“From Vietnam, with waste”: linked together by trash

As part of the 2017 Festival des Solidarités, which the Tamis co-organizes in Marseille, we asked social science researchers to think about “solidarity” in light of their areas of research.

Mikaëla Le Meur is a PhD student in anthropology at LAMC – the Laboratory of Anthropology of Contemporary Worlds at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (and also a member of the Tamis administrative board). She chose to focus her studies on recycling industries in Vietnam with a view to questioning the ways in which objects, particularly discarded objects, link human beings to each other, sometimes in spite of themselves. According to Mikaëla Le Meur, these material links force us to consider the different responsibilities undertaken in international exchanges and the risks to health and the environment associated with them.

Cover photograph: Minh Khai, Vietnam – The village of the plastic recyclers

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Since 2011 I have carried out fieldwork in Vietnam to support an anthropology research project on the issue of the future-waste of things. I am particularly interested in plastic bags: a banal object, which may only be used for a few seconds, but whose second, “wild” life, i.e. in nature, can last for decades. In 2014 my investigations led me to a village in Vietnam on the outskirts of Hanoi. This village has gradually become specialized in the recycling of plastic, while also integrating the globalized economy. By briefly describing the global industries of waste circulation and the environmental and health stakes associated with them, I mean to show that the social life of ordinary objects links us, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to the distant spaces we often look away from. This materiality obliges us to think and to act. And to take into account our relationships with beings and objects, which structure our existence in a vast network of interdependency.

Waste from here and elsewhere

The municipality of Nhu Quynh, in the suburb of Hanoi (the capital of Vietnam), is a border space between town and country. Here, the semi-artisanal and semi-industrial activity of recycling has transformed the landscape. In the middle of the paddy fields large bourgeois villas with closed shutters have grown up on heaps of plastic waste, while rivers and irrigation canals have been transformed into industrial sewers, and roads and public squares into waste storage sites. In the middle of the municipality lies the artisanal village of Minh Khai, an old farming village that has become a roofless factory for transforming plastic. Here, plastic changes status from rubbish to desirable resource, whether in the form of broken objects, used industrial films or dirty plastic bags – ordinary waste gleaned from the tip by country people on low incomes. This local economy of plastic is integrated more widely into the broader economy of recycling everything, where all materials are worth taking and transforming. Little by little, the local habits of re-use and recycling1 have given rise to a veritable recycling cluster with its own place in globalized exchanges. In this compact network of family firms, contractors find themselves connected to networks that sometimes run the circumference of the planet.

Criss-crossing the recyclers’ village during the hot and humid months of spring 2014, I tried to identify where all these materials piled up at the doors of the small familial “factories” came from, materials that supplied the recycling assembly lines. On the half-melted bags of industrial residues I could read the names of large Western and Asian industrial groups involved in the plastics market and plastics processing: Kolon Plastics, BASF Company, Perrite, Samsung, Lotte Infino, etc. Despite these clues, it remained difficult to reconstruct precisely by what route these materials were arriving in Nhu Quynh, because these large groups operate on different continents, muddying the waters. Furthermore, the piled-up plastic waste did not always show visible signs of its origins. It was only when I came across a man sorting through a carton of wastepaper (also destined for recycling), which had arrived that same morning by container ship, that I began to gradually understand which circuits we were dealing with:

Trash-box full of degraded personal papers
Spring 2014 in Nhu Quynh: “The best place to explore your Irish roots”

Jumbled up in the man’s box I found prospectuses to sign up for retirement insurance, electricity bills, sporting magazines detailing the glorious exploits of rugby players at weekend matches, local and international newspapers, cultural programmes and invitations to cocktail events. All these papers, characteristic of localized daily life, were written in English and came from Ireland. They were dated from the previous year, 2013, and must have undergone a long voyage at sea by container ship before arriving in Hai Phong port in Vietnam and being loaded into lorries supplying the recyclers’ villages of Hanoi’s suburbs. With this carton, I was able to begin to locate several nodal points in a chain of material circulation around the globe.

Responsibilities diluted by “losses” …

The discovery of a carton of Irish wastepaper in a Vietnamese village raises the question of the trade – and perhaps leakage? – of waste on a global scale. Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the producer to manage the second life of the waste they produce? This is what environmental laws and waste administration mechanisms tend to stipulate, in countries in both the North and South, by taxing the general populace to finance local waste collection and processing services. Similarly, companies are increasingly subject to schemes aiming to make them take into account the social and environmental impact of their production and to reflect on what becomes of the objects they produce2. Under French law, the producer and owner of waste are both responsible for the elimination of this material and they can be taken to court, irrespective of their status within the chain of intermediaries, since these materials constitute risks for the environment and public health. At the international level, the Basle Convention, which was put forward in 1989 and came into force in 1992, proposes mechanisms to regulate the movement of what is known as “hazardous” waste so as to oversee the industry and reduce exchanges, notably from countries of the North to countries of the South.

These different legal provisions are in line with moral principles with deep historical roots, which make it possible to structure community life. However, these guiding principles are regularly tested, for example in neighbourhood disputes on the management of waste disposal sites: the NIMBY phenomenon – “Not In My Backyard” – provides an apt description of the difficult negotiations surrounding the destination of waste and the responsibilities of the different people involved in the chain. The question of waste products thus involves thinking about the interdependency between the different players involved in the production of objects, their use and obsolescence, then the management of their second life or their elimination. This interdependency is a potential source of conflicts, which have to be resolved at the level of the community in question: a neighbourhood, town, region, state, etc.

In terms of the international exchanges which are of interest to us here, the material chains and the network of players are so complex that the traceability of the objects and materials is much reduced. The limits of the community tasked with regulating responsibility for the circulation of problematic materials are also difficult to define, as are the standards likely to be applied to them. While some mechanisms exist, such as bilateral or regional agreements (as within the European Union), some studies estimate that 20% of the international trade in waste is illegal, thus showing the weakness of the existing regulations3. This is explained in particular by the declarative aspect of the exchanges (vis-à-vis oversight bodies) and the absence of sanctions in the vast majority of international rulings. The semantic games associated with exchanges of materials mean that a large proportion of the waste produced at the global scale eludes oversight and any invocation of the responsibility of those involved. For example, plastics and wastepaper (whether household or industrial waste) do not fall within the category of “hazardous materials” that the Basle Convention seeks to regulate. This places limits on potential controls over how they are transported and traded. These two types of waste can therefore move through the chains of transactions and operations of material reclassification (by sorting, reconditioning, transport, buying, selling, etc.) and thus acquire the status of “secondary raw materials”. There is a fine line between material reclassification linked to “value-enhancement” actions and the falsification of commercial documents, transforming waste into raw materials. The strategic use of words has major consequences. Thus, out of problematic materials (which could result in legal action being taken against their producers and owners) are born desirable materials that circulate and are able to reintegrate productive circuits.

… and distant clamour

In Vietnam, I noticed that waste objects, such as wastepaper from Irish domestic dustbins, could, at the end of the chain, be considered as secondary raw materials usable in local recycling industries. In the same way, containers filled with used plastic (industrial waste or waste from household collections) arrive each day in the municipality of Nhu Quynh to be recycled in situ in extremely unsatisfactory sanitary and environmental conditions.

Vietnamese people crouching while sorting out very small blocs of undetermined nature
Plastic recycling’s foot soldiers: Sorting

To understand how the plastic recycling operation is run in Nhu Quynh, Vietnam, watch these two videos4:

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For the recycling contractors and workers in the town of Nhu Quynh, the trade-offs are difficult: on the one hand, the activity generates essential income to cover their needs; on the other hand, they are affected by severe pollution that attacks their bodies and the surrounding environment. Thus, they fear that they will pay a heavy price for this development, which after all remains unequal. Although certain contractors generate significant income, many workers toil in difficult conditions. They accept unpleasant tasks (sorting decaying rubbish without any protection; operating dangerous recycling processes, etc.), without any job security or a protective professional organization (they are temporary workers and have no trade unions, etc.). And all this for extremely low wages. Furthermore, the contractors who succeed in making a high enough income generally seek to leave this degrading recycling work and move into the standard plastic processing industry, which shows that they feel little attachment to recycling per se. Lastly, this recycling is in no sense ecologically friendly, since it significantly degrades the local environment5.

A heap of waste awaiting recycling – the Nhu Quynh industrial canal

Reciprocal obligations

It is useful to retrace the social life of objects, particularly waste products, because this demonstrates the interdependent networks that structure the globalized economy. This approach also allows us to ask political and moral questions6, by reintegrating science and technical matters into social debates. Indeed, the social sciences allow us to take the time to examine social logics at work and to ask the following questions: Is all this a given? Does it go without saying that economic players in the North should sell refuse materials that they are nevertheless responsible for managing? Is it self-evident that there should be a division of labour at the international scale, whereby workers in poor conditions in developing countries recycle the waste of countries in the North? By delegating the responsibility for the transformation of materials along a chain, are we not simply delocalizing the problems to countries which perhaps have fewer resources to manage them? Examining the social life of waste and the question of shared responsibilities forces us to think about the chain of causes and effects of our actions, however minute they may be. It is about directly facing up to what the development model in which we live is capable of producing, so as to better define political action that aims to transform it. This requires us to think about “what and who we hold dear”7.


Featured image: Crampled by Aftab Uzzaman, licence CC-BY-NC.

This is a translation from French by Katherine Kean, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.

Cite this article: "“From Vietnam, with waste”: linked together by trash", by Le Tamis in Anthology. https://anthology.hypotheses.org/536
  1. Habits probably inherited from a period of systematic shortages, in a Vietnam struggling to recover from a series of wars. []
  2. Thanks to various mechanisms, such as, for example, corporate social responsibility (CSR), extended producer responsibility (EPR), etc. []
  3. Bernard, Sophie et al. (2012),“The international commerce of waste”, in CEPII, L’économie mondiale, Paris: Éditions La Découverte, pp. 104–115. []
  4. Initially published in the journal Techniques&Culture (in French): https://tc.revues.org/7955 []
  5. For an analysis of the different points of view concerning plastic recycling in Nhu Quynh, see the following article (in French): http://mouvements.info/controverse-recyclage-plastique/ []
  6. Émilie Hache distinguishes between a “moral practice” and a moralistic position. She defines a “moral practice” as an activity meeting three obligations: “relativizing the different ends” (and thus the points of view, “since not everyone has the same attachments”); “calling upon experience”; and “making compromises” by collectively discussing these different attachments. Hache, Émilie (2011), Ce à quoi nous tenons. Propositions pour une écologie pragmatique, Paris: Éditions La Découverte, pp. 37–44. []
  7. Refers to the book by Émilie Hache cited above. []