Cuc (left) and Du stand with two bags of sellable items to be picked up by scrap collectors on August 5, 2019. There were three other bags of similar size that morning. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.