Land of milk09.12.18 and plastic
Why Vietnam is knee deep in used Tetra Paks
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.
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.