E-waste is an overflowing landfill. At a vast Vietnamese market, workers recycle some of it

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) — Dam Chan Nguyen saves dead and dying computers.

When he first started working at Nhat Tao Market, Ho Chi Minh City’s largest informal recycling market, 20 years ago, he usually rescued computers with large monitors and heavy processors. Now he works mainly with laptops and the occasional MacBook.

But the central principle of his work has not changed: nothing is lost. What can be fixed is fixed. What can be saved is reused elsewhere. What remains is sold as scrap.

“We use everything we can,” he says.

The shop where he works is one of many in a market that stretches over several streets full of haggling customers. Most repair shops are a single room full of discarded electronic devices or electronic waste with tables set up outside. Workers, many of them migrants from across Vietnam, repair or rescue items such as laptops, damaged cell phones, camera lenses, television remote controls and even entire air conditioning units. Other stores sell brand new electronics alongside old, refurbished items.

The rush is emblematic of a world producing more e-waste than ever: 62 million tons in 2022, expected to grow to 82 million tons by 2030, according to a report by the United Nations International Telecommunications Union and research arm UNITAR. . Asian countries generate almost half of this.

“We are currently generating e-waste at an unprecedented rate,” said Garam Bel, e-waste officer at the UN International Telecommunications Union.

Managing that waste is crucial. It is filling landfills at an alarming rate and hazardous chemicals such as lead are leaking into the environment and harming human health. It also means missing out on recoverable resources – worth $62 billion in 2022, according to the UN report.

And that waste is increasing five times faster than formal recycling.

Less than a quarter of electronic waste was properly collected and recycled by 2022. Some of the rest ends up in the hands of informal waste workers, like Nguyen, in different parts of the world. This is especially the case in Southeast Asian countries where, the UN report shows, no electronic waste is formally collected or recycled.

Nguyen, 44, is one of three employees at the store. His long years in the business have led to relationships with regular customers, including several other computer repair centers that rely on him for tough jobs. It requires keeping up with changing trends and technology, so he is constantly learning through friends and the Internet.

He works 11 hours a day for a monthly salary of about $470 – about 2.5 times the minimum wage in Vietnam’s largest and most expensive city – with quick meals as his only breaks.

It is demanding work that does not come with health benefits or a retirement plan. Nguyen’s health is fine, but he is concerned about potentially dangerous chemicals in the electronic devices he disassembles without protective equipment.

Then there is the increasing extreme heat in Ho Chi Minh City. Especially in the summer, the shop can feel like an oven.

“Sitting here can feel like death,” he said. “I just have to keep it up. I have to work to make a living.”

Informal waste workers like Nguyen can help solve a problem plaguing formal operations: getting hold of enough waste to make recycling cost-effective. They don’t wait for people to bring it to them.

In Vietnam, for example, waste workers spread out to people’s homes and collect waste that can be disposed of in trash bins on street corners. Others, like Nguyen, have set up networks to acquire discarded electronics.

“We get used stuff from everywhere: anyone who sells something, I buy it,” he said.

Formal recycling companies typically have certifications for disassembling and recycling electronic devices using advanced machinery. They are also taking more precautions about the health risks of e-waste, which can contain toxic components. For example, crude processes such as melting down plastic circuit boards to recover valuable copper can expose people to highly toxic and persistent chemicals called dioxins, which, in high concentrations, are linked to birth defects and cancer. Some devices also contain mercury.

Copper, gold, silver and even some small amounts of rare earth minerals – needed for smartphones, computer screens and LED lights – can be recovered from recycling. According to the UN report, only about 1% of demand for 17 of these important minerals is met through recycling. Bel, of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, said he had no data on how much of these minerals are recovered through informal recycling.

Bel said formal recyclers should try to work with informal workers to gain access to more waste, without harming the livelihoods of the informal workers. This could have other benefits, such as limiting health risks for informal workers and ensuring they don’t pick the most valuable parts of the waste and dump the rest.

Such collaborations are already being attempted in some places. For example, in the Indian capital New Delhi, a company called EcoWork has built a co-working space where informal recyclers can dismantle their waste. They can use modern machines to do it more safely, and putting them together means better prices while saving on transportation costs. And that makes it easier for companies that want to purchase salvaged materials on a scale that is otherwise not possible.

“You can’t just say, stop the informal sector from working on e-waste,” says Deepali Khetriwal, co-founder of EcoWork.

Nguyen said a similar collaboration between informal and formal waste workers in Vietnam would be great for informal workers in Vietnam. He should fix and save more computers and make more money. “If we could formalize our work, that would be perfect,” he said.

The Southeast Asian country is one of the few in the region with laws to tackle electronic waste. It has drawn up a national plan to manage e-waste by 2020, with the aim of collecting and processing 70% of it by 2025, and has sought to integrate informal workers into formal systems to give them better protection.

Stopping is not an option for the tens of thousands of mostly female waste collectors such as Nguyen Thi Hoan, 52. Unlike waste recyclers, where there are many more men, the collectors trudge several kilometers every day in Vietnam in search of waste. It’s one of the few things women on the margins can do.

Hoan moved to Ho Chi Minh City from the coastal province of Binh Dinh in central Vietnam more than a decade ago to try to escape poverty. She wakes up every day at four in the morning in the small room she shares with two other people. She pushes her scrap cart – her biggest investment, which costs $40 – around the Nhat Tao market from 6:30 am to 5 pm, collecting scrap metal from shop owners.

Electronic waste is the most valuable and she remembers the time someone sold her an old refrigerator. But all waste, ranging from aluminum and iron to the ubiquitous plastic and paper, has some value. On rare good days she can accumulate up to 30 kilos and earn about €8.

She rarely takes a break, but sometimes stops to get water from exhaustion from pushing the heavy cart in extreme heat. During those times, she enjoys reading Doraemon comics – Japanese comic books about a time-traveling robot cat – that she encounters on her routes or receives as gifts from those who know she loves comics.

“I have to dedicate myself to this job because that is my only option,” she said.


Ghosal reported from Hanoi.


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Aniruddha Ghosal and Jae C. Hong, The Associated Press