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Incineration and hazardous informal recycling in Hanoi, Vietnam


At the end of 2018, Vietnam’s fast-growing capital Hanoi announced the construction of four new waste-to-energy plants, saying that converting trash into energy is more efficient than burying it and would also reduce environmental issues. This is expected to reduce waste volumes by 80 percent, whereas the remaining 20 percent still have to be buried. Three of the incinerators are planned to be installed by 2021 next to the city’s largest landfills in Nam Son and Xuan Son, where so-far over 6,000 tons of waste were discarded daily and constructions already started, and another one at a waste treatment center in the Chuong My district, where an investor was still awaited. [1][2][3]

The plant in Nam Son, in the Soc Son rural district of Hanoi, is developed by the Thien Y Company and Chinese investors of the Tianying Group. With a capacity of processing 4,000 tons of waste per day, it is planned to generate 75 MW of electricity per hour. [1][2][4] Another 2 MW waste-to-energy plant for toxic and industrial waste was already inaugurated in 2017 with Japanese aid [5][6][7]. The plants will form part of a waste treatment complex that also includes the existing landfill, where so far most of Hanoi’s waste was dumped. Opened in 1999, it will soon extend over an area of 157 hectares and recently received nearly 5,000 tons of waste per day - five times the amount of its official capacity. [1][2][8][9] At Xuan Son, where so far between 1,200 and 1,500 tons of waste were dumped daily, two incinerator projects were announced; one of them is already advancing. The 15.5 MW plant is developed by a joint venture between the T&T Group and the Hitachi Zosen Corporation and, according to 2020 plans, will process 1,000 tons of waste daily. [5][10] Previously, the city only had three smaller incinerators, together capable of processing 1,000 tons of waste per day [11].

Both Nam Son and the Xuan Son landfill were expected to be full by the end of 2020, while the implementation of waste treatment projects only advanced at a slow pace [1][2][3][9]. The municipal landfill operator Hanoi Urban Environment Company (Urenco) moreover announced South Korean and Taiwanese investments in ‘green’ landfill technology to extend the lifespans of the sites for five more years and reduce leakages, for example by establishing 20-meter-high walls and better leachate treatment and gas capturing systems [2][5][9].

Especially at Nam Son, contamination and bad smell from the landfill have caused controversies and residents protests. Since 2016, locals have been staging protests and repeatedly blocked garbage trucks from entering the landfill, demanding an end of pollution and compensation in order to be able to move away. In 2017, the relocation of three affected communes – Nam Son, Hong Ky, and Bac Son – was approved by authorities but the compensation for 1,100 families and farmers did not advance in the following. In July 2019, a new blockade lasted for four days and was only stopped after meetings with local authorities. [6][8][9][13] At the end of 2019, protests were resumed and caused the piling up of 200 tons of waste in Hanoi’s urban districts. Locals, including farmers with land in the area to be cleared, said that despite promises earlier in the year, most of them have not been relocated and received compensation and that they were suffering from strong stench from the site. The Soc Son district authorities moreover demanded Hanoi to reveal its plans for the upcoming landfill operations. [8][14][15]

The recent move towards incineration-technologies is presented as a viable solution to the city’s waste problems but is not fully uncontested. Vietnamese waste expert Luu Duc Cuong regards waste-to-energy as an immediate way to reduce waste volumes but notes that the mass burning of waste was not a sustainable long-term solution, neither economically nor environmentally [4]. Civil society organization such as the Global Alliances for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) have criticized the recent trend towards incineration across Vietnam, which is strongly driven by foreign investors (for example, the Chinese Tianying group in case of the Nam Son project), and pointed to the adverse impacts on recycling and health risks [16]. Critics among others point to the potential release of dioxins and toxic furans, especially when high temperatures for full combustion are not reached because of the common composition of waste. It would thus first require previous segregation. Better separation at source schemes is also demanded by environmentalists as a way to tackle the root causes of the growing waste problems. It is feared that waste-to-energy could discourage recycling – it would not only reduce the amount of waste accessible to informal recyclers but also give a wrong incentive to consumers and producers once the burning of waste is considered as a good thing. [1][17] While separation of domestic waste at source is required in the ‘National Strategy on Integrated Solid Waste Management to 2025’, the implementation has so far been weak and only come in pilot projects with international funding. Some attempts to establish separation at source schemes were for example made between 2006 and 2009 with funding of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency but were mostly not long-lasting as municipal costs for the separate waste collection were reportedly too high, and thus even separated waste often ended up at dumping grounds. [11][18][19]

In fact, the bulk of Hanoi’s recycling is done by a large informal sector, which has traditionally co-existed with municipal waste services provided by Urenco and 17 private companies responsible for waste collection and treatment. [19][20] A 2008 study estimated that approximately 22,500 informal waste collectors work across the nine urban districts of Hanoi [21], although according to official estimates the number is about 10,000 people. In addition, there is a high number of intermediaries and informal waste dealers. They recover up to 20 percent of all generated waste (most notably, plastics, paper, metals), significantly reducing the waste volumes with which the municipality has to deal. This, on the one hand, involves waste pickers, so-called ve chai. Between 800 and 1,000 of them collect alone at Nam Son landfill, where they mostly work between midnight and the early morning – after the peak hours of waste collection – to collect scrap and other items that can be sold. They officially have to register and wear safety clothing. They are exposed to high risks of accidents and health hazards but report to earn up to VND 150,000 ($US 7) per night. [11][21] Others collect in the streets, from waste transfer sites and refuse bins, and often move around with bicycles [11][18][20][22] Some informal collectors specialize in food waste, either for their own agricultural purposes or to sell the material to farmers [11]. In addition, there are thousands of itinerant buyers, so-called đồng nát, who collect recyclables of higher value, which also incentivizes households, restaurants, and hotels to separate them. Some informal recyclers also engage in a mix of waste picking and junk buying, depending on the circumstances. The collected waste is typically sold to one of about 800 informal junkyards. From there, the waste is usually sent to informal – and often illegal – recycling units in the periphery of Hanoi, where clusters of craft villages are specialized each in the recycling of particular material. [20][22]

Waste pickers typically earn between 20,000 and 30,000 VND ($US 0.85 – 1.30) per day, according to figures of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers [23], but between 60,000 and 90,000 VND according to a 2008 study (the difference is perhaps because the latter figures included informal itinerant buyers) [22]. In Hanoi, waste pickers tend to more and more become an activity of women who however earn significantly less than men. Mitchell (2008) in the mentioned study argues that informal recycling is increasingly gendered which has to do with socio-economic and cultural factors and Hanoi’s recent urban transition, increasing consumerism and new urban labor, goods and services, and property markets. Many average-earning men have recently moved to other jobs, for example in construction, which is also attributed to widely internalized perceptions of 'masculine work'. Men are also afforded a social authority of capitalizing on higher-valued waste, or in a stronger economic position to do so, dominating, for example, the more profitable segments in the informal recycling sector such as dealing with electronics. Much of the waste-picking is still done by rural migrants from the Red River Delta, who have traditionally come to the city to engage in short-term work during the farming off-season, but increasingly also move there permanently. [22]

Especially waste pickers are still confronted with an unfavorable public attitude and unsupportive public policies towards their activities, which mostly correspond to complete neglect. Although informal recycling is largely tolerated, there are no efforts to integrate it into the formal waste management system. Waste pickers are exposed to high risks and health hazards, but most do not have access to health insurance and social welfare. They face strong discrimination and social marginalization and are typically considered as poor, dirty, and lower class. [19][20] As outlined by Mitchell (2008 ), waste pickers also report to occasionally become expelled from urban centers and public spaces, especially during festivities and international events. They are confronted with indirect exclusion by the municipal waste collector Urenco, which completely omits contributions of informal recycling and thus also influences public policies. During a separation at the source pilot project in 2008, for instance, waste pickers were not included in the new collection scheme while municipal workers ended up collecting and informally selling substantial amounts of recyclable materials. [22]

The mentioned recycling villages are closely tied to the informal recycling networks of the city and are a distinct feature of Vietnam’s informal recycling sector [18][19][23]. One of the hot spots in the Red River Delta is the village of Minh Khai, which in 2018 was reported to process 650 tons of waste per day, including substantial amounts of imported international waste. It is reported that almost half of Vietnam’s imported waste is informally processed in such craft villages. About 20 percent of plastic is unusable in this process and irregularly dumped or burned, creating severe contamination. [24] However, when China’s import ban on waste in 2018 led to a further increase in waste volumes across Southeast Asia and craft villages in the Red River Delta started to extend their processing operations to 24 hours a day, the Vietnamese government cut the legal waste imports to one-tenth of the previous volumes. Plastic waste was moved further on to countries with fewer regulations such as Cambodia, Ghana, or Ethiopia, but the informal scrap business continued to flourish despite the tightened laws. [25]. Many of the about 1,000 local families have converted their yards into small informal waste workshops where plastic waste and other scrap is converted into pellets to produce bags and bottles. These businesses are also directly supplied by itinerant buyers and waste pickers, while garbage trucks that arrive, at all times of the day, have to pay a fee. [19][23][24][25][26] Informal recyclers are exposed to numerous toxic fumes and substances and suffer from respiratory illnesses, constant nausea, and headache. Wastewater goes directly to the canals, which are also full of garbage and scrap. [19][25][26] A women working in plastic sorting in Minh Khai states: “We’re really scared of the plastic fumes, and we don’t dare to drink the water from underground here. We don’t have money so we don’t have any choice but to work here.” [25].

Other villages in the Red River Delta rather specialize in paper, scrap metal, or lead recycling. Other informal recycling concerns specialized activities such as turning chicken carcasses into fertilizer, feathers into brooms, human hair into wigs, and so on. Such informal recycling businesses are mostly driven by economic values, which tend to fluctuate, while there unregulated and informal nature often comes with serious health risks and environmental problems such as air and groundwater pollution. For instance, lead poisoning was reported in 2015 in a battery-recycling hub of Dong Mai, affecting at least 200 children. In the same year, the illegal processing of hazardous medical waste (e.g. syringes and medical tubes) into products such as drinking straws and food packaging was revealed in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. In 2018, an explosion in an illegal scrap metal warehouse in the village of Quan Do killed two children. [18][19]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Incineration and hazardous informal recycling in Hanoi, Vietnam
State or province:Hanoi
Location of conflict:Nam Son, Xuan Son, Chuong My
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
E-waste and other waste import zones
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Manufacturing activities
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste
Recycled Metals
Industrial waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Four new waste-to-energy plants are planned to be built between 2020 and 2021. One will be located at the existing Nam Son Waste Treatment Complex (Soc Son District), two more in the Xuan Son Waste Treatment Zone (Ba Vi District), and another one in the Dong Ke Solid Waste Treatment Zone (Chuong My District), where an investor is still awaited. [1][2][3]

The 75 MW plant in Nam Son is expected to start its operations by 2021 and to process 4,000 tons of waste per day. It is developed by the Hanoi Thien Y Energy Environment Joint Stock Company, which is linked to the China Tianying Group, and comes with an investment of VND 7,000 billion (US$301 million). [1][2][4]

The Nam Son landfill complex will moreover receive a gas recovery system developed by the T&T Group and the municipal landfill operator Urenco, together with several South Korean waste companies – including Sudokwon Landfill Site Management Corporation and Samyoung Co – is the installing of a gas recovery system at Nam Son landfill complex. [5]

Already in 2017, a smaller waste-to-energy plant for toxic and industrial waste was inaugurated in the Nam Son waste treatment complex in Hanoi. It is designed to convert a daily 75 tons of waste into 2 MW of energy and received funding from Japan’s ‘New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization’ (NEDO) and technology of the Hitachi Zosen. [5][13]

At Xuan Son one of the plants with a capacity of 15.5 MW is developed by a Joint Venture between the T&T Group and the Hitachi Zosen Corporation and, according to 2020 plans, will process 1,000 tons of waste daily. [5][10]

Project area:157
Type of populationSemi-urban
Start of the conflict:2016
Company names or state enterprises:Hanoi Thien Y Energy Environment Joint Stock Company (Thien Y) from Vietnam - Develops Nam Son incinerator
T&T Group from Vietnam - Develops Xuan Son incinerator
Hitachi Zosen Corporation from Japan - Develops Xuan Son incinerator; developed industrial waste incinerator in Nam Son
Hanoi Urban Environment Company (Urenco) from Vietnam - Municipal waste collector; operates Nam Son and Xuan Son landfills
Relevant government actors:Hanoi People's Committee
Hanoi Department of Construction
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment
District Authorities
Government of Vietnam
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)
Global Alliance of Waste Pickers (Globalrec)
Ocean Conservancy

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
International ejos
Local ejos
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage)
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)


Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:While the formal waste management sector has so-far not engaged in any valorization of waste, Hanoi’s sophisticated network of informal recycling is believed to recover more than 1,000 tons of recyclable waste per day, and thus, ultimately links to big traders and industries. There has so far not been any policy to include waste pickers into formal recycling schemes or attempts to improve the precarious situation of most informal recyclers, especially women. At the same time, communities directly affected by the impacts of improper formal waste management continue to struggle, while waste imports and uncontrolled precarious recycling in Hanoi’s ‘plastic villages’ have tremendous environmental and health impacts.

In light of Hanoi’s recent economic boom and urban transition – which, as described by Mitchell (2008), also changed the social dynamics of informal recycling – also formal waste management policies have started to increasingly recognize the value of waste, framing it as a ‘problem’ that can be ‘minimized’ and at the same time ‘valorized’. Berceguel et al. (2017) hence note that the city’s waste management sector is currently at a turning point, at which either the work of traditional informal recyclers or new large-scale private actors could be strengthened [20]. It seems that the recently adopted policies have rather accentuated the private-sector, technology-driven approaches to burn waste at large scale, rather than improved ‘reduce, reuse and recycling’ measures and the position of waste pickers.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[15] GAIA (2018): ADB & Waste Incineration: Bankrolling Pollution, Blocking Solutions. November 2018.

[19] Bercegol, R., Cavé, J., Huyen, A. (2017): Waste Municipal Service and Informal Recycling Sector in Fast-Growing Asian Cities: Co-Existence, Opposition or Integration? In: Resources 2017, 6(4), 70.

[21] Mitchell, C. (2008): Altered landscapes, altered livelihoods: The shifting experience of informal waste collecting during Hanoi’s urban transformation. In: Geoforum, 39, pp. 2019-2029.

[9] Dinh, T. (2019): Taiwanese method mooted for raising capacity of Hanoi’s major landfills. VNExpress, 16.06.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[9] Dinh, T. (2019): Taiwanese method mooted for raising capacity of Hanoi’s major landfills. VN Express, 16.06.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[12] Duong, H. (2019): Hà Nội: Đường vào bãi rác Nam Sơn đã thông trở lại. Anninh Thudo, 05.07.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[13] Thanh, N. (2019): Workers rush to collect waste in Hanoi after third landfill protest ends. VN Express, 26.12.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[14] Chinh, G. (2019): Protestors block roads leading to Hanoi landfill, demand compensation. VN Express, 25.12.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[14] Chinh, G. (2019): Protestors block roads leading to Hanoi landfill, demand compensation. VNExpress, 25.12.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[17] Nguyen, N. (2017): Trash talk: Vietnam slowly sinking under mountains of waste. VNExpress, 29.08.2017. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[17] Nguyen, N. (2017): Trash talk: Vietnam slowly sinking under mountains of waste. VN Express, 29.08.2017. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[20] The Voice of Vietnam (2016): Earning a living at Hanoi landfill at night. 20.08.2016. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[22] Globalrec (n.d.): Law Report: Vietnam. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[23] Retamal, M., Dominish, E., Thinh, L., Nguyen, A., Sharpe, S. (2019): Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore. The Conversation, 29.01.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[24] McCormick, E., Murray, B., Fonbuena, C., Kijewski, L., Saraçoğlu, G., Fullerton, J., Gee, A., Simmonds, C. (2019): Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America's dirty secret. The Guardian, 17.06.2019. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

[25] VietnamNet (2018): The ‘billionaires’ waste recycling village is seriously polluted. 17.07.2018. (Online, last accessed: 30.03.2020)

Meta information

Contributor:EnvJustice Project (MS)
Last update12/05/2020
Conflict ID:5042



Constructions of the Nam Som plant should finish by the end of 2020

(Photo credit: Hai Hiep)

Waste sprting in one of Hanoi's 800 informal junkyards in 2018

(Photo credit: Nhac Nguyen)

So far, almost 5,000 tons of waste have been dumped. 4,000 of that should now become burned

(Source: VOA News - Reuters)

Waste pickers at the Nam Son landfill

(Photo credit: Zing,

Waste pickers with collected waste after the night shift

(Photo credit: Zing,

A waste picker at Nam Son Landfill

(Photo credit: Zing,

About 1,000 people work at Nam Son in night shifts

(Photo credit: Zing,

Locals affected by the landfill have repeatedly blocked garbage trucks from entering the site and demanded compensation

(Photo credit: Tran Thanh)

A waste picker in Hanoi downtown

(Photo credit: Chris Humphrey)

Hazardous breaking of batteries in one of Hanoi's craft villages

(Photo credit: Thanh Nien)

The craft village of Minh Khai informally processes up to 650 tons of waste per day