VE CHAI: WASTE PICKERS IN DA NANG
Innovation Type: Community Organized
Da Nang is a thriving urban hub in Vietnam, known for its flourishing tourism, business, and culture. But with a growing urban population, wasteproduction is rocketing, and the absence of a municipal recycling framework leaves most of Da Nang’s waste en route to landfills, or intowaterways and the environment. Seeing the potential for value creation along the waste cycle, informal waste workers or ve chai have emerged,buying waste from households and scavenging for recyclables from streets. By trading these materials with end-buyers (often factories orrecyclers), ve chai have found a flexible source of income whilst contributing to a robust informal recycling system. However, despite plugging acrucial gap in waste management and recycling, ve chai are not formally recognized by the state, owing to their informal and often misunderstoodline of work – excluding them from official safety nets in times of crisis.
Whilst examining the problem of waste management and pollution in Da Nang, the UNDP Vietnam Accelerator Lab recognised the role of ve chai inthe local informal waste network. The Lab’s initial efforts, for instance in introducing new recycling bins, were met with discontent from ve chai.Given the lack of substantive research on waste in Da Nang, the Lab decided they required a firsthand understanding of local waste collectiondynamics to better inform a solution. The Lab’s work with innovation research and networks with other Labs made available a host ofmethodologies to consider. This included a Collective Intelligence approach first popularized by Dietmar Offenhuber, who used it precisely to mapthe informal waste sector earlier in Brazil. This led to the idea of a similar waste mapping exercise in Da Nang: one that better uncovered local vechai’s motivations and role(s).
In partnership with Evergreen Labs, a social enterprise working with ve chai on research and upcycling efforts, the Accelerator Lab embarked onefforts to map the waste sector. A Collective Intelligence approach made use of a combination of GPS route tracking efforts and field interviewswith ve chai. Volunteers were tasked to follow ve chai on their daily routes, tracking their stops, activities, and engagements with other actorseither via a GPS device, or by tracing them manually on a physical map. This data helped reveal the entrepreneurial nature of ve chai, most of themworking as individuals to build their own business contacts and networks (whether with household waste providers or waste aggregators). A totalof 221 waste collection points were identified in the study area, and by visualising this data on a GIS platform, UNDP Vietnam was able todemonstrate how well-distributed waste collection services by ve chai were, covering more than 80% of the city’s geographical area. It wasdiscovered that ve chai collect a collect a significant 4.3%-7.5% of the total solid waste generated in the city – when estimates of total recyclingrates in the city were at 8%.
This initial mapping exercise helped establish that there were an estimated 1,000-1,800 informal waste collectors working in Da Nang. Being ableto demonstrate this on a GIS platform, alongside their estimated contributions to recycling rates, diverted the government’s initial plans toprovide citizens with recycling bins, which would adversely affect ve chai and disrupt existing successes in recycling via ve chai’s efforts. Thisstudy has contributed to wider efforts by UNDP Vietnam to embark on Circular Economy efforts in the country, which have hence seen greatervisibility in the policy space. These efforts have also attracted international support, such as support from the Government of Norway in equippingve chai with occupational health gear.
- Experimentation and system-thinking approaches open new possibilities to examine how existing resources can bereorganised to solve urban problems. The success of this project is the audacity of the local team to recognise, integrate andfurther explore the presence and potential of valuable local expertise, and explore beyond the framework of the solution thatwas initially piloted. Policy-makers need to be open to integrate this collective intelligence already on the ground: local effortscould be revolutionary if formally recognised as part of municipal assets and processes.
- Solving the waste crisis in Da Nang didn’t stop with a single solution, and the mapping exercise contribute to the efforts torecognise and improve the working conditions of the informal sector. The informal waste collection network was fraughtwith issues of its own – inequality within the community, health concerns, labour practices, and polluting technologies (used toprocess recyclables) that also need to be considered in future interventions.
- Use of local networks, expertise and technology to better understand the problem and the potential solution. The projectleaders relied on a local company with existing knowledge and links with the informal waste sector in Vietnam. Simpletechnology (mobile GPS, and sometimes paper records) were used to monitor the movement and waste collection trends.
Learn more about Smart Urban Innovations from around the world in the UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook: tinyurl.com/urban-innovations
Download the full PDF of the case study from the attached document.