Not everyone in Minh Khai works with recyclables, but all are impacted by the industry that provides its residents’ income.
Away from the busy gate where Tuan and his drivers spend each day, a quiet side street leads toward the village’s central lake.
(The area once had many lakes, but most were filled in to create more space for development.) Between this street and the lake,
rests a communal farming plot.
This is where Nam Nguyen spends her afternoons, weeding and watering plants. The eighty year-old moves with a swift confidence as
she gathers fresh greens, one leaf at a time, into her conical bamboo hat. She’s planted a small row of banana trees and a fine,
leafy spinach that’s native to Vietnam. It’s a low-maintenance food source, Nam says. She simply throws down seeds and harvests them
ten days later.
Nam is a thoughtful gardener; she carries water to her plants each day from a well fed by the Bach Mai canal. The aqueduct,
which borders Minh Khai to the east, serves as an irrigation channel for the entire region.
It’s also filthy. Grey sludge floats on the surface of the water. Discarded plastic and styrofoam mingle with soaps, sewage and
household scraps. Greasy chickens pick at food concealed by half-submerged plastic bags. In July, Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural
Resources and Environment dispatched researchers to test the water in Minh Khai. The scientists collected samples from a dozen
places along the canal; all twelve contained pollutants above the national standard.
Each ton of plastic in Minh Khai requires between six and seven cubic meters of water to clean it – about the same volume of liquid
inside a concrete mixer. Every truckload of water used in the cleaning process eventually makes its way back to the Bach Mai canal.
It runs down streets, along gutters, and through pipes that empty into the aqueduct. During peak recycling season, the roads are so
full of water from cleaning plastic that residents commute in rain boots.
As a result, the drinking water in Minh Khai is what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency euphemistically refers to as
“high-strength” industrial run-off. A local newspaper, analyzing the ministry findings, reported that water in Minh Khai contains up
to seven times more biological and chemical materials than standard for Vietnam – making it non-potable according to virtually every
scale that exists.
“People here usually use bottled water to cook and drink,” says Thao Nguyen. She grew up in Minh Khai and now runs a mobile pharmacy,
serving as the village’s first source of health care. Thao’s aware of the dangers lurking in the canal, but says the use of bottled
water can only limit, not completely prevent exposure to toxic materials.
“When I wash vegetables, I still have to use well water,” she explains. “In the long term, it will affect our health.”
In the fourteen years she’s worked as a pharmacist, Thao has noticed an increase in the number of recycling-related ailments.
Cancer diagnoses are on the rise, she says, and the volume of small-scale injuries has risen with a growing industry and population.
Her most requested medications are currently antibiotics, used to treat lung infections, and topical skin cream for rashes.
But the dangers extend beyond those who transport or work directly with waste products. For the residents of Minh Khai, the problem
is one of proximity; even if you protect yourself from the process, you cannot protect yourself from all of its byproducts.
Workers wear masks to protect themselves from pollutants during the day, but not at night when they sleep. Toxins in the air,
meanwhile, remain constant.
“So many people suffer from allergies,” Thao says. “The smoke released when making nylon and plastic is extremely polluted.”
The air in Minh Khai, government officials have concluded, contains massive amounts of NH4+, also known as “atmospheric ammonia.”
As a result of the recycling process, which requires the melting and burning of plastics, workers have been releasing NH4+ and other
highly toxic chemicals – or dioxins – into the atmosphere for nearly half a century. Between the air and the water, residents of
Minh Khai are living in a semi-permanent state of exposure to the world’s worst toxins.
Back in her garden, Nam holds a bundle of greens above soil embedded with plastic chips. She jokingly describes her process as “organic.”
The greens are tasty and fresh, she says: “No chemical use.”
It’s true that Nam hasn’t sprayed pesticides on her crop. Just the same, toxins seep from her water into the vegetables,
which go on to feed her family – as well as fish and chickens along the banks of the Bach Mai canal. Those chemicals build
up in the meat, rice, and produce that fill plates all over town.
According to the World Health Organization, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. Once they enter the body, they’re
absorbed by fat tissue and stored. The higher an animal is on that chain, the higher the concentration of dioxins. With a half-life
of 7 to 11 years, it’s likely that every person in Minh Khai now carries the legacy of recycling on a cellular level.