Potatoes To Plastic
Words by – Alexander Cutler Image by – Alexander Cutler

Potatoes to Plastic originated after a few weeks of research into the city of Hanoi, in Vietnam. Before travelling anywhere, I always research extensively. I am interested in social topics like affordable housing, minority populations and issues surrounding urbanisation, and I use photography to explore these. I have a keen interest in urbanism and I’m normally drawn to documenting cities and architecture, so this project was a little different. For me, the process of researching my subject is just as important as the physical act of photographing. It enables me to gain a good understanding of the place, which I can then share with other people. In early 2018, I read an article about Vietnam being one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters. This didn’t come as a surprise, as I has traveled to Asia before and seen their excessive consumption of plastic. What did shock me, however, was reading about the unregulated and informal ways in which people are dealing with the problem. I found out about a village called Minh Khai, which was only a few miles outside of Hanoi. Once a village mainly producing sweet potatoes, it has turned to recycling the nearby cities’ plastic waste, as a more stable way of making money. Villagers have converted their yards and homes into recycling stations, burning and shredding waste to create new plastic products. Plastic chips are being sold in huge quantities to big international companies. Their new enterprise meant that some villagers went from having very little money to being extremely wealthy. The village also imports plastic waste from European countries, an unregulated process which not only damages the environment, but also the health of the workers, who spend day after day breathing in the fumes. On entering Minh Khai through the red archway, I was taken aback by the overwhelming amount of plastic. The stench and thick smoke from burning plastic filled the air, it was almost unbearable. The network of people handling plastic was impressive; mopeds piled high with plastic transported it from one location to another, whilst women, covered from head to toe to escape the sun, sifted through piles of waste to separate different materials. The whole process, although dangerous, was impressive and I could see they had developed a successful system, despite the chaotic appearance. I wanted to highlight the manual labour involved in the recycling process, rather than the mechanical processes. The subjects and architecture in my photos help to give a sense of the scale of the waste. The images of people working highlight the effects our over-consumption has on other people’s lives, something that is often very easy to forget or ignore. As a western society we don’t see first-hand the impact it has on our planet. I hope that my images highlight this and encourage people to consider how their actions affect the environment.