While U.S. companies scramble into China, one American recycler is hoping that an early presence in Vietnam will pay off.
Mike Domino, president of Domino Plastics Co. Inc. in Setauket, N.Y., said a recent trip there convinced him that the country is interested in expanding ties with U.S. businesses, 30 years after the last American helicopters left and his country's conflict with Vietnam ended.
So Domino has established a relationship with a sales agent there and has started exporting waste plastic from the United States to what he says is a small but active recycling industry in Vietnam.
Domino said one Vietnamese trade group he met with told him that the country wants to expand its plastics recycling industry capacity from about 110 million pounds per year to 660 million pounds.
``The reason why we're working so ambitiously to get business with Vietnam is because we feel the first company that really spends the time, and gets their name known, will reap the benefits,'' Domino said.
In his trip around the country, he said it seemed there was a much stronger Japanese and Korean presence than an American one, which seemed limited to KFC and Avon.
Domino said his company, which brokers recycled plastic, shipped two orders there in March, sending post-industrial PET from a water bottle plant in Hawaii and plastic film from New York.
Domino also wants to export Vietnamese post-consumer PET regrind to other parts of Asia, where the company has sales agents, and it is looking at sourcing finished plastic products from Vietnam as well, he said. The company also plans to exhibit at a trade show there in May.
About 90 percent of Vietnam's recycled PET bottles are exported, and 10 percent are used in the country, mainly to make fibers, he said. There is demand locally for recycled high density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and low density PE film, he said.
There appear to be about 1,000 recycling facilities in Vietnam, most of them small, family-owned and very labor-intensive shops, he said.
Domino said the plastics industry there is more developed than some might expect. For example, he found one factory extruding high-quality window lineals.
But the country has a strong need for material, and companies expressed a lot of interest in getting material directly from the United States, he said. Vietnamese companies have had to use distributors in Asia to get American resin - at a substantial markup - so Domino said his firm would try to sell virgin plastic there as well.
The trip was not entirely about business, however.
Domino took along his cousin Michael Primont, a Seattle lawyer and Vietnam War veteran, who also lived in China for much of the 1990s and helped Domino establish business ties in Asia. The two of them made their way to the village of Rach Kien, where Primont spent a lot of time as a young Army officer in 1967.
With the help of their Vietnamese sales agent, Hoang Luat, they found the house that Primont and other American soldiers had used as a command center, and they started talking with the family living there now.
They learned that the head of the household, who had been a boy during the war, lost his own father, a North Vietnamese soldier, in the American conflict.
At one point, Primont told the family he felt like he owed them rent for his time there. After a moment of silence, the family said that would be OK, and Domino's agent suggested paying $20. So Primont reached into his wallet and pulled out a $20 bill.
Both men said the family seemed welcoming and friendly to them.
Primont, who at times had been reluctant to make the trip, said he left with the impression that many of the war's traumas were not so sharp, for himself and the villagers: ``After 40 years, I felt that time had healed most wounds, for both of us.''