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When plastic bags are welcome

Update: October, 11/2009 - 00:00

Kaleidoscope

(11-10-2009)

by Ngoc Le

When plastic bags are welcome

They look like a huge installation works. For around 2km along the west bank of the Dong Ba River in Phu Binh Commune, a tributary of Huong [Perfume] River, passers-by can see an immense expanse of plastic bags of all sizes and colours hung on long poles, fluttering in the breeze.

The bags have been collected from every corner of the city by dan van do, or permanent boat residents who have been pushed ashore to find new vocations by dwindling catches in the river.

The boat residents have effectively taken over a task done by the city workers. In fact, the community is also known as "plastic bags neighbourhood".

For generations, they had subsisted on fishing, but when the supply of fish and shellfish became scarce, they had no choice and had to find an alternative source of income.

Collecting waste plastic bags was an "ideal" vocation in their situation because it needed neither capital nor skills, just their sweat and toil, strong legs to criss-cross the city every day and a good memory of spots infested with plastic bags.

Theirs is not going to be a rags to riches story, but they are able to make ends meet day in, day out.

Big sized thick bags can fetch VND8,000 (US$0.45) a kilogram, while whereas thin, small ones get half that. A single kilogram of light plastic bags can take hours to collect, wash, dry and pack. So the prices do not reflect the amount of labour that has gone into getting it to a processing facility.

Markets are the collectors’ favourite places, and these are abuzz with collectors when trading slackens.

Nguyen Thi Nhan, 70, who was sorting her collection at a nearby market, said she can collect several kilos a day.

"I’ve been collecting [bags] for almost four years," she said, "The sellers in the market pity me so much they collect all the waste bags they have every day to give to me."

Nhan said that this job among the boat resident community dates back to five years ago, when catches became small and recycling plants came into operation.

"Plastic bags used to be collected by nobody other than sanitation workers," said Le Van Lon, 72, one of Nhan’s colleagues.

Now the "voluntary environment workers" clean up the city everyday, clearing innumerable number of bags.

In early August, the first 204 families in the "plastic bag neighbourhood" on Dong Ba River in Phu Hiep Commune were relocated to a three-storey building by local authorities.

"Living on land has been our biggest wish which we could never afford," Nhan said happily, adding that she continues to collect plastic bags because that is her main line of work.

"Now we live in steadier and cleaner houses," she said.

On the beaten track

The air rises thick and misty from below Bridge 2 in District 8’s Ben Binh Dong Street. On a quiet day, if one pays attention, the muffled sounds of something being beaten can be heard.

Under the bridge and deep in a tangle of small alleys in Ward 18, around 50 people are beating cement or animal feed bags, their bodies are covered in white dust. Some use knives to remove threads, while others use sticks to beat the remaining powder off the bags. The ‘clean’ bags will then be collected for recycling.

It is the fine powders released from the beating of the bags that causes the mist in the surroundings.

Bag beaters are of all ages – elderly, the youth and even children. Most of them, however, are middle-aged women. Many of them congregate under the bridge to work together.

"I’ve been beating bags since I was 10," said Nguyen Thi Ut, 68, "Everyone in my family is engaged in the job, U1om my siblings to grandchildren."

"Otherwise, what can we do for a living?" Ut said, adding that she earns up to VND40,000 ($2.3) a day or sits idle when there are no bags to beat.

"Many elderly people are doing this job with dozens of years of experience," she noted.

Tam, 14, who dropped out of school at fourth grade, said many of her peers in the neighbourhood were also beating bags just like her.

"The ward once opened evening classes, but we were working too hard all day to study in the evening," Tam said.

Dr Le Thi Tuyet Lan, a respiratory expert at the Medicine University’s Hospital, said that the fine cement powder poses a great threat to human health because they contain a lot of silica.

"Intensive silica inhalation can lead to breathing difficulties, blood cough and even fatalities," she explained, stressing that workers should wear activated coal face masks.

However, no bag beaters in the neighbourhood wear masks when working because it is inconvenient.

"We usually sweat a lot under masks, and wet masks suffocate us," complained 60-year-old Nguyen Thi Tu.

"When it’s hard to breathe, we just hold pieces of lemon in our mouths. When we get a cough, just take some drugs. When we feel pains in our chest, just eat some pineapples," Tu said, outlining some of the remedies practised by the bag beaters.

Local authorities have encouraged bag beaters to shift to other jobs and their number has decreased significantly of late. Many of them have shifted to selling lottery tickets, working in construction sites or collecting scrap metal. Only the elderly and the jobless still stick to the bag beating profession.

However, every day, big trucks still carry to the neighbourhood thousands and thousands of bags, and these need to be beaten. VNS

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