Vietnamese Market Strives to Tackle Overflowing E-waste Crisis by Recycling Excessive Landfill Waste

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Dam Chan Nguyen is dedicated to reviving old and damaged computers.

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Starting his career twenty years ago at Nhat Tao, Ho Chi Minh City’s largest informal recycling market, he initially dealt with bulky monitors and hefty processors. Now, he primarily fixes laptops and occasionally MacBooks.

His guiding principle remains unchanged: Waste nothing. Repair what can be fixed, reuse what can be salvaged, and sell the rest as scrap.

“Everything possible is utilized,” he states.

He operates in one of many shops within a bustling market sprawling across several streets, filled with bargaining customers. Most repair shops consist of a single room, overflowing with discarded electronics, with work tables set up outside. Workers, often migrants from across Vietnam, fix or salvage items such as battered laptops, mobile phones, camera lenses, television remotes, and even entire air conditioning units. Other stalls sell both brand-new and refurbished electronics.

This activity is a direct response to the escalating global issue of e-waste, which reached 62 million metric tons in 2022 and is expected to rise to 82 million metric tons by 2030, as per a United Nations International Telecommunications Union and UNITAR report. Asian countries produce nearly half of this total.

“We are currently generating e-waste at an unprecedented rate,” notes Garam Bel, e-waste officer at the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union.

Proper management of this waste is critical as it accumulates in landfills, releases harmful chemicals like lead into the environment, and represents a lost opportunity to recover valuable resources — estimated at $62 billion in 2022.

Moreover, e-waste is increasing five times faster than the rates of formal recycling processes.

Less than a quarter of electronic waste was adequately collected and recycled in 2022, leaving the rest often in the hands of informal waste workers like Nguyen, particularly in Southeast Asian countries where none of the e-waste is officially collected or recycled.

Nguyen, 44, is one of three employees at the shop. His extensive experience has built him a clientele that includes other computer repair centers that rely on him for complex repairs. His job requires continual learning and adaptation to evolving technology trends, which he manages through friends and online resources.

He works 11-hour days for a monthly income of about $470, which is around 2.5 times the minimum wage in Vietnam’s most expensive city. His only breaks are for quick meals.

The job is strenuous and offers no health benefits or retirement plan. Nguyen is in good health but is concerned about the exposure to hazardous chemicals from the electronics he handles without protective gear.

Additionally, the extreme heat in Ho Chi Minh City turns his small shop into an oven during the summer.

“Sitting here can feel like death,” he explains. “I just have to endure. I must work to make a living.”

Informal waste workers like Nguyen play a crucial role in making recycling more cost-effective for formal operations by sourcing waste directly from the community rather than waiting for it to be delivered.

In Vietnam, waste workers actively go out to collect salvageable materials from people’s homes and street bins. Others, like Nguyen, have networks for acquiring discarded electronics.

“We source used items from everywhere—anyone who sells, I buy,” he says.

While formal recycling facilities often have certifications and use sophisticated machinery, they also take greater precautions against the health risks associated with e-waste. For example, primitive methods like melting plastic circuit boards to recover valuable copper can release highly toxic dioxins, linked to severe health issues such as birth defects and cancer. Some devices also contain mercury.

Valuable materials like copper, gold, silver, and rare earth minerals crucial for modern electronics can be retrieved through recycling, yet only about 1% of the demand for these essential minerals is met through recycling processes, according to the U.N. report. Bel mentions that there is no specific data on how much of these materials are recovered through informal recycling.

Bel suggests that formal recyclers should collaborate with informal workers to access more waste materials without jeopardizing their livelihoods, which could also reduce health risks for informal workers and prevent them from selectively extracting the most valuable parts of the waste.

Such partnerships are already being experimented with in some regions. For instance, in New Delhi, a company named EcoWork has created a co-working space where informal recyclers can dismantle their waste using modern machinery. This aggregation allows for better pricing and saves on transportation costs, making it more feasible for companies to purchase salvaged materials at a scale not otherwise possible.

“You can’t just say: Stop the informal sector from working on e-waste,” says Deepali Khetriwal, co-founder of EcoWork.

Nguyen believes that a similar partnership between informal and formal waste workers in Vietnam would be beneficial. It would provide him with more computers to repair and salvage, increasing his income. “If we could formalize our work, that would be perfect,” he says.

Vietnam, one of the few Southeast Asian countries with specific e-waste legislation, established a national plan in 2020 to manage e-waste, aiming to collect and treat 70% of it by 2025 and has been trying to integrate informal workers into formal systems for better protection.

For the tens of thousands of mostly female waste collectors like Nguyen Thi Hoan, 52, stopping is not an option. Unlike the predominantly male-dominated field of waste recyclers, these collectors walk miles daily in Vietnam searching for trash, a vital source of income for marginalized women.

Hoan, who moved from Binh Dinh province to Ho Chi Minh City over a decade ago to escape poverty, starts her day at 4 a.m. in the cramped room she shares with two others. From 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., she pushes her scrap cart—her largest investment at $40—around Nhat Tao market, collecting scrap from shop owners.

Electronic waste is particularly valuable, and she vividly remembers the day someone sold her an old refrigerator. All types of waste, from aluminum and iron to ubiquitous plastic and paper, hold some value. On good days, she can collect up to 30 kilograms and earn about $8.

She seldom takes breaks but occasionally stops for water to combat exhaustion from pushing her heavy cart in the extreme heat. During these breaks, she enjoys reading Doraemon comics, which she finds along her route or receives as gifts from those aware of her fondness for the Japanese time-traveling robotic cat comics.

“I have to devote myself to this job as it’s my only option,” she stated.

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