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Fulbright Year: 2018-2019
Country: Vietnam
Proposal Type: Research
Field of Study: Environmental Engineering
Title: Evaluating Waste Collection to Inform Better Waste Management Strategies in Vietnam
UGA Undergraduate Major: Environmental Engineering
Graduation Date: Fall 2016
Hometown: Athens, Georgia

Experts in the field of environmental engineering estimate that the amount of plastic that enters the ocean on an annual basis as a result of mismanaged solid waste ranges from 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons. The United Nations Environmental Program estimates the financial damage caused by plastics on the global marine ecosystem to be in the neighborhood of $13 billion per year.

Leading the list of middle-income countries with swift economic growth but lacking in strategies and infrastructure to deal with waste management is China, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Jennifer Alexander will spend her Fulbright year in Vietnam, working with independent solid waste collectors to amass and analyze geospatial waste characterization and management information.

“Vietnam recognizes that its current waste management strategy is not enough to adequately eliminate plastic pollution into the environment, and the knowledge and data gained from firsthand accounts of waste management in Ho Chi Minh City can be applied to other cities in Vietnam, and the methodology used can also be utilized in other Southeastern Asian countries,” says Jennifer.

Ho Chi Minh City has parallel waste collection systems, one of which is the municipal system, which employs about 2,000 workers; and an informal system, which has some 4,000 collectors. The informal waste collectors are adept at separating solid waste to segregate recyclable materials, but Jennifer says they come up on many hurdles.

“The waste sector workers and the families they support are underappreciated among Vietnamese culture, and I believe the quantitative data we collect and the opinions of the waste pickers captured through the accounts of their firsthand experiences will provide significant and critical perspectives on the prevention of plastic pollution,” she says.

Jennifer’s interest in these environmental, municipal, and community issues was sparked during a year she spent in China learning Mandarin and experiencing authentic day-to-day living with host families.

“I became aware of the complex environmental issues that pervade China as a result of its exponential population and economic growth, and it is something that has stuck with me ever since,” says Jennifer, who in 2008 worked as an English translator and tutor while studying Mandarin at Huanghshan University in Huanghshan City. “Air and water pollution are given much attention, but waste accumulation is clearly also one of the major obstacles to China’s sustainable development.”

Jennifer will be rolling up her sleeves to get a better handle on Ho Chi Minh City’s informal waste management strategy.

“I hope to learn how the locals view their waste management and its issues, and to support the people of Ho Chi Minh City with an approach that is respectful of their ways of living by carefully examining what matters to people on a local level,” says Jennifer, who has also worked as an academic advisor in UGA’s College of Engineering, a staff engineer at Athens-based Geo-Hydro Engineers, and an English language tutor in Stockholm, Sweden.

When she completes her Fulbright year, Jennifer plans to pursue her master’s degree in environmental engineering and continue her research of waste management strategies and plastic pollution issues with UGA professor Jenna Jambeck, recognized internationally for her work in ocean plastic pollution.

“I am committed to and passionate about solid waste management research, so I plan to continue studying methods that bridge the gap between society and the environment while also helping to keep plastic out of the oceans globally,” she says. “I hope this Fulbright experience will be the beginning of my career towards becoming a professional engineer specializing in waste management and the prevention of plastic pollution.”