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