Stepping out of their doors into the scorching heat last week, Hanoians choked on the foul smell of piles of trash left on the streets. The usual destination for Hà Nội’s rubbish, Nam Sơn Waste Treatment Complex, had been blocked by local residents, preventing garbage trucks from entering the site.
Residents of Sóc Sơn District in the outlying north of the city's urban core have been suffering for years from the obnoxious smell, mosquitoes and other health problems caused by the nearby dump. They took matters into their own hands, blocking the garbage trucks and asking for compensation from local authorities for their land before they agree to relocate.
This was not the first time they chose to block trucks in protest of slow compensation after several dialogues with local authorities.
The protest occurred in small villages in the city’s outskirts but had serious consequences for the whole city because Nam Sơn is Hà Nội’s largest landfill.
In many districts, the accumulated garbage was dumped in empty lots or parks and covered with canvas to prevent the stink from spreading.
The streets of the central city of Đà Nẵng were also filled with piles of trash last week. People living near Khánh Sơn landfill blocked the entrance to the site to protest the stench and ask for a solution to the rampant pollution. Up to 1,200 tonnes of untreated waste accumulated in the city each day.
Although the entrance to the Nam Sơn dump in Hà Nội has been cleared, there is no guarantee it will not be blocked again. Those living nearby continue to choke on the pungent smells from the site, and if they lose patience Hà Nội could be turned into a smelly and untidy place once again.
Other factors threaten to send the city into a waste crisis.
Nam Sơn dump is at risk of running out space. It is estimated that out of the 6,500 tonnes of waste dumped by Hanoians every day, the site receives about 4,000 to 4,700 tonnes.
Unless the capital city finds a solution to treat its waste, it will turn into a landfill itself once Nam Sơn reaches capacity.
It is the same with landfills in other Vietnamese cities.
Sanitary landfills and waste-to-energy are the most popular methods of waste treatment in Việt Nam; however, it is not in the habit of many local people to sort their rubbish.
Đặng Huy Đông, former deputy minister of planning and investment, said: “Because we don’t sort it out, it takes hundreds of years for plastic waste to decompose underground.”
Landfills can handle the waste from big urban areas but cause serious land, air and water pollution, he said.
The problem is not unique to Việt Nam. Waste crises and other environmental challenges plague neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.
Urban areas in ASEAN have driven regional growth but they have also generated rapidly growing mountains of waste.
Fast-growing economies and booming tourism throughout the region have wide-reaching effects. They bring an influx in instant foods and packaging, canned drinks, shopping bags and a rising tide of waste imports from the US and Europe.
Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Việt Nam and Malaysia are among the ten biggest plastic polluters worldwide, according to Greenpeace.
The consequences of this waste crisis are many and they stretch beyond just environmental issues. It contributes to the poor quality of the food and water we consume and the air we breathe every day.
As more and more people fall ill with issues caused by environmental problems, the State budget has to bear the burden of increasing medical costs. Labour productivity will decrease as a consequence of unhealthy workers.
Waste and pollution are no longer simply environmental and health problems. They also take a huge economic toll and countries have started to pay the price.
When haze caused by slash-and-burn fires dragged on in several ASEAN countries, the tourism industry and other businesses in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia felt the pain.
Kasikorn Research Centre in Thailand estimated that the severe smog early this year would cost the country up to US$200 million in healthcare costs and reduced tourist spending.
Tourists will not be impressed by a city with streets fill of rubbish. They do not want to swim at a beach choked with plastic bags. As waste piles up, the number of flight and hotel bookings will decline.
Investment in fighting pollution will divert national funds that are supposed to be allocated for economic growth such as developing infrastructure, but they will pay off big time in the long term through the tourism industry and lower healthcare costs.
Unwanted waste from the west piling up at the ports of Việt Nam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Indonesia are the result by a new Chinese policy of refusing imports of plastic waste from abroad.
The move set off international political rows. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was determined to send 1,500 tonnes of waste back to Canada but the North American country refused to acknowledge the issue for years. The Philippines threatened to sever bilateral ties due to the dispute.
The incident is yet another example of how waste and pollution harm economies, cause public safety risks and even ignite conflicts that undermine diplomatic relations.
The crisis is not a problem of any single village, city or country, but the whole world.
The mountains of waste, marine plastic scraps and air pollution have been put on the agendas of regional and global summits, where world leaders have vowed to combat environmental challenges.
But progress on these commitments remains slow.
Addressing environmental issues is more urgent than ever, and it should be the priority of agencies at every level of the national Government and international bodies.
As one of the biggest marine plastic polluters in the world, Việt Nam should encourage green growth initiatives and seek sustainable solutions and green technologies to treat its urban waste once landfills reach capacity.
Environmental management agencies should issue a set of national standards on waste treatment to serve as foundation to assess the efficiency of new technologies.
Sorting rubbish at the source and imposing severe punishments on littering may seem like old ideas after being proposed many times at workshops and in the media, but the State needs to take steps to change behaviours that contribute to the crisis.
It is urgent that we turn words into action and make the fight against pollution a priority, and not just for the sake of the environment; there is no room for economic development if our city streets are covered in rubbish.
Once countries find a sustainable way out of the waste crisis, they can develop their tourism industries. Money will not be wasted on cleaning up pollution and treating the health problems it causes, but instead can be poured into infrastructure, industry and tourism to bring better returns.
Trash to cash: it is definitely possible if we take action now. — VNS