Litterbug central

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Proposed measures to curb the pervasive practice may not be enough, as littering has become a socially accepted norm

 
The pervasive littering of many locals has made the job of the city's waste collectors infinitely more difficult

Nguyen Van Truc said that a trash bag thrown from a bridge nearly struck him as he was traveling in his boat on Ho Chi Minh City's Tau Hu Canal.

The 50-year-old sanitation worker of the District 8 Public Service Company said his boat often collects up to six tons of floating garbage per its 8.5 kilometers route along the canal.

"But it doesn't mean the canal was clean after our work. People living along the banks and on boats throw garbage into the canal, sometimes right into the section that we had just cleaned," he said.

The situation is the same on the city's streets when many people do not hesitate to litter freely, often right under the noses of sanitation workers.

The littering has reached epidemic proportions, vastly increasing the already overwhelming burden of waste collection on sanitation workers. Experts and concerned residents said the habit will not be broken if related authorities fail to hand down long-term, decisive measures.

According to the HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the city of nearly 9 million people discharges over 7,000 tons of garbage every day.

Up to 60 percent of waste is collected by private cooperatives, while the rest is tasked to state-owned sanitation firms.

The department said the city waste has increased by an average of ten percent each year. The average daily burden was 6,200 tons in 2010 and 7,100 tons in 2011.

Too lazy to take out the trash

An investigation by Vietweek found that city residents litter literally everywhere: around their houses, on sidewalks and streets, in canals and rivers, making it nearly impossible for sanitation workers to maintain a clean city despite the fact that they work around the clock.

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At a section of the National Highway 1A in Thu Duc District's Linh Trung Ward, garbage is regularly disposed illegally near the entrance of the Linh Trung Export Processing Industrial Park.

At a bus stop on Thu Duc's National Highway 13, many people said they continue to be "tortured" by an illegal garbage disposal site nearby. A government posted sign warning that those caught littering may be fined up to VND750,000 (US$35) has done little, if anything, to slow the trend.

Illegal dumps also exist along Nguyen Van Linh Street as it extends through Binh Chanh District to District 7 and on Vo Van Kiet Street in District 1.

An owner of a house near the 234 Phan Van Tri Apartment complex in Binh Thanh District painted, "Please do not litter on our heads" on his roof, in an attempt to dissuade the residents of the seven-story apartment from tossing their garbage onto the rooftops of nearby houses.

Nguyen Toan Nhan, a manager of the apartment, said people litter because it is "convenient."

"It's purely a bad habit. People are too lazy to walk to the trash bin to discharge garbage. They just throw it wherever they want to," he said.

For household garbage, each family pay waste collectors between VND10,000 and VND20,000 a month. They only have to place trash bags in front of their house at prearranged times when trash collectors are scheduled to come.

However, some people refused to pay this small amount, choosing instead to litter somewhere nearby, said one sanitation worker.

A section of sidewalk section on Luy Ban Bich Street in Tan Phu District has also become an illegal garbage dump.

"People have been discharging rubble from construction sites and household garbage for a year since the company which used to be at the site moved away," said Nga, who lives nearby.

Many trash collectors said encountering litterbugs is a daily part of their routine as they go about doing their jobs.

"Everyone litters but that's our job [to collect garbage]. We have to accept it and shouldn't be complaining," said Loan, who pushes her pushcart four or five times per day collecting garbage on Vo Van Tan Street.

Nguyen Thi Kim Phuong, who often collects garbage from District 1's Nguyen Du Street, said she has to work from 3 p.m. until 2 a.m. every day without a break.

"That's our job," said Phuong, adding that she hopes many teenagers would abandon their habit of littering when they grow up.

Many waste collectors said they accepted the job because they are poor and feel they do not possess the skills requisite to work in other fields.

Insufficient deterrents

In March, the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee approved a plan to install cameras along several canals in the city in an effort to catch people littering and reduce pollution.

Nguyen Trung Viet of the city's environmental department blamed littering for the polluted condition of the Nhieu Loc Thi Nghe Canal, which has been improved after dredging and the construction of parks and embankments on its banks.

According to a recent report from the environmental department, all canals in the city are polluted with high levels of microorganism contamination which endanger the health of nearby residents.

On July 1, President Truong Tan Sang launched a campaign to improve the nation's hygiene. The campaign was part of the first Patriotic Hygiene Day for Public Health on July 2.

But despite several campaigns to tackle littering, the notion that to do so is acceptable has become ingrained in the minds of many locals, who do not seem to care what effect this has on sanitation workers or the city in general.

HCMC-based psychologist Nguyen Thi Ngoc Giau said that the various campaigns designed to curb littering including the proposed installation of cameras will not be enough.

According to Giau, when interacting with society, individuals' sense of right and wrong is based on social norms.

"However, if there are not clear regulations and norms, people tend to behave according to their instincts and the Vietnamese people's habit of littering is one example of such behavior."

Giau criticized a lack of relevant education within school curriculums and strict deterrents against littering.

"It will take time to change the habit. Propaganda, installing more trash bins and surveillance cameras, as well as issuing strict fines against violators are among measures which can help.

"But the most important thing is to educate children, at school and within the family, about the necessity of maintaining public sanitation," she said.

"Once there is a generation with a positive attitude toward sanitation, the few individuals who continue to litter will be ashamed and modify their behavior for the better."

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