Bad wrap: Viet­nam’s blight of Te­tra Paks

Te­tra Pak is prof­it­ing from the dairy boom in Asia – but a lack of car­ton-re­cy­cling fa­cil­i­ties is caus­ing huge prob­lems

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Corinne Red­fern

It takes 45 min­utes to pick up all the milk car­tons that have washed up on Long Hai beach overnight. “I feel like all I do is col­lect them,” says Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tham, ges­tur­ing to­wards the quiet length of sand that fronts her beach house in the south of Viet­nam. “I fill about three or four bags ev­ery morn­ing, but then there will be a big wave, and when I look back over my shoul­der the sand is cov­ered again.”

Milk car­tons aren’t the only rub­bish that washes up on her shores; bot­tles of Coca-Cola float in the shal­lows next to odd shoes, bin bags and sod­den bits of card­board. Once or twice a year, there’s a dead body. “The milk car­tons are the most dif­fi­cult,” she ex­plains. “I can get rid of ev­ery­thing else. Lo­cal waste pick­ers will buy the plas­tic and the paper from me, and I call the po­lice for the corpses. No­body will take the milk car­tons from me.”

Milk con­sump­tion in Viet­nam has taken off in re­cent years, as the dairy in­dus­try shifts its fo­cus from “sat­u­rated” western mar­kets in favour of Asian ex­pan­sion. In 2015 the coun­try’s dairy mar­ket was val­ued at $4.1bn, a fig­ure that is fore­cast to more than dou­ble by 2020.

But one of the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this growth seems to be the dairy in­dus­try’s prin­ci­pal pack­ag­ing sup­plier, Te­tra Pak. Last year, 8.1bn of Te­tra Pak’s in­di­vid­ual car­tons were sold across Viet­nam. But a com­pre­hen­sive coun­try-wide re­cy­cling pro­gramme is yet to be im­ple­mented. Now, as car­tons pile up on beaches and in land­fills, that’s hav­ing a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment.

When the Guardian asked Te­tra Pak who was re­cy­cling their waste, the com­pany told us there were two fa­cil­i­ties in the coun­try: Dong Tien plant in Binh Tanh and Thuan An in Binh Duong. Dong Tien in­vited the Guardian to come and visit. Thuan An de­clined to com­ment.

Te­tra Pak said they are re­cy­cling 18,000 met­ric tonnes of car­tons a year, with 93,000 packs per tonne, which would mean that they are re­cy­cling about 20% of their out­put. The prin­ci­pal re­cy­cling plant, they said, is Dong Tien.

But dur­ing a tour of the Dong Tien plant, kindly laid on by vice-di­rec­tor Phan Quyet Tien, the Guardian was told that al­though at its peak in 2016 the plant was pro­cess­ing 300400 tonnes of Te­tra Pak pack­ag­ing a month, they now only process 100 tonnes in the same time­frame. So at its peak Dong Tien was re­cy­cling just 5.5% (over a year) of all the car­tons sold in Viet­nam. Now, ac­cord­ing to its vice-di­rec­tor, that has sunk to just over 1%. Quyet Tien was not aware of the part­ner­ship be­tween Te­tra Pak and the Thuan An plant. To his knowl­edge, there used to be an­other plant in Long An that was able to re­cy­cle the pack­ag­ing, but is no longer able to do so.

“Re­cy­cling Te­tra Pak car­tons is pos­si­ble, but only if you have the right

‘The milk car­tons are the most dif­fi­cult to get rid of – I can call the po­lice for the corpses’

sys­tems and tech­nol­ogy in place,” he ex­plains. “In the past, we bought Te­tra Pak waste di­rectly from Te­tra Pak, and we also bought milk car­tons from in­for­mal col­lec­tors and litter pick­ers across the coun­try. But the lat­ter has proved fi­nan­cially in­ef­fec­tive, and it was im­pos­si­ble for us to make a profit.”

These days, the Dong Tien plant only ac­cepts waste ma­te­ri­als sent di­rectly by the Te­tra Pak-af­fil­i­ated dairy com­pa­nies them­selves. “Be­tween 30% and 50% of the prod­uct is alu­minium and plas­tic, and the rest is paper,” says Quyet Tien. “But it’s not sim­ply a mat­ter of mash­ing the card­board down or melt­ing the plas­tic – we have to ex­tract each sep­a­rate layer and treat them all in dif­fer­ent ways.” The process still isn’t cost­ef­fec­tive, he says, but it’s their so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to do what they can to help the en­vi­ron­ment – even if it’s not enough. “We’d love to be able to re­cy­cle the car­tons that peo­ple use and throw away af­ter­wards – I’m sure many re­cy­cling plants would – but we get very lit­tle sup­port from Te­tra Pak them­selves and we’re not a char­ity.”

The re­sult? A coun­try fes­tooned with empty milk car­tons. You’ll see clus­ters out­side pri­mary schools and nurs­eries: 1 mil­lion pri­mary school chil­dren get a free car­ton of sweet­ened milk at school ev­ery day, thanks to a Te­tra Pak-sup­ported gov­ern­men­tal project. A waste ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme is be­ing pi­loted in 30 kinder­gartens, but what hap­pens to the 5m car­tons at the end of each school week still de­pends on the in­sti­tu­tion. “We try to use as many car­tons as we can for our arts and crafts les­sons,” says Phung Thi Dung, 38, who has been work­ing as a pri­mary school teacher in the Ba Ria prov­ince for 10 years. “But the rest just get thrown away. I’m not sure where they end up.”

On Long Hai beach Ngoc Tham isn’t sure what to do with the car­tons she gath­ers. Once a week she burns them after send­ing her 14-year-old son, Phuc Thinh, in­side and in­struct­ing him to close all the win­dows and doors to pre­vent the fumes from seep­ing in­side. Her near­est neigh­bours – an el­derly cou­ple whose beach hut is 300 me­tres away – often come storm­ing down the sand to com­plain about the smell.

Those at the coun­try’s “in­for­mal waste sta­tions” ad­mit they don’t have the an­swers ei­ther. Le Thi Anh, 75, works along­side her teenage grand­son to sort through the sacks of rub­bish dropped off by litter pick­ers from across the re­gion. “In around 2013 the num­ber of milk car­tons be­ing brought to us be­gan to in­crease quite dra­mat­i­cally,” she says. “We bought them at the start, be­cause some­body told us that re­cy­cling plants would buy them to make roof­ing tiles. But when we took them to the fac­tory, they said it was im­pos­si­ble and they sent us away.” In the end, she burned the car­tons in an un­of­fi­cial land­fill nearby. “The smoke was so strong I was cough­ing for a week.”

Thi Anh was right about one thing: Te­tra Pak car­tons can be made into cor­ru­gated roof­ing tiles. Un­for­tu­nately, they’re also twice as ex­pen­sive as nor­mal roof tiles.

The prob­lem may yet worsen. In May the com­pany will open Viet­nam’s first do­mes­tic pack­ag­ing plant on the out­skirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Worth $110m, the fac­tory will be ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing 20bn car­tons a year – fore­shad­ow­ing a pre­sumed in­crease in dairy con­sump­tion of an­other 50%.

In the ab­sence of any eco­nom­i­cally vi­able re­cy­cling so­lu­tions, Te­tra Pak car­tons in ur­ban ar­eas of Viet­nam are col­lected by lo­cal au­thor­ity-li­censed mu­nic­i­pal rub­bish col­lec­tion ser­vices, such as Ci­tenco, to be dis­posed of in large land­fill sites across the coun­try. In Ba Ria, the car­tons largely end up in a Korean-owned rub­bish dump span­ning 30 hectares – the largest in the re­gion. There’s no sort­ing or re­cy­cling in­volved. It’s es­ti­mated that be­tween 76%-82% of non-re­cy­clable ur­ban waste in Viet­nam ends up in man­aged land­fills. But for those in ru­ral re­gions, where only 10% of waste is col­lected by the li­censed au­thor­i­ties, the ma­jor­ity ends up dumped.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ex­perts are con­cerned. Mia Mac­Don­ald is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of pol­icy re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion Brighter Green. “I find it strange and un­set­tling that so lit­tle is known about what hap­pens to Te­tra Pak pack­ag­ing when it’s be­ing dis­trib­uted in such vast quan­ti­ties across re­gions such as Viet­nam,” she says. “Te­tra Pak ap­pear to have seen the po­ten­tial for growth in south-east Asia, and are now try­ing to cap­i­talise on that with small, sin­gle-use car­tons that are quickly con­sumed and then thrown away. And the pack­ag­ing ap­pears be­nign: it’s not ob­vi­ously plas­tic or glass or metal – it presents it­self as re­cy­clable.”

“When Te­tra Pak came to Viet­nam in 1994, drink­ing milk was al­most nonex­is­tent,” says the com­pany’s in-coun­try spokesper­son, Ta Bao Long. “It was al­ways just sweet­ened con­densed milk … which was given to ba­bies and ill peo­ple. We had to ed­u­cate the cus­tomers about the con­ve­nience and safety of drink­ing milk from a por­ta­ble, dis­pos­able car­ton.”

The com­pany con­cedes that more needs to be done to de­velop re­cy­cling across Viet­nam. “We’ve been proac­tively work­ing on re­cy­cling since 2004, scout­ing for re­cy­clers and seek­ing sup­port from the gov­ern­ment as well as NGOs. We started work­ing with the first re­cy­cler in 2006,” Ja­son Pelz, re­gional cir­cu­lar econ­omy di­rec­tor for Te­tra Pak, says. “We agree more needs to be done. Over the past few years we have worked with our part­ners to build a to­tal re­cy­cling ca­pac­ity of 18,000 met­ric tonnes per year. The bot­tle­neck is col­lec­tion and seg­re­ga­tion. We will con­tinue to work closely with the gov­ern­ment as well as other part­ners to in­crease the bev­er­age car­ton col­lec­tion and re­cy­cling in Viet­nam.”

“Re­cy­cling has to be sup­ported by Te­tra Pak and the milk in­dus­try, be­cause they’re the ones mak­ing huge prof­its,” says Quyet Tien, adding that the Dong Tien re­cy­cling plant needs to up­grade its car­ton pro­cess­ing tech­nol­ogy, but can’t af­ford it. “If Te­tra Pak don’t of­fer to sup­ply it to us, we will have to drop the pro­gramme com­pletely and Te­tra Pak can find some­one new – or they can try re­cy­cling it them­selves and see how dif­fi­cult it is.”

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Trang Bui CORINNE RED­FERN IS A FREE­LANCE JOUR­NAL­IST RE­PORT­ING ACROSS ASIA

FRANCESCO BREMBATI

▲A beach in Bin Thuan prov­ince shows the ef­fects of re­cy­cling woes

FRANCESCO BREMBATI

▼Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tham: ‘I feel like all I do is col­lect them’

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