Tran Thi Loan, 42, a local scrap dealer in the northern province of Bac Ninh, buys soiled napkins that have been discarded by restaurant patrons.
“Don’t think that those blackish tissues are done," she said, before explaining the complex economy that brings them back into use.
Restaurants usually give the tissues to scrap collectors, who resell them to Loan for VND1,000-1,500 a kilogram.
Then, she packs and delivers them to tissue recyclers throughout the province, she said.
Her 200 customers are almost all families in Phong Khe village the eponymous ward and Phu Lam village in Tien Du District.
The two biggest recycled tissue suppliers in the north process discarded tissues using a dangerous chemical cocktail.
By Thanh Nien's estimate, they kick out 300,000 tons of product every year.
One businessman from Phong Khe told an undercover Thanh Nien reporter that he delivers around ten tons of tissues every day.
“You need 1.3 tons of discarded trash to make one ton of usable tissues,” D. said, adding that his suppliers and buyers come from all over the country.
“Everyone here knows that soda and Javel are toxic. But once you get into the business of recycling paper, you have to use them.”
-- Hoa, a tissue recycling businessperson in Bac Ninh Province
His colleague, N. from Phu Lam, said everything the villages produces is generated from trash.
Due to poor technology and a desire to save money, they skip most of the steps for removing impurities, he said.
Their entire recycling process appears to consist of soaking old napkins into a thick solution of "soda" (sodium hydroxide - NaOH) and "Javel" (sodium hypochlorite - NaOCl) to make them look snowy white.
Much more of the chemicals are used in the recycling process than the process used to initially produce the napkins out of wood and bamboo pulp.
Hoa, the owner of a recycling plant in Phong Khe, said one ton of recycled tissue and napkins requires nine kilograms of soda and 35 liters of Javel to produce.
The same amount of paper (if covered in writing or illustrations) requires ten kilograms of soda and 40 liters of Javel to process, she said.
“Everyone here knows that soda and Javel are toxic. But once you get into the business of recycling paper, you have to use them. The dirtier the paper, the more soda and Javel you need to use.”
Many locals who don’t participate in the business are furious about its effects.
Nguyen Van Bay, who lives in a nearby village, has spent more than nine years filing lawsuits accusing the recyclers of polluting the environment.
“Rice and other plants have withered due to the toxic waste generated by the recyclers,” Bay said.
“Rice and other plants have withered due to the toxic waste generated by the recyclers," -- Nguyen Van Bay, a resident of Bac Ninh Province
“Around ten kilometers river that flow through Tien Du and Bac Ninh town has died, nothing can live there.”
He led a Thanh Nien reporter to pipes that empty from the recycling plants directly into the Ngu Huyen Khe River.
Doctor Nguyen Huy Thinh from the Bio-technology and Food Technology Institute at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology said that despite the fact that the tissues contain far too many chemicals, they aren't properly sterilized.
He further warned that the use of such products could cause serious respiratory and dermatological problems.
Doctor Le Van Cat, who has overseen several environmental impact studies at Vietnam Chemistry Institute, said the reckless use of the listed chemicals would certainly release cancerous organic compounds into the environment.
Hoang Dac San, a local doctor, described treating many recycling plant employees for respiratory and skin diseases.
“Cancer deaths have grown every year. Since 2012, roughly a dozen people [in Phu Lam] have died of cancer.”
Le Van Tan, vice chairman of Phong Khe Ward, said they have been unable to stop the injurious business.
Tan said the local environment has been seriously degraded for many years.
Police and other agencies have carried out inspections, but the recyclers continue to discharge black emissions and toxic sewage into the environment in broad daylight, he said.
A Thanh Nien reporter made several requests to interview the leaders of the province's environmental crime division to question them about their oversight strategy, but was always told that they were not in the office.