Informal workers play important role in EPR and global plastics treaty implementation in Vietnam[1]
In order to develop the economy while minimizing the adverse impacts on the environment, especially reducing the solid waste amount discharged into the environment through new policy solutions, the 2020 Law on Environment Protection has been added with new regulations on circular economy (Article 142) and the waste collection, recycling and treatment responsibilities of producers and importers (Articles 54 and 55).

Nguyen Sy Linh, Ph.D.

Director of the Climate Change and Global Issues Department, Resources and Environment Policy Strategy Institute

Members of the Women’s Union of Hung Loc commune, Hau Loc district, Thanh Hoa province, gather plastic wastes__Photo: Khieu Tu/VNA

Economic growth is usually associated with waste increase, especially in developing countries where production activities largely rely on the use of natural resources and labor. Over the past two decades, Vietnam is among countries with fast economic growth rates, which sees a quick increase in the amount of generated waste, from about 4.4 million tons of urban solid wastes collected and buried to 11.9 million tons in 2020. In order to develop the economy while minimizing the adverse impacts on the environment, especially reducing the solid waste amount discharged into the environment through new policy solutions, the 2020 Law on Environment Protection has been added with new regulations on circular economy (Article 142) and the waste collection, recycling and treatment responsibilities of producers and importers (Articles 54 and 55). Also known as the extended producer responsibility (EPR), this new mechanism may affect waste collection, sorting and treatment activities in Vietnam when it is put into practice. Currently, this work is undertaken partly by the informal labor force or free laborers and small-scale establishments. Therefore, the EPR implementation will impact the participation of the informal labor force.

Important role of informal waste workers in the collection, transportation and treatment of discarded materials

According to the Circulate Initiative (2023), about 60 percent of the plastic waste volume in the world has been collected and recycled by 20 million informal waste workers. In Vietnam, informal waste workers, of whom 90 percent are women, have helped gather more than 30 percent of recyclable plastic wastes, thus easing the financial burden for formal collection units and reducing state budget expenditures on waste collection and treatment. In order to form the plastic circular economy and materialize the national plans, the assurance of more opportunities and support for informal workers to improve their livelihood and shift to the formal waste management system is very necessary.

According to unofficial statistical data, the number of informal waste workers in Vietnam is approximately three million, mostly women. The Environment and Development Action in the Third World (Enda Vietnam) reports that in Ho Chi Minh City the informal labor force or junk dealers have collected about 65-70 percent of domestic wastes from individual or business households in narrow alleys. Addressing the March 8, 2024 consultative meeting in Hoi An city, Quang Nam province, on “The role of the informal forces in the management of solid wastes and EPR implementation” UNDP Resident Representative in Vietnam Ramla Khalidi stressed: “The informal sector comprising waste collectors, junk dealers, discarded material shops and other labor groups must become part of any solution”.

In face of the current global plastic waste pollution with serious consequences, affecting the environment and community health, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) proposed nations join in the negotiation on a legally-binding document to tackle the global plastic pollution under Resolution No. 5/14 adopted at the 5th UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi. Fully aware of the important role of the informal labor force, on April 23 in Ottawa, Canada, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee at its fourth session (INC-4) on plastic wastes incorporated the subject related to the role of informal waste workers into its agenda. Realities show that the goals or commitments in the global treaty on plastics would be hardly materialized if without the involvement of about 20 million informal laborers worldwide.

A general report on informal laborers, published by the General Office of Statistics in 2022, revealed that by 2021 Vietnam had 33.6 million informal laborers, accounting for 68.5 percent of the total labor force. Of these 33.6 million informal laborers, about 3 million did jobs related to waste collection, transportation and treatment. Therefore, the informal labor force constitutes an important link in the waste value chain and can help producers and importers attain the recycling rates under the EPR mechanism. In order to protect the national rights and interests and raise the national capability to prevent and combat the ocean plastic pollution, Vietnam has proactively prepared and participated in the formation of the global agreement on ocean plastic pollution under the light of the Party’s and the State’s guidelines and orientations on sustainable development of marine economy, taking the lead in the region on settlement of ocean plastic pollution; contributing to the formation and successful realization of the circular economic model and effective plastic management. As Vietnam is a developing country with a population of over 100 million and an increasing volume of wastes, especially plastic wastes, the demand for laborers engaged in waste collection, transportation and recycling will be higher given the context of implementing the EPR regulations in the 2020 Environment Protection Law, the national action plan on management of ocean plastic wastes towards 2030 (the Prime Minister’s Decision 1746/QD-TTg) as well as the prospective global treaty on plastics.

So, the informal labor forces play an important role in the system of collection, transportation and treatment of wastes in general and plastic wastes in particular in Vietnam, especially in materializing the goal of reducing the volume of to be-buried wastes, increasing the recycling rate and prolonging the products’ life span. Hence, it is necessary to identify the challenges and difficulties these forces may confront in the process of enforcing the EPR mechanism in Vietnam. Appropriate solutions should be worked out to promote the informal labor forces participation in supporting the producers to achieve the recycling rate under the EPR mechanism and contribute to the development of circular economy.

Challenges confronted by informal waste workers upon EPR implementation

One of the challenges confronted by the informal labor forces when the EPR regulations are enforced is that the EPR fund can only cover the collection and recovery of products from enterprises and organizations with clear legal person status. Meanwhile, the free labor force is not connected with any particular enterprises and organizations.

EPR regulations are usually attached to goods labels of big producers and importers, which often have their product recovery and treatment activities carried out through service associations or enterprises rather than through the informal labor forces. Meanwhile, these associations and enterprises have difficulties in employing free workers due to professional qualification and working time requirements. So, the informal labor forces can hardly become formal for participating in the implementation of EPR regulations in the coming period.

Besides, the collection of solid wastes by informal workers concentrates on discarded materials (valuable wastes) while the EPR regulations are mandatory for all kinds of used products, including packages of no value. This means that if without the connection between operation models, the EPR regulations cannot be fully enforced.

Proposed solutions to promote informal waste workers’ involvement in EPR implementation

In order to promote the participation of the informal labor forces in the collection, transportation and treatment of discarded materials to minimize to-be-buried solid waste volume and to implement the EPR mechanism in Vietnam and the global plastics treaty, the following solutions should be simultaneously applied:

First, surveys on informal workers participating in the discarded material value chain nationwide, especially in big cities, should be conducted and a national database thereon be established in order to design capacity-building programs and appropriate support mechanisms and policies for the right subjects.

Second, the national statistical indexes should dwell on informal labor forces, including establishment owners, free laborers; salaried workers without compulsory social insurance and unpaid household laborers in order to see the change of the informal labor structure over time upon the EPR implementation.

Third, in order to involve informal waste workers in implementing the EPR mechanism, thus creating jobs for them while ensuring the criteria for waste collection and treatment, it is necessary to broaden the eligible beneficiaries of the EPR support fund, especially waste processing and treatment facilities and plastic waste collectors.

Fourth, a consumption market for products made from recycled materials with prescribed rates should be established so as to boost recycling activities, creating sustainable sources of livelihood for people involved in waste value chains, especially for plastic wastes.

Fifth, various mass organizations (such as women’s union, famers’ associations or other professional associations, etc.) should represent the informal labor forces involved in the waste value chain at different levels in elevating their voices and role in reducing the amount of to-be-buried wastes, particularly plastic wastes, as well as recognizing their contributions to attaining the goal of building the circular economy in Vietnam.-

[1] The original version of this article is published on Tai nguyen va Moi truong magazine, issue No. 3 of 2024.

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