Plastic recyclers in Minh Khai, Vietnam wrestle with the blessings and curses of an empire built on our trash.

By Francesca Fenzi and Yutao Chen
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Most of us don’t think much about recycling. We rinse our yogurt containers, crush our milk cartons, and break down our boxes. We pause in front of public waste bins, puzzling over how to classify our single-use forks or coffee cups. But once our trash hits the curb in a blue or a brown or a green bin, we forget about it. We don’t think about where the container that held our take-out pho goes next.

Plastic has an estimated lifespan of more than 450 years, which means that every piece of it ever made still exists, in some form, today. If it isn’t buried in a landfill or floating in the ocean, your discarded plastic is likely circulating the globe through a system of trade that transforms it from product, to waste, to commodity, and back to product again. The take-out container thrown away in Oakland, California could wind up closer to where its cuisine originated than where it was consumed.

That container might enter a bin, be picked up at the curb, and taken to a materials recycling facility. There, it would be sorted and grouped with other plastics, before getting rolled into a massive bale. This bale would be placed on a pallet, driven to the Port of Oakland, and packed onto a ship – bound for its destination across the Pacific.

Until recently, that destination was likely to be somewhere in East Asia. California sent over a million tons of plastic to China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam in 2017. But the international recycling landscape is rapidly changing – which could be a problem for people on both sides of the globe.

You smell Minh Khai before you can see it. Just thirty kilometers south of Hanoi, Vietnam, the landscape has shifted from urban bustle to an industrial hybrid. Rice paddies give way to factories towering over the narrow streets, and the scent of burning plastic seeps through even closed car windows.

Here you can find every type of plastic imaginable – so long as it’s flimsy. Multi-colored scraps, ranging in texture from single-use grocery bags to woven nylon tarps, line the streets and loom over pedestrians. At first glance, the entire town resembles a landfill. Dirt roads cut through piled plastic like highways might cut through a mountain side. Dogs and children balance on towers of trash, which look like bounce castles built from bubble-wrap. Horns blare. Women pedal their bicycles between vehicles belching exhaust.

On closer examination, there’s a structure to the apparent chaos. Each pile of waste is governed by a unique set of rules, sorted according to its color, texture, or melting point; the flame it creates when burned; whether it sinks or floats in water. This isn’t garbage: It’s merchandise on its way to be sold.

In the shadow of one scrap pile, Phuong Nguyen is sifting through a fresh bundle of plastic. Her floral-patterned head scarf bobs as she evaluates the material in front of her, sorting it to her left and right. One clear plastic sheet for the “good” side, two clotting brown strips for the “bad.” Behind her, a young man wearing coveralls and a T-shirt feeds handfuls of plastic from the “good” pile into a machine that resembles a wood-chipper.

From there, the mutilated plastic runs through a channel of steaming water into a sieve where it is fed, once again by hand, into a melting furnace. The furnace is fitted with a machine that might best be compared to a pasta-maker, which produces spaghetti-like strands of plastic on their way to be cut up into orzo-sized chunks – a process the workers have dubbed “pelletizing.” Those pellets can now be sold, then melted again, and refashioned into fresh plastic products.

From her position at the start of this cycle, Phuong points toward a pile of cast-aside scraps. All these have to be thrown away, she says. They’re unusable, junk mixed in with the raw recyclables. And, sometimes, they’re hazardous. It’s not unusual for Phuong to handle plastics coated with chemicals – like battery acid – that irritate her skin. She’s started wearing gloves and long-sleeve shirts for that reason.

“You should try to clean up the plastic so it’s not polluted. Don’t just export all of it to Vietnam,” she says, jabbing a pair of cutting shears into the air for punctuation.

The “you” might be translated here as “Americans.” Or, more generally, as “the West.” But what Phuong means unequivocally is: anyone sending their undesirable plastic waste to her.

California's Recyclable Plastic Exports by Region (2007-2018)

California's Recyclable Plastic Exports by Region (2018)


There’s a hierarchy to the recycling world; not all plastic is created equal. Items are labeled according to their chemical makeup, stamped with numbers inside a triangle. Each number represents a different recipe of plastic, involving ingredients with names like polyvinyl chloride and acrylonitrile butadiene. Some ingredients are easier to recycle, and to pronounce, than others.

The thinnest and least valuable plastics are low-density polyethylenes, used in cling-wrap and grocery bags. They’re cheap to produce and hard to reuse. From a recycler’s perspective, they’re fragile, easily contaminated with food or chemicals, and time-consuming to clean – making it harder to turn a profit.

They’re also the plastics that feed Minh Khai. In 2008, the last year such things were tracked in the village, roughly 300 households participated in the plastics recycling trade. Together, they produced about 5,000 tons of plastic product annually. If you placed all of those pellets on a scale, it would be enough to balance the weight of 1,000 Asian elephants. In the past decade, that volume has only increased.

The story of Minh Khai is one of boom, and perhaps, bust. Global recycling has brought economic benefits to the community, but also environmental destruction and illness. The village was listed as one of Vietnam’s worst polluters by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Yet business owners have built legacies from which to support their children and grandchildren. Trash-pickers who began collecting waste 40 years ago now make salaries far greater than the national average for Vietnam.

Complicating things further: A halt – temporarily, at least – in the supply chain that has both fed and poisoned Minh Khai. Now, residents must wrestle with the blessings and curses of an empire built on trash, even as their way of life is threatened by the industry that inspired it.

An Evolving Ecology

When it comes to change in Minh Khai, Tuan Dinh has had a front row seat. The forty year-old is warm and effusive. He wears a bright red scarf over his standard green motorcycle jacket, and gestures with a perpetually lit cigarette as he speaks.

“This career has been a tradition,” Tuan says. “I am the next generation.”

Like many young men in the village, Tuan used to shred plastic as part of the “pelletizing” process. Recently, he’s taken on a new role. He now runs a transportation company that moves goods all over town – from back of trucks arriving with bundled scrap, to the businesses that sort, then melt and pelletize the plastic, to the factories that use those pellets to spin nylon strands, or print new plastic bags.

It’s been a slow day for Tuan and his cargo drivers, whom he calls “the brothers.” They congregate between the street and his office – a three-walled shed beside the entrance to Minh Khai. On the ground, a wooden shipping pallet burns, helped along by candy wrappers and scraps of paper fed to it by the half-dozen young men waiting for their next assignment. They work on commision, relying on the steady demand throughout Minh Khai for laborers who can heft bundles of plastic into and out of vehicles.

Tuan’s transportation business is an example of what makes Minh Khai unique. The village isn’t simply home to factories, but everything connected to the recycling process. When plastic enters the village, it arrives in raw bales. From there it might go to one business to be sorted, another to be cleaned and made into pellets, and yet another to be fashioned into fresh plastic bags.

Entrepreneurs like Tuan have monetized every aspect of this cycle. He moves material from one stage of the process to the next. One of his neighbors sells containers that other businesses use to corral their pellets. A woman across town cooks and delivers the per diem meals that business owners provide to workers on the factory floor.

“It’s almost like an ecology, because they fill in the gaps,” says Michael DiGregorio, country representative for The Asia Foundation, a U.S.-based development organization.

Michael became fascinated by Vietnam’s craft villages, including Minh Khai, in the 1990s. (The Vietnamese term is làng nghề, which translates more accurately to “occupational village”; it refers to communities that specialize in a single trade or industry.) The suburbs of Hanoi comprise dozens of these villages. Some are over one thousand years old, producing handicrafts like silk or ceramics.

Others, like Minh Khai, have used distinctly 20th century means to build their names – in fact, entire capsule economies.

In the 1950s, Minh Khai was a farming town. Locals called it làng khoai – the potato village – for the root vegetable, khoai, that served as the region’s economic foundation. Once the Vietnam War began, however, the able-bodied young men of Minh Khai were called to fight. The potato village was left to its women.

“Almost every craft village starts with some kind of clever person,” says DiGregorio. “The plastic recycling village, it really fits the mold.”

In Minh Khai’s case, that clever person was a widow who, during the war, collected her neighbors’ garbage. She filtered trash for salvageable items and sold them for a profit. What she couldn’t sell, she saved, and soon her home was filled with hoarded scrap. When the woman’s son returned from fighting in southern Vietnam, he took one look at his mother’s bottle caps and plastic bags and set off for the capital, determined to find a plastic manufacturer in Hanoi who would buy them. He did, and Minh Khai’s recycling industry began in earnest.

The widow and her son quickly discovered what others in Asia had already learned – that oil prices in the 1980s were at an all-time high, and plastic was cheaper to recycle than it was to create. Meanwhile, countries like the United States, which had grown increasingly dependent on plastic for packaging goods, had plenty of scrap they were happy to ship elsewhere.

The pair soon enlisted friends to help with their growing business. Neighbors caught wind of the lucrative idea, and came up with their own complementary business plans. More and more people were drawn to the allure of plastic, and an entire chain of interdependent businesses developed in Minh Khai.

“It was really out of necessity that people discovered this source of income,” says DiGregorio. “From necessity everything else developed.”

In the transportation business, at least, necessity leads to commissions. Back at Tuan’s cargo-hauling office, the wait is over. Two women wearing protective face masks and gloves appear beside his idle transporters. After a brief exchange, four of the young men spring into action. They pair off, speeding away on motorbikes, two per seat, to assist at the recently-offered job site.

A Costly Business

Across town, Cam Le is unloading a fresh delivery of her own. She’s a boisterous woman, with a gravelly voice and a laugh that starts in her belly. Introducing herself as “Lady Orange” (a play on words that combines the phonetics of her surname with the English translation of cam, or “oranges”), she explains that she’s been in the recycling business for over 40 years.

Cam started collecting plastic from neighboring provinces when she was 20 years old; she jokes that she became a business owner before she became a bride. Now she, her husband, and their four sons run a collection of businesses that incorporate every stage of the process – from gathering and melting to pelletizing and printing new products from recovered plastic.

“Before, we literally didn’t have a place to live,” she says. “And now everyone has a big house, car, or motorcycle.”

Indeed, between mounds of debris, the streets of Minh Khai reveal unexpected flashes of wealth. Sleek SUVs navigate the narrow alleys, flashing logos for Lexus, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. Near the town’s open-air market, an arcade houses a dozen flat screen monitors paired with the latest gaming consoles. Beside the archway that marks an entrance to Minh Khai, a new four-story home is under construction.

“This business has saved a lot of people from poverty,” says Cam. She estimates that she and her husband make what amounts to about $1500 U.S. dollars in revenue per month – ten times the average salary in Hanoi.

In Vietnam, she says, a person’s wealth does not belong to them. It belongs to their descendants. Outside of food and medical expenses, Cam’s money goes toward her childrens’ and grandchildrens’ futures. The sixty-seven year old owns thirty pieces of land, all purchased with her plastics fortune, and plans to pass these on to her kids.

“I don’t have much to offer them,” she says. “A house, a piece of land will do.”

But this land, like the rest of her children’s inheritance, comes with a catch. In order to run the business that has helped Cam’s family to flourish, they must remain within the polluted confines of Minh Khai. Four or five years ago, Cam says she and her husband lived in a spacious home outside the village. They worked in Minh Khai all day, and returned to the suburbs of Hanoi at night.

Then, one night, a group of vandals snuck into her warehouse and burned it to the ground. Thirty tons of plastic, gone in a single evening.

“I couldn’t save anything,” she says. “Just one flash of fire, then everything was done.”

Cam and her husband moved back to Minh Khai and rebuilt their business. Now, they sleep above the machines that, by day, melt plastics from all around the world.

Early last year, Vietnam found itself at the center of an international recycling crisis. Low-grade plastic can be valuable, depending on how efficiently, and cheaply, it can be broken down. Things that slow down efficiency and increase cost: safety regulations and environmental standards.

For decades, low-grade plastics from the United States went to China and other countries, like Vietnam, with relaxed protections for both workers and the environment. The plastic quality was crummy to begin with, but it was also being poorly sorted as facilities in the U.S. rushed to process volumes of waste that would make their recycling businesses profitable. Decomposing food mingled with plastic bottles and bags in shipping containers bound for the East.

On the other side of an ocean, the countries that received scrap plastic were experiencing problems of their own. Not all of the plastic arriving on Asia’s shores was making it to recycling facilities. A study produced by the University of Georgia in 2015 estimated that 78 percent of countries receiving U.S. recyclables were mismanaging the materials. Plastic was winding up in landfills, on the side of highways, in the oceans.

The flood of junk to Asia had gotten so bad, that in 2017 China announced plans to remove itself from the global recycling equation altogether. Emphasizing the “dirty” and “potentially hazardous” material coming in – and downplaying the lack of infrastructure in place to process it once it arrived – the country stopped accepting scrap recyclables entirely. The world’s plastic had to rapidly find a new destination.

Six months after China initiated its scrap ban, a policy dubbed “National Sword” or “Green Sword” by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, nearly half of all American plastic exports shifted to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. And as the flow of foreign plastic into Vietnam increased, the problems multiplied.

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.

Tuan Dinh’s favorite meal is a simple one: Rice, soup, meat and fish. The cargo hauler prefers Minh Khai’s traditional fare to more elaborate, and expensive, specialties available in Hanoi. He talks about food in the same way he talks about his chosen career – with blunt pragmatism.

“I am well aware that this job is toxic,” Tuan says. He seems to think of the health hazards in Minh Khai as necessary business expenses. In order to succeed in the short term, he says: “Obviously, I have to accept the risk.”

This is a sentiment echoed by many in Minh Khai, and elsewhere in Vietnam. In recent years, laborers have flocked from neighboring provinces to find work in the growing recycling village.

One machinist says he moved from Son La province, a 9-hour drive to the west, after leaving his job at a Chinese-owned plastics factory. He’s grateful for this new position, because it allows for breaks – a necessity after being diagnosed with first-stage lung cancer last year. When asked whether this diagnosis makes him think differently about his current work, however, the man merely shakes his head. As another machinist puts it: “I will worry about the risks later. Now I have to work.”

When it comes to pollution, Michael DiGregorio says the root of Minh Khai’s problem is a regulation enforcement issue. “On the one hand, these are remarkable places where you can see market coordination at the level of the household,” he says. In the self-monikered Socialist Republic of Vietnam, craft villages serve as potent reminders of capitalist principles. Everything in Minh Khai – from the interwoven tapestry of businesses, to environmental pollution – is motivated by cost structure.

When it comes to things outside of a market mechanism, however: “Things go awry.” Michael says coordinating an end to, or even reduction in, pollution has proven challenging in Minh Khai. He points to this parable as an example of how market forces work against efforts to clean up the village:

“Let’s just say everybody is going to put temperature control heaters on their extruders, and ventilators on the roofs, to limit the amount of pollution that’s caused through the melting of plastics… Now everybody has to pay that extra amount of money for electricity, for equipment and other things. And then somebody in the village says ‘Screw that, I’m not going to do that.’ Right? Now he’s producing at a lower cost.”

This “free rider,” as Michael calls him, has managed to avoid expenses his neighbors paid when they bought new equipment – and costs they continue to pay keeping that equipment running. The man’s neighbors may be minimizing health impacts for the community overall, but it’s hurting their bottom line. In a place like Minh Khai, where the industry hinges on cheap production of low-value material, slight changes to a business’ cost structure can be devastating.

“Unless everybody agrees to do it and it's enforced, then the family that is not paying that fee has an advantage over others,” Michael says.

While national standards already exist to check pollution in Vietnam, the issue of enforcement remains a sticking point. The challenges are numerous: Environmental laws are written in language that’s difficult for the public to understand, while cumbersome procedures and low penalty fees make it hard for authorities to hold violators accountable.

As one legal consultant informed the Ministry of Justice in 2007: “Even though the government claims that environmental protection is an important concern, when conflicts between economic and environmental benefits arise, economic growth is still prioritized.”

An Uncertain Future

The conflict between Vietnam’s commercial and environmental priorities came to a head last fall, according to Tuan Nguyen, who reports on economics and trade for Tien Phong, one of Vietnam’s largest newspapers. Inundated with plastics in the wake of China’s “National Sword” policy, government officials were at a loss.

“There were thousands of scrap containers backlogged in Vietnam’s ports,” he says. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment was quickly ordered to investigate the problem, and to “prevent Vietnam from becoming the world’s landfill.”

Plastics that had previously flowed into China and Hong Kong were now arriving on Vietnam’s shores. (The state of California sent more than twice as many tons of plastic waste to Vietnam in 2018 as it did the previous year.) In an attempt to stem the tide of unwanted recyclables, ministry bureaucrats proposed the obvious solution: a ban to mirror “National Sword.”

Countries all over Asia followed suit. Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan – four of the largest importers of California’s plastic scrap – slammed their doors on international waste. For the first time in decades, the flow of recyclables across the Pacific ground to a crawl.

In the United States, these bans kicked off a flurry of media coverage. Throughout the spring of 2019, national news outlets called attention to the practice of outsourcing recyclables. (Sometimes, raising more questions than answers. “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right?” one New York Times headline queried. Another: “As China Rejects Our Waste, What To Do?”)

David Biderman is the executive director of SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America. He says that “National Sword,” and copycat bans throughout Asia, have certainly had an impact at home. In the United States, recycling facilities have “had to address the contamination issue.” With a diminished tolerance for poorly sorted waste, materials recycling facilities have begun slowing down conveyor belts, hiring more people, and buying new equipment.

“Recycling isn’t collapsing,” he says. “It’s adjusting to a national economic disruption. People are seeing that if this material isn’t moving to China, it needs to be processed somewhere.”

But where, exactly, should our trash go? One solution is to improve the United State’s domestic infrastructure, which experts say lags behind some countries now spurning our scrap, and break down more of the material ourselves. Another option, according to David Biderman, is to continue exporting waste – ideally, with better quality standards – to countries that will take it.

What remains less clear is what will happen in places like Minh Khai, which have embraced and evolved around a commodity that, for decades, no one else wanted.

Minh Khai’s future is as murky as the water in its last and only lake. There were once dozens of ponds and estuaries near the village, but most were filled in to satisfy a growing demand for factory real estate. This opaque green pool is all that remains of the area’s once lush wetlands.

“Elders like me don’t have many things to do at home, so we usually come here to play,” says Huan Dinh, sitting on a park bench near the water. Huan’s now retired, after nearly 50 years in the recycling business. He and his mother, the industrious widow who first began collecting trash in Minh Khai, started an industrialization process that led the village to its fragile perch in the global recycling chain.

Behind Huan, a group of men – all former plastics workers – are loudly observing a chess match. They comment and cheer openly, egging the competitors on as if it were a boxing match, not a game of strategy. One of the spectators, Hanh Nguyen, loses interest in the game and drifts toward the lake; he’s looking for fish. Hanh raises Tilapia and a breed of ceremonial goldfish, which he admits are more for aesthetic than economic purposes.

“In the morning they will swim up [to the surface],” he says. “It’s stunning.”

Hanh became the unofficial fish caretaker of Minh Khai when age and health finally drove him from his recycling business. Now, his kids manage the work. Asked whether he enjoys this second career, Hanh grins: “Is there anyone who wouldn’t? Fish are the source of life.”

But introducing life to the village’s polluted waterways has not been an easy task. Hanh himself had to clean the lake before seeding it, and even now the Tilapia are for “looks” not for eating. After all, they’re cleaning the lake too – by digesting contaminants that float in its murky waters.

Retirement has given both Hanh and Huan time to reflect on what they hope for the future. In Hanh’s case, that includes a lake filled with fish. For Huan, the desire for health and prosperity extends to humans as well. His children, now grown, wanted to follow in his footsteps and enter the plastics trade.

“I told them this career was good for nothing,” Huan says. He encouraged his children and grandchildren to pursue jobs in Hanoi, instead. Those jobs are adequate, he explains; his kids now make the equivalent of $260 per month. It’s a fraction of what they would make in Minh Khai, but the work comes with fewer risks.

“They don’t have to collect trash,” he says. “That’s enough.”

The effects of global policy change can already be felt in Minh Khai. On the street where Cam Le and her family continue to run their plastics business, some have been forced to close their shops. One man and his wife, after only four months in the recycling trade, are selling their equipment at a loss and moving to another province. They hope to start over, with a new career raising flowers.

For now, established business owners like Cam seem to have enough domestic plastic sources to sustain them. But Minh Khai’s boomtown days may be reaching an end – leaving residents to deal with the consequences. Short of relocation, there are few alternatives for business owners who can’t make it in the recycling trade.

Michael DiGregorio compares the dearth of international plastics today to the Asian Financial crisis of the 1990s. At that time, threatened by a shrinking supply chain, recyclers in Minh Khai retreated back into their agricultural specialty of farming khoai. But it’s unlikely that business owners in Minh Khai could do the same today, he says. Between the landscape alterations and chemical by-products, agriculture is no longer a possibility for workers in the village.

“Look,” says Tuan Dinh, gesturing with his cigarette to the street and its long row of warehouses. “There is no more land to farm. If I don’t do this recycling job, I don’t know how to make money.”

For his part, Tuan supports the scrap ban. He hopes that, rather than starving the industry that feeds his community, the policy will encourage other countries to improve the recycling process at home – making his work healthier and more sustainable.

“I think we have to make it clear that if Europe and Africa, America and Asia cannot recycle their trash and [instead] export it to Vietnam, we will become an international landfill,” he says.

In some respects, the residents of Minh Khai have become captives of their own success. The same trade that provides Cam’s descendents with property is what prevents them from leaving the village. The industry that pays for Tuan’s meals also poisons them. Huan and Hanh are responsible for both founding Minh Khai’s dominant profession, and making reparations for it.

“It’s very easy, from a perspective of living in California, to look and say this is really terrible, oppressive, dirty business,” says Michael DiGregorio. But: “People earn their living on it.”

On the highway leading out of Minh Khai, wrought-iron fences separate state-owned manufacturing plants from the family businesses nearby. The tips of one fence have been gilded with paint. Someone has taken precautions against smoke and particulates in the air, which threaten to tarnish the gold detailing.

Each delicate point has been wrapped in plastic.

Written by Francesca Fenzi
Video by Yutao Chen
Photographs by Yutao Chen
Web Design by Lucio Villa and Yutao Chen
Additional reporting by Susie Neilson
Translation by Diep Pham, Diep Nguyen and Alexandre Bui

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