Greenhouse Plastic Boom Blights Vietnam’s Vegetable Basket – New Security Beat

Cam Ly landfill was, until it was shut down in 2020, the primary dumping ground for the city of Dalat. A hilltop locale 5 kilometers from central Dalat, the landfill was the final destination for the majority of plastic used in agriculture in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region. But in August 2019, heavy rain prompted an outpouring of trash, sending plastic sheeting from greenhouses and untreated agrichemical bags and bottles rushing downhill. The incident covered lowland farms in thousands of metric tons of waste.

Dalat, known for its temperate climate, rolling hills, pine trees and agriculture, is the capital of Lam Dong Province. Over the past two decades, plastic greenhouses have enveloped much of the landscape within the city and surrounding areas. These sheets of plastic have increased agricultural production and raised farmers’ income. However, greenhouses are also contributing to rising temperatures, floods, pollution of waterways and the build-up of agri-plastic waste in places with no formal system for recycling.
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Top Photo: Greenhouses cover approximately 2,425 hectares within Dalat’s city limits – more than 4,500 soccer fields. Bottom Left Photo: In the city’s Ward 12, greenhouses cover 83.7 percent of the farmland. In wards 5, 7 and 8, greenhouses blanked more than 60 percent of cropland. Bottom Right Photo: Discarded agricultural plastics in Dalat’s Ward 5. Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole.
While greenhouses are expensive, they are a “mark of achievement” for many farmers, often leading to higher yields and acting as a “safety net against climate change”, says Nguyễn Châu Bảo, co-founder of Act Now, a Dalat-based environmental nonprofit. With increasingly unpredictable weather patterns in the region, greenhouses allow farmers to control the environment and shield crops from harsh conditions. 
Plastic sheeting allows nonnative plants, like tomatoes, to be grown all year, protected from heavy rains, humidity, hail and frost. Heavy downpours can cause roots to become waterlogged, split tomato skins, and lead to bacterial infections in the plant. For this reason, the majority of tomatoes are grown inside greenhouses in Dalat. 
5 Bulbs often light up greenhouses automatically around 7pm in Dalat. Image_ Govi Snell.
After dark, bulbs light up greenhouses in Dalat to prompt overnight growth. Courtesy of Govi Snell/ The Third Pole.
Hiền, a farmer in Dalat, says he relies on plastic sheeting to ensure a stable growing environment for his crop of flowers. He rents the land where he has a small greenhouse for six-month periods, so it is vital his crops come to harvest reliably within this time. From Hiền’s roadside flower farm, greenhouses can be seen in every direction.
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Left Photo: Farmer Hiền says without a greenhouse rain would damage the buds of the flowers he grows. Once these flowers have bloomed, they will be packaged in plastic and sold to Hanoi and South Korea. Right Photo: Workers cut and package flowers for sale inside a large greenhouse in Dalat. Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole.
Despite the benefits for farmers, greenhouses have a heavy ecological impact on the region. Võ Xuân Hạo Khuyên, who was born in Dalat in 1995, used to be able to see wide swaths of pines from her home. The green space has since disappeared.
“Right now it is just the white color because all you see is the greenhouses,” she tells The Third Pole. The problems caused by rapid greenhouse development are easy to see, Khuyên adds, listing temperature increases, light pollution, and floods.
From 2008 to 2018, temperatures in Dalat increased by between 1 and 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the rise is expected to continue, according to statements in a local news report from Vũ Ngọc Long, former director of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Southern Institute of Ecology. While urban development has played a role in the temperature rise, Long said the immediate area surrounding a greenhouse is three to five degrees hotter than areas in similar climates without plastic-covered structures.
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Left Photo: The area immediately surrounding greenhouses can be several degrees warmer than areas in similar climates without plastic-covered structures. Right Photo: Plastic greenhouses prevent rain from being evenly absorbed into the earth. Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole. 
While rising temperatures are a concern, floods have already had a severe impact on the region and are now a regular occurrence during the rainy season from May to October.
When raindrops hit a greenhouse, they cannot be absorbed by the soil below. Instead, says Khuyên (who has studied the sustainability problems created by greenhouses), the runoff from the tightly packed greenhouses creates streams that combine after heavy rain, flooding the city’s drainage system. 
“We are a mountain city. We aren’t supposed to have floods, but at the end of the day we have floods, very heavy floods that even killed people,” Khuyên says. 
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Experts cited concrete paving, deforestation and the glut of greenhouses as primary causes of Lam Dong’s floods in a 2019 report on environmental disasters in Vietnam. Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole.
In August 2019, the damage from the severe floods that hit Dalat and surrounding areas extended beyond swamping the land with trash from the landfill. More than 12,000 homes were flooded, 10,000 hectares of crops were damaged and 11 people died. In 2020, 44 people were forced to evacuate a Dalat hotel when the structure became at risk of collapsing during a downpour. That same year, a runner died after being washed away by a flash flood during the Dalat Ultra Trail marathon.   
Districts downstream of Dalat along the Cam Ly River – which flows through the city– are also impacted by the greenhouse-amplified flooding. During the 2021 rainy season, areas of Dalat and Duc Trong District, approximately an hour’s drive from the capital city, flooded within 12 hours of heavy rain. Farmland was inundated, households were forced to relocate and sections of a national highway were submerged.
“Floods never used to appear in Dalat,” says Phạm Trọng Phu, who grew up in Lam Dong Province and now works for SNV Netherlands Development Organization, a nonprofit with a base in Dalat. “Many disasters have followed with the development of greenhouses.”
Les Vergers du Mekong (LVDM) Pilot Organic Farm is located down a steep, dirt road in Dalat’s Ward 3. With funding from LVDM and the GIZ (German development agency), the team of six running the farm can experiment with eco-friendly methods without direct impacts on their livelihoods. Fruit is grown to be juiced and bottled for sale, and the only plastic sheeting to be found is a small covering protecting seedlings. 
Photo collage for CD Vietnam essay
Top Photo: LVDM Organic Pilot Farm is experimenting with growing beefsteak tomatoes outdoors, but this year the crop failed after heavy rain hit the area in mid-March. “The rain came two months early… That’s climate change,” says Leonie Ha, the farm’s project manager. Bottom Left Photo: Staff at LVDM are leaving the tomatoes to fully ripen before gathering the organic, fungus-resistant seeds for reuse. “We are allowed to fail,” Ha says. “[Most] farmers cannot do this kind of thing.” Bottom Right Photo: Trần Thị Mỹ Phượng a farmer who works at LDVM, waters beetroot seedlings. “The number of people doing [eco] farming like this is increasing slightly but the reality is that greenhouses [are growing] significantly faster,” she says. Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole.
Although many farmers in the region have taken up greenhouse farming because of its stable yields, others believe the environmental toll of the plastic coverings outweighs the benefits. 
Nguyễn Nhi is the farm manager at Rừng Thông Mơ Farm & Bistro, a winding 25-minute drive from central Dalat through pines with sections occupied by greenhouses. During the dry season from November to April, Nhi says, heat is trapped inside the greenhouses, causing temperatures in surrounding areas to increase. Additionally, the moist atmosphere inside greenhouses is conducive for worms that eat the vegetables, causing farmers to rely heavily on pesticides. 
Rừng Thông Mơ has no plastic greenhouses. Instead, herbs and green leafy vegetables are grown using intercropping methods, and rice husks are burnt to deter pests. The farm produces little to no plastic waste, avoiding the harmful impact agri-plastics can have on soil health.
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Top Left Photo: At Rừng Thông Mơ, food scraps are composted in these large plastic barrels for three months for later use as fertilizer. “I am pro-natural farming because it’s not just good for the plants, it’s not just good for nature, but also for the people, for the farmer’s health,” says farm manager Nguyễn Nhi (right).Top Right Photo: Lettuce is grown without plastic at Rừng Thông Mơ. Bottom Photo: Farmworker Nguyễn Duy picking herbs at Rừng Thông Mơ. Photos Courtesy of Thinh Doan / Third Pole.
“Of course I want people to use fewer greenhouses but it’s hard because it comes with efficiency. You can make more money,” Nhi says. “It is hard to ask them to go back to the natural way of farming. I expect the number of greenhouses to double.”
Over time, due to use and UV exposure, plastic degrades and needs to be replaced. The majority of the plastic sheeting used for greenhouses in Dalat is burnt or buried once it is no longer usable. 
Nguyễn Hồng Quân, who grew up in Dalat and is now director at the Institute for Circular Economy Development, a research unit within Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, tells The Third Pole that currently no “holistic or systematic solution” is available to recycle agri-plastics in Lam Dong Province. The majority end up in landfills. 
“I think this is quite a big issue now. We see a lot of plastic waste from greenhouses,” Quân says, adding that the difficulty of managing plastic sheeting is compounded by farmers being dependent on greenhouses for their livelihoods.
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Top Photo: Plastic sheeting used in agriculture gradually degrades and has to be replaced. Bottom Left Photo: Styrofoam seedling trays pile up at the side of the road in Dalat. Most agri-plastics used in the region are not recycled. Bottom Right Photo: Plastic disintegrates next to a greenhouse in Dalat. Courtesy of Govi Snell / The Third Pole.
Vietnam has no formal system for recycling plastic materials, despite the January 2022 launch of a new environmental protection law. The law includes an unfunded mandate that makes the country’s local governments responsible for sorting and recycling waste. 
Miquel Angel sits on Vietnam’s Tourism Advisory Board and surveyed some landfills this April. He has not seen improvements in waste management and says trash is still being buried, burned or allowed to leak into the country’s waterways. 
“This is a lot of talk,” he says of the new regulation. “Nobody is taking any action.” 
“Greenhouses are like single-use plastic, they should be banned,” says Paul Olivier, who has lived in Dalat for 16 years and supports farmers with transforming waste into feed, fuel and fertilizer. Olivier tells The Third Pole he sees plastic sheeting, styrofoam, and bottles and bags for chemical pesticides and fertilizers in Lam Dong’s streams, lakes and rivers, where fish often float lifeless at the surface.
Informal waste collectors are the driving force behind the management of Vietnam’s plastic waste, approximately 27 percent of which is recycled. Waste pickers gather plastic bottles, cardboard and a variety of other discarded materials to sell at a local vựa phế liệu – a scrap collection center where recyclables can be bought and sold. 
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Left Photo: Lan, the owner of the scrap collection center vựa phế liệu in Dalat, tells The Third Pole she rarely buys plastic sheeting and has no set price for greenhouse covers. Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole. Right Photo: At another informal recycling hub near a high density of greenhouses, used plastic sheets sell for a meagre 10,000 Vietnamese dong (USD 0.43) per kilogram. Courtesy of Govi Snell/ The Third Pole.
Although not yet approved, Lam Dong Province’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has put forward a scheme for the management of greenhouse farming with specific goals set for 2025 and a vision for 2030. The document acknowledges the province currently has no regulations on the management and construction of greenhouses, and local authorities lack effective solutions to lessen the environmental impacts of greenhouses. 
The government wishes to control the proportion of greenhouse area in agricultural land to below 40 percent in all of Dalat’s 12 wards. All greenhouses illegally built on forest land, ecologically sensitive areas, and historic, scenic and culturally significant land will be cleared away by 2025. By 2030, the government also wants to upgrade substandard greenhouses, manage greenhouse construction, and build new modern greenhouses in the province. 
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Left Photo: Nguyễn Thanh Thảo Nhi (left) and Nguyễn Châu Bảo (right) are co-founders of Act Now, an environmental non-profit in Dalat. “Agriculture is one of the biggest factors that contributes to environmental degradation here,” says Bảo. “Greenhouses create a lot of problems.” Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole. Right Photo: At a trash cleanup event, members of Act Now chant, “Dalat is our home, not a landfill.” Courtesy of Act Now.
“I really want to look at the positive side,” says Bảo of Act Now. “It has to be a community change, a very big systemic change if you want to see a reduction in plastic waste or agricultural waste. I think it is the biggest problem we need to solve.”
Govi Snell (author) is a reporter for Southeast Asia Globe and freelance journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City. Twitter: @GoviSnell
Thinh Doan (Photographer) is a photographer based in Saigon, mainly snapping aerial and urban photography. Instagram: @itscthinh
This article was translated and posted in the Saigoneer in Vietnamese.
Lead Image Credit: In flower-filled plastic greenhouses in Dalat, Vietnam, each bloom is wrapped in a plastic net to maintain its shape. Courtesy of Thinh Doan / The Third Pole.
Sources: China Dialogue, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung,, ReliefWeb, Southeast Asia Globe, Tuoi Tre News, Vietnam times, VnExpress International, World Agroforestry.
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