Importing scraps as production feedstock and protecting the environment: A delicate balancing act

August 17, 2018 - 09:00

It’s a familiar idiom: One’s man trash is another man’s treasure.

Content of a scrap container held up at Cát Lái Port in HCM City. — VNA/VNS Photo
Viet Nam News

It’s a familiar idiom: One’s man trash is another man’s treasure.

A few decades ago, when both Vietnamese industrial production and economic integration were at a nascent stage, there was a trend wherein enterprising Vietnamese, lucky enough to go to Japan for study, work or just a visit, could make a quick buck or save money on buying new items by bringing back discarded Japanese electronic devices that are piling up in junkyards throughout the country.

From rice cookers and microwave ovens to televisions and even motorbikes, the much-cherished made-in-Japan products were salvaged from hundred thousands of used-but-still-usable items that were no longer wanted by their previous owners.

In this case, the idiom was true, and literally so.

However, sometimes trash is just trash. In recent months, Việt Nam has found itself grappling with the dilemma of having to deal with “another man’s trash”, but this time it’s hard to see the treasure.

The problem began a few months ago, when customs authorities were scratching their heads over nearly 6,000 scrap containers – many of them unclaimed – held up at major ports across the country, becoming a ticking time bomb that squandered the port’s storage capacity while posing serious environmental risks.

Fear of Việt Nam’s becoming the “world’s dump” has simmered in recent years. But it has become more and more real as a threat since China, the biggest importer of global scrap, last year decided that it would no longer take in 24 types of foreign waste and annulled all waste import licences of domestic recycling companies. This prompted several developed economies – including Japan, European nations and the US – to seek new outlets for their waste.

The ideal alternative destinations for the disrupted flow of global trash? Mostly “third-world countries” in Southeast Asia with lax regulations and lower technology application, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and Việt Nam.

Customs authorities said that in the last six months of 2018, there was an alarming spike in scrap imports, surpassing 480,000 tonnes. The amount of plastic and metal scrap entering the country in H1, for example, is already equal to 72-73 per cent of the figure for the entirety of 2017, while paper imports saw a slight of uptick.

So, just ban all scrap imports and the headache is gone? But it’s really not that simple.

Domestic supply of plastic scrap only satisfies 20 per cent of the demand in the country’s plastic industry. The industry needs to import 91,000 tonnes of plastic scraps to meet local needs, which is rising by 13 per cent a year.

A local plastic waste recycler said that China’s halting of plastic imports provides a rare window of opportunity for Vietnamese producers since the good-quality plastic from developed countries can now be easily bought. Before, it mostly went to China, leaving Vietnamese importers with lower-tier plastic waste.

The Việt Nam Steel Association said that producing steel products from scrap steel produces only one fifth the amount of greenhouse gas produced by making them from ore, and global steel reserves can only last for another 70 years.

It’s certainly hard to argue with such logic.

The problem is that mixed in with the majority of containers that contain up-to-standard waste that can be given a new lease on life by enterprising Vietnamese producers are containers of unrecyclable and even toxic garbage, such as low-grade plastic or untreated steel used in chemical factories.

However, since falsified documents, fraudulent practices and deliberately misleading customs declarations are rampant, the authorities will have to examine all of these containers to determine which ones are acceptable and which one are not.

Kicked into action

Given the earth’s finite resources, no one can deny the benefits of recycling—and by purchasing and repurposing plastic, Việt Nam can earn some positive environmental karma. But then again, we can’t just let all kinds of scraps enter the country willy-nilly.

Việt Nam is amongst the top 20 countries discharging the most plastic waste into the ocean, and one of the six countries in Southeast Asia that has yet to build a waste debris management system, Tạ Đình Thi, director-general of Việt Nam’s Administration of Seas and Islands (VASI), said at the 6th Global Environment Facility Assembly in Đà Nẵng last June.

This means that the country’s waste treatment infrastructure and technology is poorly equipped to deal with our own trash, let alone the world’s.

And probably Việt Nam’s making it onto the “blacklist” of countries with the most marine plastic waste is one of the factors prompting Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc to demand that “Việt Nam must not become a landfill, hurting people’s living conditions and the country’s image” at the Government’s monthly press conference a few weeks ago.

The Government leader ordered customs authorities, the environment ministry, the transport ministry and local governments whose major ports are struggling with scrap containers to review their policies and activities, to “learn their lessons” from having let the situation get out of control in the first place.

The environment ministry was also asked to issue national technical standards on scrap materials on the permissible import list. To use another idiom, this is like locking the stable after the horse has bolted, but better late than never. To be optimally effective, the standards might even need to be at least on par or even higher than our neighbour countries, or else, the flow of scraps would be pooled towards Việt Nam with ‘the path of least resistance’ (Thailand has just announced a ban on plastic and electronic scraps, citing environmental concerns).

Trần Hồng Hà, environment minister, said the ministry is considering a total ban on the import of scrap. Besides comprehensive inspections and a thorough revamp of the scrap import permit mechanisms, heavy fines and revoking business licences are all on the table, Minister Hà said.

They are all of course appropriate solutions, but to rid ourselves of the weed we need to tear up the root system.

What we need is a complete reshuffling of recycling companies’ operations, which would require these companies to raise their standards and update their technologies (with definite roadmap for transition). We would need to introduce a national waste system to improve the woeful rate of reuse and recycling, which would at least help the recycler-producers obtain sufficient domestic scrap supply. Otherwise, even if scrap imports are banned, illegal smuggling will persist.

Plastic scrap is the biggest ecological offender on the list here, but global efforts are needed on multiple fronts. We need the Governments to wield its regulatory tools, corporations to commit to reducing production of waste and consumers to heighten their awareness in our “throwaway society”. At the same time we should support research into alternative materials that can be as durable, cheap and most of all, affordable.

It’s a lot to ask for, but it’s all necessary—because sometimes one man’s trash is everyone’s trash. — VNS