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Buried in garbage

As Hanoi's waste disposal system approaches capacity, experts urge a move away from landfills

The Nam Son Dump in Hanoi's Soc Son District. Experts warn the city will have no place to dump its garbage by 2012, if new landfills are not constructed.

Hanoi's garbage men may have nowhere to go next year.

The capital's dumps are filling to capacity fast. Current efforts to expand the city's waste disposal options have proven costly, sluggish and unpopular among residents and experts alike.

In the meantime, there appears to be hope in the composting of organic waste.

"Nam Son, the city's largest dump, is estimated to be full to capacity by 2012. Other small dumps will be unable to share the load," said Nguyen Van Hoa, general director of Hanoi Urban Environment Company - the firm tasked with overseeing waste management for the city of 6.5 million people.

Every day, Hanoi produces about 6,000 tons of garbage, of which 5,500 tons are sent to Nam Son Dump, an area of more than 83 hectares (205 acres) in the northern outskirts of Soc Son District.

According to Cao Xuan Thin, deputy director of Nam Son Dump, the site opened in 2000 and was expected to serve as the city's major dump site for the next 25 to 30 years.

But the city designed the site to take in an average of 3,500 tons of rubbish per day. Thin expects the dump will fill to capacity long ahead of schedule.

"The dump may have to close, by the end of this year, if they do not expand it," he said.

Thin added that only 8.4 hectares (20.7 acres)"”or around 10 percent of the total site"”is available for garbage disposal.

"Seven of the nine sectors here are already full. At one of the other two [open sectors], the garbage pile has risen to 35 meters (115 feet) and will be full at 39 meters (128 feet)," he said.

Hai, a garbage truck driver, said that an increasing number of trucks heading to and from the site (carrying heavier loads) have caused backups of late.

"It's hard to believe that you could get stuck in a gridlock on the outskirts of Hanoi, so far from downtown, but that's what happening," he said.

Crawling toward sustainability

In 2009, Hanoi authorities proposed several solutions to the garbage problem.

Plans are in place, on paper at least, to expand Nam Son and Xuan Son Dump (in Son Tay Town).

Improvements to the city's waste treatment infrastructure are underway, but some argue the city needs to completely rethink its approach to garbage.

"We rely too heavily on landfills -they account for up to 90 percent of waste treatment in Hanoi," said Hoa of the Hanoi Urban Environment Company, adding the city should begin separating and composting organic waste as soon as possible.

"The supply of organic garbage is low," he said. "It mostly comes from markets and a pilot project sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) - which separates organic garbage at the source."

The US$3-million project, launched in 2008, has since collected 25,000 tons of organic garbage and produced 10,000 tons of compost. According to JICA, Hanoi could save up to VND4 billion ($191,341) per month if it promotes the project further.

Last September, the Advanced International Joint Stock Company (AIC) held a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a garbage treatment facility near the Nam Son Dump.

Once complete, it will be the largest such facility in Vietnam.

The $140 million project is slated to come into operation by the end of this year.

Once operational, the company says, the facility will be able to process 2,000 tons of garbage into compost and recycled materials every day.

The investors say local authorities only finished removing residents from the site on April 4.

Nguyen Hong Son, AIC deputy general director, said construction will begin in late May and it will take a full year before the factory comes into operation.

As sustainable options seem to proceed slowly, a plan to expand existing dumps was criticized as a costly and environmentally unsound.

Pham Van Khanh, deputy director of Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said that a project to widen Nam Son and Xuan Son dumps is expected to finish in 2012.

Dump debate

According to an environmental expert in Hanoi, who wished to remain anonymous, relying on landfills for waste disposal is not sustainable or cost effective.

It cost VND5 billion ($239,180) to build a five-hectare (12.3-acre) dump site, he noted. The construction of such dumps requires thorough assessment of the environmental impact.

Thin of the Nam Son Dump said that the site was carefully constructed with potential environmental impacts in mind. The site, he said, is built atop layers of geotechnical fabric, clay, sand and soil all of which are designed to mitigate contamination of the water table.

Runoff from the dump is being treated at an onsite facility, he added.

Despite the measures, residents living near the site have complained of serious pollution.

"It stinks all year round," said Nguyen Van Tho, who lives 100 meters away from the landfill. "No one dares to use water from dug wells. We live admist millions of annoying flies from the site and noise caused by heavy machines."

Nguyen Thi Hoan, who also lives nearby, said that many locals have been suffering from respiratory and digestive ailments since the dump opened.

According to Vu Tuan Luc, a local official, ten families have moved away to avoid the effects of the pollution.

He said that nearly 100 households near the site asked the local authorities to buy their land for the expansion of the dump and relocate them, but their requests have been rejected.