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A market in Vietnam recycles electronic waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill – NRK Urix – Foreign news and documentaries

A market in Vietnam recycles electronic waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill – NRK Urix – Foreign news and documentaries

Dam Chan Nguyen rescues dead and dying computers.

When he first started working at Nhat Tao Market, Ho Chi Minh City's largest informal recycling market, about 20 years ago, he usually salvaged computers with large screens and heavy processors. It now works mostly with laptops and the occasional MacBook.

But the main task of his work remains unchanged: nothing should be wasted. What can be fixed will be fixed. What can be salvaged is reused elsewhere. What's left is sold as scrap.

“We use everything we can,” he says.

More electronic waste than ever before

The store he works in is one of many in the market that spread across several streets full of bargain customers. Most repair shops are single rooms crammed with discarded electronic devices or e-waste, with tables set up outside.

The workers, many of them migrants from other parts of Vietnam, repair or salvage items such as laptops, corroded cell phones, camera lenses, TV remote controls, or even entire air conditioners.

Other stores sell brand new electronics alongside recycled vintage goods.

The market is symbolic in a world producing more e-waste than ever before – 62 million tons in 2022. This number is expected to rise to 82 million tons by 2030, according to a report by the United Nations Training and Research Agency (UNITAR). Asian countries account for nearly half of the waste.

– We are currently producing electronic waste at a rate we have never seen before, says Jaram Bell, President of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

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Resources are lost

How you deal with waste is important. It is filling landfills at an alarming rate, and dangerous chemicals such as lead are leaking into the environment and can be harmful to human health.

The fact that waste is simply disposed of also means a loss of recoverable resources, with the loss estimated at NOK 676 billion in 2022, according to the UN report.

Garbage piles grow five times faster than recycling piles. Less than a quarter of e-waste will be properly collected and recycled by 2022. Parts of the rest end up in the hands of informal waste workers, like Nguyen, in different parts of the world.

This is especially the case in Southeast Asian countries, according to the United Nations, where e-waste is not collected or recycled.

Hard work

Nguyen, 44, is one of three employees at the store. His long tenure in the industry has been well received by regular customers, including some other repair shops that rely on him to do tough jobs.

It is necessary to constantly keep up with new trends and technology, so he is constantly learning through friends and the Internet.

His work days are 11 hours long, and he earns just over 5,000 Norwegian kroner a month – about two and a half times the minimum wage in Vietnam's largest and most expensive city. It is hard work, and he has no health system or pension.

Nguyen says his health is good, but he's concerned about potentially dangerous chemicals in the electronic devices he takes apart without protective gear. He is also bothered by the high temperatures in Ho Chi Minh City, especially in the summer when the store feels like an oven.

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– Sitting here could be deadly. I just have to hold on. “I have to work to earn a living,” he says.

Tu Chi Vy cycles through the motorcycles he sells at his shop in Nhat Tao Market in Ho Chi Minh City.

Photo: Jay C. Hong/AP/NTB

Encourages cooperation

Unlike waste workers who work formal jobs, getting enough waste to make recycling cost-effective is no problem for Nguyen and others like him. They have an established network for sourcing discarded electronics.

We get used goods from anywhere. “Anyone who sells, I buy from them,” Nguyen says.

Jaram Bell of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) says restoration companies should try to work with people like Nguyen. It can ensure companies get more waste without destroying the livelihoods of self-employed workers.

It can also have other advantages, such as that those who work for themselves have fewer health risks, and that they do not pick the most valuable parts of the waste and then dispose of the rest.

Health risks

Refurbishment companies usually have permits to be able to dismantle and recycle electronic devices using machines. They also take many precautions to address the health risks of electronic waste, which may contain toxins.

For example, processes such as foil smelting to recover copper can expose people to the highly toxic chemical dioxin, which is linked to birth defects and cancer with significant exposure. Some types of electronic devices also contain mercury.

It is possible to extract many key metals from electronics, but only 1% of the demand for 17 of these metals is met through recycling, according to the UN report.

There are no figures on the amount of these minerals extracted at the site, Bell says.

– excellent

Collaboration between waste disposal companies and self-employed recyclers has been tried in some places.

And in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a company has built a co-working space where recyclers like Nguyen can dismantle e-waste, making it safer and cost-effective.

It also makes it easier for companies to purchase salvaged materials on a scale that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to do so.

Vietnam is one of the few countries in the region that has a legal framework for e-waste management. The goal is to collect and process 70% of e-waste by 2025, and authorities have tried to integrate those who recycle themselves into formal systems.

Nguyen says the partnership will be beneficial for workers like himself.

If we could formalize our work, it would be ideal, he says.

06.05.2024 at 05.48