Re-centering people and product – How empowering informal waste collectors and engaging the middle-class help reduce marine plastic pollution in Vietnam

March 1, 2022


According to Ocean Conservancy International, Vietnam is one of the top five countries in the world contributing to marine plastic pollution. Vietnam generates over 3.7 million tons of plastic waste each year, of which only 10 to 15 percent is collected for recycling. Vietnam has pledged to reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean by 75% by 2030. 


Vietnam has made significant progress on the regulatory front:

Main questions:  In order to address the plastic pollution problem effectively and reach these ambitious targets, some multi-sector stakeholders need to be corralled and activated.  Rather than tackle that big question in one short perspective piece, I would like to focus on innovative solutions that help highlight the significant role of the informal waste collector and the consumer:

Interview 1: Kasia Weina 

Social enterprise model (ReForm Plastic) to process plastic, innovation in technology, job creation, cross-sector partnerships (foundations, private sector, and government)

Interview Questions:

  1. What are the biggest challenges in addressing plastic waste in Vietnam?

Lack of infrastructure: Currently, Vietnam needs more infrastructure to support solid waste management, including a lack of material recovery facilities, waste processing sites, and recycling facilities. Additionally, there is a complete absence of collection infrastructure at the source, including no household segregation bins or separated routes/trucks to handle segregated waste streams. The lack of infrastructure runs across the value chain, causing huge barriers when attempting to process waste downstream (deficiency of usable feedstock) or at source (limited understanding of separation or infrastructure to do so). 

Lack of capacity: The dramatic uptake of plastic waste into waste management systems that previously handled primarily organic, natural materials has led to the country's overload of basic and minimal waste infrastructure. Moreover, the processing of these new waste stream types, including plastics, needs to be better understood, and a massive knowledge gap exists in this sector. Local governments and authorities lack the capacity and education to manage plastics. In particular, the understanding of material types and processing options is not well understood by local authorities. This becomes apparent in rural areas where standard waste management practices include burning, dumping, or burying. 

Presence of informal systems: Vietnam's current collection and recycling system remains within the informal sector. The collection is done by local informal workers who extract valuable materials, including high-value plastics (HDPE, PET, etc), from various sources, including households and businesses. Aggregation is also done mostly by informal workers or family-operated businesses nationwide. Further down the value chain, pre-processing and some recycling still happens in the informal sector, causing vast challenges for environmental compliance, especially wastewater handling. 

Lack of consumer awareness: While the emerging Vietnamese middle class has become more aware of sustainability issues surrounding plastics, a large consumer education gap still needs to be addressed. Moreover, alternative products to replace single-use plastics, for example, tend to have a significant “green premium,” which can deter consumers from purchasing more sustainable options, particularly in emerging markets. Besides changing consumer behavior, shifting the old waste disposal habits away from burning, burying, and dumping practices, which was initially established when products were wrapped in banana leaves and other natural products, towards better waste management practices remains an immense challenge. 

  1. How does Vietnam go from a top 5 polluter to an innovator or model for change? 

Vietnam must transition quickly towards circularity and upstream solutions to shift away from linear, polluting systems. Additionally, Vietnam needs to crowd in new solutions and technologies to support waste processing that can create more jobs, empower local waste collectors, and create new products and services. The improving regulatory environment highlights Vietnam’s momentum towards circularity and encourages more private sector engagement across the value chain. 

  1. Please summarize what you are doing to address the plastic waste problem.

Our work and activities in plastic waste span the entire value chain, offering systemic, holistic approaches to waste management and processing. Firstly, we have developed an innovative, efficient, and cost-effective technology (social enterprise called ReForm Plastic) for processing low-value plastic waste: flexibles, single-use plastics, multi-layers, styrofoam, and other orphan plastics. While this type of upcycling approach is not novel in itself, our heat compression molding solution can address waste at volume through the creation of unique material compositions, and our innovative approach to scale offers waste operators across Vietnam and beyond an affordable, plug-in solution to handle waste streams that are often incinerated or abandoned in our environments. Currently, we have six factories across the region (2 in Vietnam, 2 in Myanmar, 1 in the Philippines, and 1 in Bangladesh under construction) and to date, have processed 140,000kg of plastic waste into new products. To improve the collection of material, ReForm Plastic also builds collection schemes from the bottom up, empowering informal waste workers through employment and purchase of once-valueless material and increasing their income. Moreover, collection infrastructure, including voluntary separation points are installed by ReForm Plastic around Hoi An city to encourage source separation and managed by local informal workers. ReForm Plastic heavily engages with the community by establishing business collection programs as well as school collection programs. Lastly, ReForm Plastic is growing its portfolio of technologies to address various types of waste streams as well as offering a diverse set of products that can be made from waste including tiles, bricks, pavers and even bringing plastics back into their raw oil form. 

Besides the activities within ReForm Plastic, Evergreen Labs has extensive expertise in solid waste management and works with development agencies, governments, NGOs and private sector partners including corporates to implement sustainable projects across Vietnam and beyond. These activities include improving waste collection schemes through multi-stakeholder, inclusive approaches as well as facilitating market entry for large waste management companies. This work specifically focuses on strengthening supply chains, providing traceability and transparency across value chains using technology and creating innovative approaches that integrate the informal sector.

  1. There are multi-sector stakeholders working in the National Plastic Action Partnership ranging from government, mass organizations (Women's Union), INGOs, local business, informal waste collectors.

    What are the crucial roles of each in addressing this massive problem?

  1. How are you addressing the informal sector of waste collectors in your work?

Evergreen Labs is currently piloting several different integration models via various projects and programs to understand the feasibility of informal worker engagement, especially for the private sector. Specifically, within our social enterprise ReForm Plastic, we are directly hiring former informal waste collectors to be employed at our recycling facility in Hoi An. Besides general processing activities, these staff support the collection of feedstock. Additionally, ReForm Plastic is purchasing low-value, orphan plastics from freelance waste collectors, empowering them through additional income streams as this material is typically not traded. Lastly, ReForm Plastic is piloting collection schemes and points across Hoi An City that are, in turn, managed by informal waste collectors. These collection points, fully supported by the government, offer voluntary drop-off points for households and businesses to bring their pre-sorted waste while offering informal workers access to cleaner material streams and ReForm Plastic access to remaining plastics that have no other value streams. Besides reliable income, this model provides workers with social benefits, including health insurance offering them a semi-formalization model. 

Within our advisory projects with various development agencies, we are working on sustainable, inclusion models to ensure the engagement of the informal waste sector. These programs partner directly with the government to ensure full buy-in as well as long-term sustainability. These projects involve establishing collection schemes that integrate informal workers on various levels such as supporting collection at businesses, schools, etc. Moreover, informal workers may be fully incorporated into new waste management systems entirely such as working at transfer stations within the city. 

  1. Why are they integral to closing the gaps in the plastic waste ecosystem?

The informal waste collectors are integral for successfully implementing and adapting new solid waste management systems in Vietnam. Currently, these workers hold the expertise, skills, and ability to source, separate, and even process materials that will be key to leverage. These workers can be integrated into new collection schemes, larger infrastructure projects (i.e. material recovery facilities or transfer stations), or provide the key workforce needed to execute the new Environmental Protection Law. 

  1. What can be done to empower waste collectors (Make invisible visible? Training? Health and safety?)

Integrating informal waste collectors into new value chains and systems built around waste management is crucial. Ideally, these systems can provide a “semi-formalization” strategy that allows informal workers to remain independent with flexible schedules while providing them with access to social benefits, including health and social insurance. Registering formally and having access to social benefits also provides these workers the ability to acquire government emergency relief for instance, COVID relief packages. 

  1. Who are some of the changemakers focused on empowering waste collectors?

Not many changemakers are sustainably engaging with informal waste collectors to date. One organization that provides long-term support and works with waste collectors in Vietnam is:

  1. Can you share with me a story from one of your employees / local partners of the impact of including informal waste collectors in plastic waste management solutions in Vietnam?

Please see the selected interview below, including a sharing from one of our current staff who was an informal waste collector previously.

Response to plastic pollution resolution

Interview Ms. Xuan former informal waste worker and now employed by ReForm Plastic

How long have you worked at ReForm?

Over 1 year


Waste picker - worked at conveyor belt and picked the plastic (feedstock) out and put it on the conveyor belt. Helps other staff with running the machine, carrying the boards and cleaning, ...

Before working at ReForm

Over 10 years worked at waste picker

The advantage of working at ReForm and before

Before working at ReForm, the income was unstable, not only did she have to work most of the time (it is true that she could do whatever she wanted) but most of the time, the unstable income of a middle-age woman with the pressure to raise a family is not easy.

When she started to work at the ReForm factory, she felt way better. At least she has joined a company with stable income, with the schedule of working so she knows what she will do on the day or even weekly tasks.

What do you think about the purpose of the work

She said: "Worked as a waste picker before, just working for money and she doesn't even think this is good for anyone except her family. But after months working with ReForm, she finally sees that her work has purposes of not only separating the waste but also benefits the environment, less plastic waste in landfills. She knows clearly that her work just a small tasks of making the world better, but she happy to know that it is creating good impact"

When talking to her, I asked if we could do anything to running ReForm better

She wishes:

1. The factory and machines running more stable so she can work more frequently

2. She wants the pandemic to be over cause she wants to see all the boards clear out of the factory, she wants to see ReForm products get into the market.


She currently has disc herniation, this forces her to take some rest and stop working on heavy tasks such as lifting the boards , ... something with separating the waste at conveyor belt even better. But she has her husband replace her role at the factory so he can help other staff also cover her work. She said that she wants to be back and she loves working, but if she can't do that now then her husband can help for a better outcome.

I shared with her about the donations news and ask her what she thinks about our products

"The products is great, I want to see more and more beautiful things made from ReForm boards" and for the donation projects, she said: "It good to know that our products, our boards, our company, my company doing such a great action to the society, I have confident but now, I'm more proud about what I do"

Sharing more

She said she just stepped into the age of 40+ so she still wants to work with us, 5-7 years if possible. Work is fun and she wants to have "something to do" more than stay home. Her childs get jobs but even so, she still wants to work with ReForm Plastic.

Interview with Mr. Hung, Thanh Tung 2 Director & Owner, ReForm Plastic Franchisee in Dong Nai


Thanh Tùng 2 là công ty tái chế và xử lý chất thải độc hại được Bộ Môi trường cấp phép. Công ty được thành lập từ năm 2002 và nhà máy chính thức đi vào hoạt động vào năm 2012.

Thanh Tung 2 is a waste recycling and treatment company licensed by the Ministry of Environment. The company was established in 2002 and the factory officially went into operation in 2012.

Motivation behind establishing the company

Đây là ước mơ từ lâu của tôi. Trước đây tôi làm thu gom phế liệu, không có nền tảng về lĩnh vực môi trường nhưng nhận thây ngành này có nhu cầu cao, từ đó tôi hướng đến sự phát triển bền vững hơn.

This is my long time dream. Previously, I worked as a waste collector, with no background in the environmental field, but realized that this industry was in high demand, from which I aimed for more sustainable development.

The partnership with RF

Sự hợp tác với RF là làm theo tiếng gọi của đam mê, nhiệt huyết. Công nghệ của RF là thứ anh ước mơ từ những năm 2010, Từ lâu tôi đã có ước mơ biến rác thành tiền tiền. Đến 3 năm gần đây anh tìm tòi trên mạng thì anh thấy được dự án của RF, anh thấy tuyệt vời và anh phải tìm hiểu ngay. Sau đó thì mọi việc ký kết chỉ diễn ra một thứ vì công ty anh có sẵn mọi điều kiện Vì anh đam mê nên anh mới biết được giá trị của công nghệ này. Một số người khác ở Việt Nam vẫn còn mơ hồ về điều này. Cho đến bây giờ anh thực sự rất hài lòng với sự hợp tác này. Càng làm anh càng thấy thích.

The partnership with RF is to follow the call of passion and enthusiasm. RF's technology is what I have dreamed of since the 2010s, I've had a dream for a long time to turn trash into money. Until the last 3 years I searched on the internet, I found RF's project, I thought it was great and I had to reach out to it right away. After that, the contract was signed in approx. 1 month because my company had all the conditions available. Because I am passionate, I knew the value of this technology. Some other people in Vietnam are still confused about this. So far I am really satisfied with this partnership. The more I am engaged, the more I like it.

Thoughts about the impacts he is making

Tôi muốn làm rác ra tiền. Khi tôi đi thu gom rác các công ty đã trả tiền cho anh, nhưng khi biết được có thể chế tạo sản phẩm từ rác và tiếp tục làm ra tiền thì tại sao không? Điều đó có thể giúp đỡ cho những người khó khăn thì quá tốt. Trước đây tôi đã một mình quyên góp cho quê hương, và khi biết đến chương trình quyên góp của RF thì chắc chắn tôi sẽ càng tham gia nhiều hơn.

I want to transform trash to money. When I went to collect trash, companies paid me, but when I found out that it was possible to make products from trash and continue to make money, why not? It would be great if it could help those in need. In the past, I have donated to my hometown alone, and when I know about RF's donation program, I will definitely participate more.


Không có gì khó khăn, ở công ty anh đã có sẵn thiết bị, bây giờ chỉ cần mua công nghệ để ghép vào. Chỉ có khó khăn là dịch COVID-19 nên không đc Mr.Jan hướng dẫn trực tiếp. Tuy nhiên mọi quy trình đều được Mr.Jan theo sát.

There is no problem, my company already has equipment, now we just need to buy technology to pair it. The only difficulty is the COVID-19 pandemic, so I was not directly guided by Mr.Jan. However, every process is closely followed by Mr.Jan.

Future plan

Dự kiến trong tương lai anh sẽ tăng máy móc và tăng công suất lên. Anh cũng muốn giới thiệu công nghệ này đến những cơ quan cấp cao hơn, và càng nhiều người Việt càng tốt. Có thể người nước ngoài đã biết nhưng người Việt thì chưa. Anh cũng tin rằng anh đang nắm bắt thời cơ tốt, vì sau những cam kết được đưa ra ở COP26, anh tin rằng công nghệ này sẽ được hưởng ứng nhiều hơn nữa, và anh sẽ tiếp tục lan toả nó đến khắp lãnh thổ Việt Nam. Hiện tại anh cũng vẫn tiếp tục tìm tòi và sáng tạo từ công nghệ này, chẳng hạn như gạch nhựa mà người ta đang làm tại châu Âu.

It is expected that in the future I will increase machines and capacity. I also want to introduce this technology to higher authorities, and to as many Vietnamese people as possible. Maybe foreigners know but Vietnamese people don't. I also believe that I am seizing a good opportunity, because after the commitments made at COP26, I believe that this technology will be more welcomed, and I will continue to spread it throughout Vietnam. Currently, I also continue to explore and create from this technology, such as plastic bricks that people are making in Europe.