While alchemists of years past failed to turn lead into gold, technology today can turn waste into energy, and more efficiently than ever before, proving there is not only money to be made from rubbish, but also neat solutions to perennial problems.

Vietnam has long struggled with issues of waste management, with a recent study estimating that Ho Chi Minh City alone discharges 8,300 tonnes of waste each day. At the same time, power shortages and outages remain a part of daily life in parts of the city.

The country’s most popular method of solid waste treatment is still burial, with up to 76 per cent of trash ending up in landfills. Dump sites are prevalent thanks to their relatively low cost, little initial investment and ability to handle most types of solid refuse. However, the increasing amount of waste, lax management and disregard for technical protocols are rapidly making this method unsustainable. A number of environmental incidents have also raised the alarm over the pollution and contamination caused by this method of waste management.

Rapid urbanisation is partly behind the vertiginous increase in waste – rising urban populations are creating serious waste management problems for cities all over the world. In Vietnam in particular, with economic growth, urban residents are enjoying rising wages and living standards, in turn producing more waste.

Rising populations are also putting the strain on the country’s power-generation capabilities – a problem that will require significant investment over the coming years.

Waste not, want not

A number of companies are working in Vietnam’s clean energy space, and while headlines are usually dominated by wind and solar power projects, the waste-to-energy sector has been enjoying some development too. The idea of converting Vietnam’s growing waste problem into a solution for its shortage of power could kill two birds with one stone.

The capital city of Hanoi inaugurated its first industrial waste-to-energy facility in April this year, supplying electricity to the national grid. With a waste treatment capacity of 75 tonnes per day and a power generation capability of 1.93MW, the facility is a pioneering project in Vietnam’s industrial waste treatment industry.

Almost all of the factory’s equipment was supplied by the Hitachi Zosen Company of Japan. With total investment capital of US$29 million, including more than US$22.5 million of non-refundable aid from Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation (NEDO) and the remainder extracted from the city’s budget.

With advanced technology from Japan, the factory demonstrates the potential in this area of clean energy and its attraction to foreign investors. If all goes well, the company has plans for another plant in the capital city and more across the country.

Australia’s Trisun Energy is another firm showing interest in this field, having set a major investment target of building up to 20 power-generating waste treatment plants in Vietnam over the next 5 to 10 years. The company, founded in 2011, is currently completing a comprehensive study of a waste-to-power plant in Ho Chi Minh City. According to Trisun, the plant will be capable of burning up to 3,000 tonnes of garbage per day, or more than 40 per cent of the city’s waste.

In addition to Japan and Australia, some leading Finnish companies are at the forefront of addressing the issues of waste and energy.

A delegation of 16 Finnish exhibitors set out some of their plans at the Vietwater 2017 expo, which recently concluded in Ho Chi Minh City. These include solutions for contaminated landfill sites and waste-to-energy projects; the development of biogas technology; and the generation of electricity from biomass and waste.

Doranova is one such firm. Since early January 2017, Doranova has been constructing a landfill gas plant in Binh Duong, north of Ho Chi Minh City. The plant will extract harmful methane emissions from a nearby landfill, generating electricity while reducing environmental pollution. According to the company, the plant will provide additional power generation options from waste materials for residents and businesses in the city.

Not a wasted opportunity

These projects in Vietnam’s biggest cities represent small steps towards solving the country’s waste epidemic. They also help to diversify the national energy mix, which is crucial in ensuring the supply of energy meets the expected rise in consumption.

The increased focus on the clean-technology sector and particularly energy efficiency, renewable energy technologies and waste management provides business opportunities for international players who have the knowledge, expertise and technology needed in this field. The question is whether Vietnam will take full advantage of the opportunity.

Though a promising start has been made, the widespread implementation of waste-to-energy facilities will require a more concerted effort from authorities. The country’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) has set ambitious targets for the collection, reduction, reuse and recycling of waste nationwide. By 2020, 90% of urban domestic solid waste is to be collected and treated, with 85% recycled and reused.

Indeed, Hitachi Zosen Company (behind Hanoi’s waste-to-energy plant) has expressed concerns over the incentives and investment conditions provided by the Vietnamese government. The company, as well as a number of Japanese investors, are keen on rolling out the waste-to-energy model across the country. However, a lack of favourable investment conditions for foreign investors is holding back the industry. At present, investors are waiting for Vietnam to enact new public-private partnership regulations, before deciding on next-step investments.

The waste-to-energy sector in Vietnam holds a lot of potential, and technological advances mean that win-win solutions to both an abundance of waste and shortage of power are more affordable than ever. Combined with efforts in other areas of renewable energy, and the entry of international players, significant progress can be made in green power generation. As ever, the amount of progress depends on the attractive policies set out by the government. Investors are ready, and Vietnam would be wise not to let the opportunity go to waste.