The International Problem of Plastic Waste – And What We Can Do About It

One of the things I took for granted in the UK was regular and efficient waste collection, and after living in Vietnam for over a year, I now realise this is a privilege.

Vietnam is undergoing rapid development in an attempt to economically stand among more developed nations. As a result, climate action is not a main priority. This manifests itself in dangerously high levels of air pollution, urban development at the expense of biodiversity, and a serious problem with waste.

The Domestic Waste Situation in Vietnam

The capital Hanoi is an incredibly dirty city, without a bin in sight, and trash being piled up by the street to be collected by hand by waste collectors. This leads to many problems. Pests like rats and cockroaches are everywhere, dog owners have to remain vigilant to prevent accidental poisoning (both from dangerous chemicals in the waste and poisons aimed to deal with the pest problem), and these harmful chemicals are washed into the city’s many lakes, where people regularly fish for their food or to sell. In 2017, over 70,000 people died in Vietnam due to pollution-related illnesses, and it is only getting worse.

One of the main reasons why Vietnam’s waste collection is so poor is due to the complicated bureaucracy that deals with waste management. The country’s 25.5 million tons of annual waste falls under the responsibility of six different government ministries, who must deal with it based on its type, location and source. This inefficient system leaves waste piled up in the streets for days.

Even once the waste has been collected, 70% of it is buried in landfills outside cities, with Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Hanoi and Da Nang – the three largest cities by population – quickly running out of space and putting the health and comfort of their citizens at risk. There have been numerous protests against these huge landfills, with protestors blocking the roads into the landfills, leading to huge pileups of waste inside the cities.

HCMC recently announced that it will be cracking down on waste sorting; imposing a strict fine of VND15-20 million (around £470-£625) for those who fail to correctly sort and store their waste into three categories: organic waste, recycled waste and other. This is a step in the right direction, and time will tell how effective it will be, but Vietnam remains lacking when it comes to waste management, with many Vietnamese expats expressing concern and disgust after returning home and seeing how their country is falling behind other Asian nations.

Exacerbating the Problem

Vietnam’s problems with waste collection and disposal are only exacerbated by waste imports from developed nations, such as the UK. International recycling is a huge industry, and an attractive option as it is much cheaper than recycling at home. Richer countries can save money by paying poorer countries to ‘recyle’ their waste for them. However, due to landfill space running out, resulting in the health and ecological problems I have outlined here, these developing nations are running out of capacity.

The UK is a world leader in plastic production, only behind the US, and our plastic production is increasing, despite feeble attempts to ban single-use plastics. The government claims that around half of our plastic waste is recycled, when in reality it is being shipped to other, usually less developed, countries. A recent report by Greenpeace found that less that 10% of our plastic waste is recycled in the UK, withTurkey in particular receiving 30% of the UK’s plastic waste exports. As I have discovered living in Vietnam, recycling is not a viable option for these countries, as they do not have the infrastucture or money to effectively deal with these vast amounts of waste. If it is too expensive for the UK to recycle waste at home, how do you expect Vietnam to cope?

These countries are getting tired of carrying our burdens when it should be the other way around. The government’s reluctance to deal with our overproduction of plastic and dropping the load on countries that are already incapable of dealing with their own waste is truly shocking. China recently banned most waste imports, and Turkey has taken action following the recent Greenpeace inquiry (although parts of this ban have been repealed, possibly due to lobbying pressure), but this has merely redirected the problem, not solved it. Following China’s ban, the UK shifed focus to South-East Asia, with plastic exports to Vietnam rising by 50%.

Vietnam, a country that is already harming its own population with inefficient waste handling, is now expected to pick up after us. This displays a disgusting disregard for these countries and a blatant unwillingness to deal with our own problems. The only way to effectively reduce waste is to dramatically reduce plastic production. Why is it that, in a time dominated by fears of impending ecological disaster, we are still increasing plastic production? Why is it that, in a year when the world’s eyes are turned to us as hosts of both the G6 summit and COP26, the UN’s international climate change conference, we are continuing to ship more plastic waste to developing nations? Can the government do more, and are they making the effort to combat these issues?

How you can help

If, like me, you are angered by this, please make your voice heard.

This petition from Greenpeace is demanding the government fix the UK’s plastic waste crisis:
1. Stop dumping our plastic waste on other countries
2. Cut the UK’s single use plastic by 50% by 2025
3. Roll out a Bottle Return Scheme to stop billions of bottles from being dumped

Also please email your MP, make your feelings known and demand more action from the people who can make these crucial decisions.

Luckily, we live in a country where our voices can make a difference. We can’t let this privilege go to waste when our waste is killing people overseas.

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