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Dirty Business

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

Directed by YUTAO CHEN





Additional reporting by SUSIE NEILSON

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. 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.


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. Behind her, a young man wearing coveralls and a T-shirt feeds handfuls of plastic 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.

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