Waste is a burning problem, but burning’s no solution

|      Thu Van      |

HANOI (Viet Nam News/ANN) – Advanced technologies can help in improving Vietnam’s waste management, but it is equally, if not more important that the root of the problem is tackled, environmentalists say.

After years of suffering, the residents could not take the stink anymore.

On January 11, they gathered together and set up tents on the road, blocking garbage trucks from carrying waste to the Nam Son dumping ground in the capital city’s Soc Son District.

The impact was immediate.

Garbage began piling up on the capital city’s streets over the weekend, and the stink spread rapidly.

Five days later, after reaching a deal with local authorities on compensation for relocation, the people stopped their protest and the road to the Nam Son dumping ground was cleared.

A view of the Dong Tram rubbish dump in Phu Quoc Island in the southern province of Kien Giang. – VIET NAM NEWS/ANN

But no one was under any illusion that the problem had been solved.

Over the past two years, the capital city has seen several similar protests by residents angry about the polluted environment they have to live in.

Complaints from people in many other provinces who were having to suffer from pollution and attendant problems caused by waste dumps and waste treatment plants have also made headlines.

Not just Hanoi, the nation as a whole has a serious waste management problem on hand that needs urgent, long-term solutions.

“Clearly, the authorities need to think seriously about the problem of waste management. We can’t waste another minute,” said Dang Hung Vo, former deputy minister of environment and natural resources.

“We have so many new technologies, both made in Vietnam and foreign countries, I don’t know why Vietnam is still tardy in applying such technologies in this sector that badly needs them,” he said.

No decent burial

Nguyen Thanh Lam, a specialist from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, said Vietnam currently treats its waste mainly with landfills and burning.

Neither of these methods are sustainable.

“What has happened in the past years tells us that the landfill is an obsolete solution.

“Waste is not sorted at source in Vietnam, so organic and plastic waste are buried together. It takes millions of years to decompose plastic. This method also requires large land spaces and cannot be pollution free,” said Dang Huy Dong, former deputy minister of Planning and Investment.

Scientists say landfills are uncontrolled chemistry experiments. In addition to emitting methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide) they require long-term management lasting many decades to ensure that they do not pollute the environment, especially groundwater sources, which has been depleting in Vietnam at an alarming rate.

Sadly, 71 per cent of the country’s waste is buried directly, and the results have not been pretty.

Perhaps the worst of the impacts of pollution caused by waste is the emergence of “cancer villages” where inordinately large numbers or residents suffer from the dreaded disease.

In 2014, a report from the Water Resource Programming and Survey Centre under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment published a list of 37 cancer villages around the country.

The report said the main reason was water pollution caused by improper and illegal waste dumping and burying, mainly industrial waste.

The lesser evil?

Faced with overflowing landfills and the lack of space for establishing new ones, Vietnam has in recent years settled on waste burning projects as another cheap alternative.

According to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, there are around 200 incinerators installed nationwide.

Most waste treatment plants say they use waste-to-energy technologies, but scientists counter this, saying that most of the imported technologies can only work when waste is sorted at source, something that does not happen in Vietnam.

“Burning waste with incinerators can temporarily solve the problem in that people don’t see as much garbage on the streets, but we have to be aware that dioxins and furans are produced during incineration, especially because waste in Vietnam is not sorted at sources,” said Doan Ha Thang, an expert on plasma physics from the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Dioxins, which are highly toxic compounds, are created unintentionally during combustion processes, at either above 200 degrees Celsius, or from 450 to 900 degrees celsius.

Dioxin decomposition can only happen when the temperature reaches 1200 degrees Celsius, a very expensive proposition that is almost impossible for current incinerators in Vietnam, Thang said.

“What does that mean? It means incineration cannot be a short-term or long-term solution. You can’t solve the waste problem by building multi-million dong facilities that will just transform solid waste into another toxic pollution problem. We all know how toxic dioxin is to people’s health,” he said.

To good effect, he added: “It’s a scary scenario.

“It’s bad enough that we’re facing this waste crisis, but it’s even worse that government officials tasked with protecting our natural resources and safeguarding public health are promoting wrong solutions, particularly, uncontrolled incineration technologies,” he said.

Lam, the specialist from the Environment Ministry, said the ministry has clearly ordered that waste treatment technologies imported to Vietnam must not be those outdated and banned by other countries.

“The ministry is encouraging made-in-Vietnam technologies that can specifically solve our own problems and suit our own waste situation,” he said.

Dang Huy Dong, the former deputy minister of planning and investment agreed with this assessment and suggested that new national standards are formulated for waste treatment, with investors allowed to compete with each other in offering different technological solutions.