Land of milk09.12.18 and plas­tic

Why Viet­nam is knee deep in used Te­tra Paks

The Observer - - World - Corinne Red­fern Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Trang Bui

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, 51, 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 rub- bish that washes up: bot­tles of Co­caCola 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 says. “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 al­most dou­bled in the past 10 years, as the dairy in­dus­try shifts its fo­cus from “sat­u­rated” western mar­kets in favour of Asian ex­pan­sion and is now val­ued at $4.1bn (£3.1bn).

On city billboards and school walls, posters of chil­dren with milky mous­taches pro­claim the cog­ni­tive and de­vel­op­men­tal ben­e­fits of drink­ing milk. Spe­cial­ist milk shops line the streets in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, shelves stacked up with packs of 180ml and 110ml car­tons, and cus­tomers are gifted mem­ber­ship cards that drive sales by of­fer­ing dis­counts on their birthdays.

But one of the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this growth seems to be the pack­ag­ing sup­plier Te­tra Pak. Last year, 8.1 bil­lion car­tons were sold across Viet­nam. Yet a com­pre­hen­sive coun­try-wide re­cy­cling pro­gramme has yet to be im­ple­mented. Now, as car­tons pile up on beaches and in land­fills, it’s hav­ing a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment. Te­tra Pak says there are two fa­cil­i­ties in the coun­try – Dong Tien plant in Binh Tanh and Thuan An in Binh Duong – where its waste is re­cy­cled. Dong Tien in­vited the Ob­server to visit. Thuan An de­clined to com­ment.

Te­tra Pak says it is re­cy­cling 18,000 tonnes of car­tons a year, with 93,000 packs per tonne, which would mean it is re­cy­cling about 20% of its out­put. The prin­ci­pal re­cy­cling plant, it says, is Dong Tien.

At its peak in 2016, the plant was pro­cess­ing 300 to 400 tonnes of Te­tra Pak pack­ag­ing a month, but it now only pro­cesses 100 tonnes a month. So at its peak Dong Tien was re­cy­cling only 5.5% (over a year) of all the car­tons sold in Viet­nam. Now, ac­cord­ing to its vice-di­rec­tor Phan Quyet Tien, that has sunk to just over 1%.

Quyet Tien says: “Re­cy­cling Te­tra Pak car­tons is pos­si­ble but only if you have the right sys­tems and tech­nolQuyet ogy in place. 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 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 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 cost-ef­fec­tive, he says, but the com­pany has a so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to do what it 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 it­self, and we’re not a char­ity.”

The re­sult? A coun­try lit­tered with empty milk car­tons. You’ll see clus­ters out­side pri­mary schools and nurs­eries: a mil­lion pri­mary school chil­dren get a free car­ton of sweet­ened milk at school ev­ery day, thanks to a Te­tra Pak-sup­ported gov­ern­men­tal project.

On Long Hai beach, Nguyen 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 in. Her neigh­bours – an el­derly cou­ple whose hut is 300 me­tres away

– of­ten come storm­ing down the sand to com­plain about the smell.

The prob­lem ex­tends up the coast. Hong Mien, 33, grew up in the fish­ing town of La Gi, and has mem­o­ries of play­ing on the beach and pad­dling in the sea. When she re­turned this sum­mer with her five-year-old daugh­ter, Bao, she was shocked. “Bao reached for my hand and said, ‘I want to go home, it’s dirty here,’” Mien re­mem­bers. “We wanted to col­lect shells but we had to pick through all these milk car­tons to get to them.”

Those at the “in­for­mal waste sta­tions” ad­mit they don’t have the an­swers. Le Thi Anh, 75, works along­side her teenage grand­son to sort through the sacks of rub­bish dropped off . “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.”

Le was right about one thing: Te­tra Pak car­tons can be made into cor­ru­gated roof­ing tiles – util­is­ing be­tween 95% and 97% of the multi-lay­ered pack­ag­ing in the process. “On av­er­age, we pro­duce 5,000 tiles ev­ery month,” says Quyet Tien over at Dong Tien. Un­for­tu­nately, they’re also twice as ex­pen­sive as nor­mal roof tiles. “As a re­sult, we have to man­u­fac­ture to or­der, be­cause so few con­struc­tion com­pa­nies are will­ing to pay that price and we don’t want to be left with any ex­cess,” he says.

For now, 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. In Ba Ria, close to Long Hai, the car­tons largely end up in a Korean-owned dump span­ning 30 hectares (74 acres) – the largest in the re­gion. There’s no sort­ing or re­cy­cling in­volved.

It’s es­ti­mated that be­tween 76% and 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 by the side of the road or in the sea.

Te­tra Pak con­cedes that more needs to be done. Ja­son Pelz, the com­pany’s re­gional cir­cu­lar econ­omy di­rec­tor, says: “Over the past few years we have worked with our part­ners to build a to­tal re­cy­cling ca­pac­ity of 18,000 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.”

LEFT Chil­dren in Mũi Né play on the pol­luted beach.

Pho­to­graphs by Francesco Brem­bati for the Ob­server

BE­LOW Su­per­mar­kets in Ho Chi Minh City are piled high with car­tons.

LEFT Fish­er­men bring in the catch at Mũi Né in south cen­tral Viet­nam.

LEFT Dong Tien re­cy­cling plant can han­dle only 1% of the packs.

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