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2019 The David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award, Small Newsroom winner

Dirty Business

About the Project

Most of us don’t think much about recycling. We rinse our yogurt containers, crush our milk cartons, and break down our boxes. We pause in front of public waste bins, puzzling over how to classify single-use forks or coffee cups. But once our trash hits the curb in a blue or a brown or a green bin, we forget about it.

Welcome to Minh Khai, Vietnam – where California’s plastic finds new life.

The global recycling trade has brought economic benefits to Minh Khai, but also substantial health and environmental costs. The village was listed as one of Vietnam’s worst polluters by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Life expectancy has declined for residents, as cancer rates have climbed.

Yet for the recycling workers of Minh Khai, these costs are worth it. Business owners have built legacies from which to support their children and grandchildren. Trash-pickers who began collecting waste 40 years ago now make salaries greater than the national average for Vietnam.

This multimedia web package probes the experiences of Minh Khai’s residents as they wrestle with the blessings and curses of an empire built on our trash. It consists of a print narrative, short film, portrait series, and interactive data graphics.

Yutao Chen accepted the 2019 David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award, Small Newsroom. (Video by Jazmin Goodwin, ONA19 Student Newsroom)