iDE Global

Building a circular economy to clean up plastic waste

Vietnamese effort sees trash turned into building materials and tote bags

Truong Thi Anh Nguyet, 38, has been collecting waste on the busy streets of Da Nang, Vietnam, for about three years. Twice a day, the mother of two rides her bicycle through the city’s alleyways, gathering up mostly metal scraps, cardboard and other items. She then sells the waste to a local “junk shop” – which operates as a collection point – making about US$12 a day. Having turned to waste picking after she lost her job as a hotel housekeeper during the pandemic, Truong is making the most of her new role. “As long as I can make money and help keep the environment clean I’m very proud,” she says.

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Keeping the environment clean is a major challenge in Vietnam – the world’s 4th largest contributor to ocean plastic waste – where beaches, rivers, reefs and mangroves are choked with plastic bottles and other single use plastics. According to the World Bank, an estimated 3.1 million metric tons of plastic waste, including bags, styrofoam containers and fishing gear – is discarded in Vietnam every year, with at least 10 percent of this trash ending up in the ocean – which can lead to cancer; neurotoxicity; and reproductive, immune, and genetic impacts in people. 

All too aware of trash piling up in her coastal city, Truong was receptive when iDE staff encouraged her to gather up plastic – which she previously didn’t collect – and introduced her to a local junk shop owner who traded high value plastic waste such as drinking bottles, allowing her to expand the list of items she picked, boosting her income and helping reduce Vietnam’s tsunami of waste plastic.  “In the future, I want to expand my collection business by opening my own junk shop, which will hopefully increase my income.”

A trash picker in Da Nang, where beaches and waterways are littered with plastic waste. 

From discarded drink bottles to designer tote bags

Training informal waste pickers is part of a new approach being taken by iDE to support circular economies in pilot areas, organizing, strengthening and dignifying the trade of waste picking, providing greater livelihood opportunities while also cleaning up the environment. In Vietnam, iDE and its partners are working to monetize the collection of plastic, building a circular value chain for plastic waste, with the aim of boosting incomes for participants – many from low income communities – and reducing the amount of trash littering Da Nang’s picturesque coastline. Under the Plastics with Purpose project, iDE is adding value to the local community’s existing plastic recycling efforts by increasing the quality and quantity of feedstock, encouraging processors to enter the market, and tapping into both domestic and foreign recycling markets, in which companies buy granulated plastic waste, turning it into consumer products.

The 3-year, US$1.6 million project, funded by Denmark’s Danida Market Development Partnership, aims to transform Danang’s plastic waste into everything from boards used to construct buildings, to designer carry bags, sold by socially-conscious brands around the world. Despite delays caused by COVID-19 and other challenges encountered by project partners, Trang Bui, iDE Vietnam interim country director, says “the long-term vision for this project is to cultivate plastic waste recycling as a profitable venture for everyone involved in the value chain—particularly for local waste collectors and small recycling business owners—while reducing the flow of plastic waste into the natural environment.”

Unlike many countries wrestling with plastic waste, Vietnam, says Trang, has an existing domestic plastic recycling industry providing formal and informal employment opportunities to many. However, she believes the sector could be more equitable, transparent and profitable. With increased domestic demand for recycled plastic inputs, she says it’s possible to capture more value from a circular model, while providing everyone involved with dignified and safe working conditions, and fair compensation. “By strengthening a sustainable and desirable market for recycled plastic, the project will help ensure that informal waste collectors and their families realize long-lasting livelihood improvements, and that ocean-bound plastic is greatly reduced.”

Project value chain begins in the home

The value chain begins with household members in Da Nang, where iDE last year launched a “behavior change” campaign to educate people to separate low value plastic waste, such as shopping bags, cups, food wrapping, and high value plastic waste, such as plastic bottles. The campaign messaging is featured on buckets, distributed to households, letting people know what to do with their garbage. Buckets to deposit waste, designed for household kitchens, and community bins have also been distributed throughout the project areas. Instead of going to landfill or ending up in the ocean, sorted plastic is then collected by hundreds of waste workers, who fan out through Danang’s streets on a daily basis. About 200 informal workers have been trained by iDE on using personal protective equipment, health and safety and the different types of plastic waste for collection and recycling. iDE also introduces them to junk shop owners, who buy the plastic in bulk. “We have been making sure the junk shops are compliant with government regulations,” says Trang. “We want to make sure we aren’t doing business with anyone who is doing harm to the environment. That’s why we train shop owners and staff on better environmental protection such as safer handling of wastewater.”

As the project develops, iDE is working with the junk shops and other suppliers to direct the plastic waste to a “master aggregator” in Da Nang. Project partners have identified a private facility called Anh Khanh Huy which will act as a recyclable sorting, pre-processing, and trading hub. With the support from the project, the master aggregator will be upgraded into a pre-processing facility, operate high volume loading and unloading facilities, semi-automated waste sorting equipment, as well as preprocessing capacity for de-labeling, decapping, color sorting, and crushing. Project partners believe the identified aggregator presents an opportunity to upgrade its operation, providing the central collection and preprocessing capability required by informal waste workers and junk shops. While the aggregator currently has basic equipment in place, additional machinery and government certification will be needed, increasings its capacity by a third within the first year.

At a program event, attendees are encouraged to cover their mouths and noses when collecting trash

Oceanworks and ReForm Plastic, are working directly with the master aggregator, ensuring it meets their requirements, and will take the processed plastic feedstock from the facility and sell it to other companies to be made into consumer products. Based in the United States, Oceanworks tracks the journey of high value recycled plastic waste, guaranteeing its product was intercepted before reaching the ocean, and sells it to other companies, such as socially-conscious brands, at a premium, which turn the feedstock into consumer products with an environmental story behind them.

Oceanworks also facilitates the collection of low value plastic waste through their Impac+ program which supports the extraction of low value plastic out of the environment under a plastic credits framework. Local commercial partner, ReForm Plastic, will help process recycled low value plastic, which it molds into products including building materials and furniture. ReForm Plastics is a one-stop solution provider for difficult-to-recycle materials, supporting partners with the collection, processing, and recycling, or ethical disposal, of these materials. Under the PwP project, ReForm Plastic will provide technical guidance to the master aggregator regarding the collection and sale of low-value plastic. They will also serve as the on-the-ground partner for the Oceanworks Impac+ program, administering the plastics credit funds and ensuring quality of operations in line with OW’s clients’ expectations

The project was informed by human-centered design, from desk research and stakeholder interviews, which found:

  • Existing collection infrastructure for single-use plastic is not widely used nor understood, and single-use plastic is confusing to sort.

  • Village-level women’s union leaders are critical partners for successful waste sorting campaigns because they have the resources, routines, social influence, and connections to enact change.

  • Promoting clean neighborhoods free from litter is a strong motivating factor for sorting and waste collection because it is immediately tangible.

  • Government recognition can help accelerate or contribute both pressure and pride for continuing strong sorting habits.

  • The social media platform Zalo offers a convenient way to communicate about sorting programs, schedules, and instructions because it is already widely used.