The only time I’ve ever experienced truly poor air quality was in Ho Chi Minh city. I spent just three days there earlier this year. The sky was perpetually grey, but not the cool, sleet-grey of rainclouds. It was tinged brown and murky like muddy river water. Even when the sun was shining, the light came down filtered sepia by the thick smog. There was a distinctive smell, too. It’s hard to recall and hard to describe, but sometimes crossing the road in the wake of a bus, the fumes trigger that sense of déjà vu and I’m back in Saigon hanging off a motorbike. At the time, I took this to be just the sights and smells of a new place – intoxicating and unfamiliar. I guess I consciously realised it was pollution, but I wasn’t there long enough to register its permanence. It seemed transient and like it would cease to exist once I left.
I’m lucky enough to live in Perth, Australia, where we have some of the cleanest air in the world. I think that’s why I got that feeling in Ho Chi Minh like the smog was just some strange weather, and not a permanent blanket. I’m fortunate enough to barely be able to imagine swimming through that miasma every day of your life. It scares me to think how far removed I am from someone who deals with it day in and day out, on their way to school and at work and on dates and when they exercise.
What also scares me is that countries like my own are pretending to have no part in air pollution overseas. Here, at least, air pollution seems like a faraway problem that places like Vietnam, China, India and Indonesia brought upon themselves by rapid industrialisation, and therefore will take responsibility for. Australian citizens haven’t adopted view out of apathy, or dismissiveness. The average Australian would definitely express sympathy when confronted with the statistics about air pollution. Sadly, they’ve adopted this position out of ignorance – and I honestly can’t blame them.
I’m reasonably well-informed and so are my parents. We take pains to understand and question the society we are part of, and generally try to stay aware of the consequences of our lifestyle. But until recently, even I wasn’t aware of the fact that Australia is a major contributor to Vietnam’s air pollution problems. In 2018, Australia exported an average 78 000 tonnes per month of waste to Vietnam, of which 54% is plastic, paper & cardboard. Historically, in Vietnam, much of this waste is incinerated unsafely, often by people who process waste in their family home with unregulated equipment. This practice has decreased in recent years, but has resulted in the accumulation of tonnes of toxic fumes and emissions that have significantly damaged the air quality in many locations around Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. The prevalent usage of motorcycles also contributes heavily to the problem. Across Vietnam, over 60 000 deaths each year are attributed to air pollution.
The exportation of waste to developing countries not a new practice, and has been occurring for decades. Numerous Western countries, including the United States and most of Europe, also allow the burden of their waste to fall upon the shoulders of developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Australia also exports a large amount of its waste to China, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Vietnam. Whilst there are no active efforts to disguise the fact that this is going on, Australian citizens seem to be almost universally in the dark and uneducated about this, most assuming that whatever they put in their recycling bin is processed locally. The reality of the matter is that the media and our parliamentarians have either intentionally failed to disclose this information, or have simply not viewed it as not important enough to reveal.
Whilst the measures Vietnam has begun to take to reduce its pollution problems, such as Hanoi’s aim to ban motorbikes by 2030, are encouraging, it’s difficult for developing countries to tackle these kinds of systemic problems with effective, lasting solutions. With industrialisation comes prosperity, but also population growth and a burden on resources, and we can’t pretend that initiatives like solar power, electric public transport, and sustainable waste-management systems don’t have high start-up costs despite great long-term benefits. Western countries like to point the finger at places like India, Vietnam and Indonesia for being the biggest contributors to emissions, plastic waste and numerous other problems, but the fact of the matter is that the distribution of responsibility is not at all as simple as whose numbers are the highest. Cases like Australia’s waste export industry make it clear that Western countries need to take responsibility for their colonialist behaviour. The pattern of exploitation, environmental damage due to overloaded infrastructure, and then blame, creates a world in which countries are isolated, vulnerable and struggling in trying to tackle the insurmountable problem of climate change.
This current system is not going to lead us to success. Overcoming the greatest existential threat in human history requires international collaboration, not finger-pointing and deflecting responsibility and hoarding wealth. As individuals, it’s difficult for us to tackle inequalities on the scale of governments. But we should take what action we can. As consumers of products and producers of waste, it’s vitally important we are aware of the impact of our input and output. Educate yourselves about topics like this. Where does my energy come from? Where does my waste go? You might find something you don’t like. Take action; lobby your local representative, reduce your waste, buy sustainably and ethically, and share your knowledge. Breaking down the culture of misinformation, distraction and deceit that exists in Western media is key to ending the inaction of privileged individuals. These small steps will bring us closer to uniting as an international community, and I’m sure that as well as increasing our chance of survival, this will bring us greater prosperity, happiness and elevate the accomplishments of the human race to even greater heights. I’m young and hopeful, and because I want to live in a connected world that I can be proud of, I will take all the steps necessary to get there. Will you?