Orphan Plastics: Why Do We Need to Pay Attention?

plastic bowl with spoon and fork blue background

Vietnam is one of the top contributors of plastic waste in the world. It accounts for around 6% of all plastic waste, behind only China and Indonesia and tied with the Philippines as a top plastic polluter.

While this fact is concerning, there are reasons to be hopeful. As a whole, Vietnam has gone to great lengths to address the plastic pollution problem, and in only a few short years, we’ve seen great improvement in plastic waste management.

However, in order to relinquish its spot as a top plastic polluter, more needs to be done to address this growing issue. Besides plastic waste, Vietnam is one of the top contributors to ocean plastic, and little is done about non-recyclable plastic

The good news is that you and your company can help. In this article, we’ll discuss how Vietnam’s current waste management system has been effective against plastic pollution, the ways in which it can improve, and how you can help today.

plastic bottles

Part of the reason for the amount of plastic waste in Vietnam is because of its fast-paced economic growth. Fast economic growth means more solid waste, and much of this solid waste is plastic. Per person, the average amount of plastic waste in Vietnam has risen from 3.8kg in 1990 to 41.3kg in 2018. This massive increase in plastic waste requires fast, transformational change in order to address the issue.

For the most part, Vietnam has done an outstanding job when it comes to managing the increased solid waste problem. In fact, collection of waste has increased from 81% in 2010 to 85.5% in 2017. They’ve done this primarily through the informal sector, which accounts for 90% of all plastic waste recycling.

It works like this: a waste picker will sort and collect recyclable plastics, and they will sell those plastics to a recycling enterprise. Often, these recycling enterprises take place in a craft village, like Phan Boi, where individual households will recycle the plastic. This provides income opportunities for the waste pickers and the households in the craft villages, simultaneously addressing plastic waste issues and poverty. 

In fact, in Phan Boi in 2018, around 130 households participated in recycling activities, allowing the village to sort through 100 – 200 t/day of plastic waste. Another craft village, Minh Khai, had around 870 households participating in plastic recycling activities allowing the village to sort through 500 – 600 t/day. 

This system provides work to households and families while sorting through significant amounts of plastic, making it an impressive solution. However, there is one issue that this plastic waste management system fails to address: non-recyclable plastics.

Mismanagement of orphan plastic makes Vietnam fourth largest contributor to ocean plastic

Vietnam is the fourth biggest contributor to ocean plastic in the world. This is partially due to the large amounts of plastic waste that it produces but also due to the Mekong River, which ranks among the 10 most impactful sources of global marine litter. As a result, ocean-bound plastic is a huge issue in Vietnam.

Orphan plastic is plastic waste that’s abandoned, mismanaged, and non-recyclable. These are the single-use plastics, plastic bags, plastic packaging, and other cheap plastic that is found everywhere and is difficult to get rid of. 

In Vietnam, orphan plastic is a huge problem partially because of its abundance and partially because of a lack of education surrounding plastic waste. Those in rural areas may dump their plastic waste into rivers or bury or burn their plastic waste simply because they don’t know the proper way to manage it. As a result, these pieces of plastic often end up in our oceans.

Additionally, much of Vietnam’s plastic waste management relies upon the informal sector (waste pickers). At the moment, there is no monetary value in non-recyclable plastic, so it won’t be picked up by waste pickers. Instead, these orphan plastics will remain abandoned near waterways or sitting in a landfill where they will likely become ocean plastic.

In urban areas, plastic waste is systematically collected and sorted, but waste that has already been discarded isn’t addressed, leaving those pieces of plastic to end up in the ocean.

Even if orphan plastic ends up in a landfill, only 30% of these landfills are classified as sanitary. Many landfills lack proper treatment (such as weights to keep the trash from blowing away or bottom lining to prevent toxic leakage), and so even if orphan plastic ends up in a landfill, there’s no guarantee that it won’t eventually end up in our oceans.

So, while Vietnam’s quick response to its plastic waste is commendable, it’s clear that more needs to be done to alleviate the orphan plastic waste issue and minimize ocean-bound plastics.

TONTOTON’s process uses the current plastic management system to focus on orphan plastic

plastic collection

TONTOTON offers a solution to this issue.

We understand that the current plastic management system is essential to the private sector and provides much-needed income to hundreds of families across Vietnam. Instead of changing this system, we use it to provide more opportunities for these families while addressing the orphan plastic issue.

We support waste pickers by providing them PPE, making sure that they are fairly compensated, and ensuring that they have health care and proper training. Additionally, we focus on orphan plastic—those plastics that are non-recyclable and so light that they are often difficult to manage—especially orphan plastic along waterways and in other areas where they are classified as ocean-bound plastic (plastic that will end up in the ocean at some point).

Once the orphan plastic is collected by waste pickers, we take this plastic to be co-processed—a clean processing system that turns waste into energy and other raw materials—so that it is properly managed and stays out of our waterways.

Our projects support the existing waste management system as well as the waste pickers involved while addressing the growing orphan plastic issue in a clean and sustainable way. We’ve essentially filled a gap in the waste management system, ensuring that even the areas in Vietnam that are hit hardest with plastic waste (like Phu Quoc and Han Son Island) can see some relief from orphan plastic waste.

Purchasing plastic credits through TONTOTON funds these programs. As your company adopts a sustainable business model and explores ways to reduce its orphan plastic waste, consider purchasing plastic credits through TONTOTON as an additional measure. This way, you can know that your company is doing all that it can to not only reduce its contribution to orphan plastic waste, but to remove existing orphan plastic waste from the natural environment as well.