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The Unsung Heroes of Vietnam’s Waste Management Sector

How gender equity plays a role in combatting plastic pollution

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© Center for Environment and Community Research

Headshot of Mrs. Thao Ly
Mrs. Thao Ly, Deputy Director of CECR © Courtesy of Mrs. Thao Ly

Mrs. Thao Ly is the Deputy Director of the Center for Environment and Community Research (CECR). She leads CECR’s network of NGOs led by women in promoting gender equity in climate policy National Determine Commitment (NDC) and National Adaptation Plan (NAP) in Vietnam as well as CECR’s major efforts in studies on the role of informal waste collectors in solid waste management. Mrs. Thao Ly received her Master of Arts in Gender and Peace Building from University for Peace in Costa Rica, Master of Arts in Political Science from Ateneo de Manila University and Bachelor’s degree in Chinese Trade in Hanoi University of Business and Technology.

Municipal solid waste management might not seem flashy, but it is crucial to keeping plastics out of our ocean. Without it, litter and waste would go uncollected, piling up on sidewalks and washing into waterways through storm drains. In the United States, we are used to putting our trash out on the curb and expect our local municipal waste collectors to pick it up for us. Yet, in many places around the world, the majority of plastic waste collection and sorting is done by individual waste collectors (sometimes also called “waste pickers” or “rag pickers”) that make up what’s known as the “informal waste sector.” Informal waste collectors are the frontline heroes in the fight against ocean plastic pollution. And yet, as described in our recent report, Exploring Solutions to Ocean Plastics: Supporting Southeast Asia’s Informal Waste Sector, informal waste sector workers are often part of vulnerable communities who occupy the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Often, they lack access to basic necessities like housing, healthcare and education. They are also often the most at risk of financial exclusion—operating without access to financial institutions, bank accounts, payment cards, mobile money or insurance.

This is certainly true in Vietnam, which is one of the countries most impacted by plastic pollution. Even though the informal waste sector contributes greatly to the waste management process and the economy, their work is not recognized and they face many obstacles. Informal waste workers, especially women workers, face many stereotypes and obstacles. Waste collection is not considered a desirable job in Vietnam, so they are often stigmatized and face discrimination within their own communities and families. There is no law to support health care for informal waste collectors and they often work in unsafe and unhygienic conditions. Not having access to healthcare makes them very vulnerable.

What motivates them to keep working such difficult jobs? Most workers come from poor backgrounds and collecting trash is their only option to make a living and support their families. Many are mothers who dream for their children to have access to better education and jobs. Others work to pay back debt.

The Center for Environment and Community Research (CECR) is a local nonprofit in Vietnam dedicated to the long-term protection, restoration and management of all aquatic resources in the country. Currently, CECR strives to highlight the stories and contributions of women in the informal waste sector.

Local Stories in Vietnam:

Waste pickers in Trung Van village, Ha Noi city and Female street collector in Da Nang city
(Left) Waste pickers in Trung Van village, Ha Noi city. (Right) Female street collector in Da Nang city. © Center for Environment and Community Research

Mrs. Vo Thi Hoa migrated from the rural area of a nearby province to Da Nang city to start her job more than 10 years ago. Her day begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 12 p.m. She collects recyclable waste from households and from collection points on streets to sell to junk shops. She chose to stay in this job because it is her only way to support her family at home.

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“I work hard to get money to support my family and to help my children get a better education. I have two children. One is working for a company and one is in college. While this job is very difficult, I am glad that I was able to help my children and I am very proud of them.”

Ms. Vo Thi Hoa
Waste Collector in Da Nang City

Mrs. Duong Thi Hong Hoa has been working as a waste collector for more than 15 years. She collects and buys recyclable waste. She segregates, cleans and packs recyclable waste to sell to junkshops and small recycling facilities. Due to the pandemic, she had to go back home to her village, but after the first wave ended, she went back to Da Nang to work as a waste collector to pay some of her family’s debt.

Mrs Ly co-author pic

“It is more difficult to get recyclable waste because most restaurants and service were closed. In normal conditions, I earned around 150,000 VND (around USD6). But now I get only around 100,000 VND per day. Some days even less. I am very worried about COVID, because if lock down happens, I have to go back to my village and cannot have any job there. Our job is about waste so the conditions are pretty bad, a lot of odor. We need more and better gloves. We have only a bicycle [to transport materials] so we could buy small amount of recyclable waste. We need some capital so we do not have to borrow from junk shop and could negotiate for better price. Sometimes working at late hours is not safe.”

Mrs. Duong Thi Hong Hoa
Waste Collector in Da Nang City

CECR has found that women play a critical role in all stages of the plastic waste chain. In most urban areas, collecting waste from homes, sorting it and taking it to landfills, junkshops (informal recycling facilities) is all done by the informal waste sector, which is mainly made up of women.

Through CECR’s pilot project in Da Nang city called Ocean without plastic: Plastic recycling program for strong community and green city, CECR has helped connect 124 women waste collectors to the Women’s Union (a local Vietnamese organization that represents women’s issues to the national government) and households in Son Tra and Thanh Khe districts. CECR’s collaboration with the Women’s Union proved that gender equity and combatting plastic pollution go hand in hand. With the leadership of local women’s unions, families have started to separate trash at home to make recycling easier. Women waste collectors were engaged in collecting not only high-value recyclable waste but also low-value plastic waste such as single-use plastic bags and straws. Some women waste collectors said that engaging in the project has resulted in up to 10% greater incomes.

In Da Nang, about 1,000 women are working in collection and recycling. Through the Women’s Union, around 1,000 additional jobs were created, helping many women support their families and pay for their children’s education. These women workers not only reduce costs for urban waste management systems, but they also create jobs and help reduce the carbon footprint of their neighborhoods.

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“My income has increased to 5.300.00 VND from 4.700.00 VND thanks to having access to more stable sorted waste resources.”

Ms. Nguyen Thi Bay
Waste Collector in Son Tra district, Da Nang City

These stories highlight that informal waste collectors are not only critical in preventing plastics from entering our ocean—they are integral contributors to their own communities’ economy and wellbeing. Our informal waste sector report highlights ways we can support these important workers:

  • Providing formal recognition to their work by promoting their role in recycling and managing waste. This will allow informal workers to gain job stability and access basic labor rights like health and safety in their workplace.
  • Supporting local NGOs and other institutions working toward the economic empowerment of women and eliminating the stigma and discrimination of informal women workers.
  • Providing financial and other support.
  • Supporting recovery and collection, as well as end markets for recycled content.

The findings of our report were shared with Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance® in Spring 2020 and have inspired conversations about how members can support informal waste collectors. We plan to share more about how these conversations have evolved on this blog in the coming months.

Vietnam has committed to combatting ocean plastic waste by developing the National Action Plan on Marine Plastic Debris Management (NAP). This showcases Vietnam’s leadership on the marine debris issues throughout the Southeast Asian region. However, as we continue to tackle our global plastic problem by improving waste management systems, we need to make sure that the informal waste sector’s contributions, particularly the essential role of women, are recognized and are placed high on our priority list. We need to make sure that their health and overall wellbeing in their workplace is guaranteed. The informal waste sector has and continues to be a key part of any solution to tackling ocean plastic solution.

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