Vietnam has a Plastic Waste Problem. Here’s what’s being done

By: Brennan Lagman

In District 2, just a few kilometers from Saigon’s city center, a small nucleus of women gather to address a local issue with far-reaching, global implications. They are part of a growing movement of people in Ho Chi Minh City seeking to address the city’s visible plastic problem and leading the way in undertaking the broader Vietnamese and Southeast Asia’s behemoth of a plastic waste issue.

Beneath the heat of the equatorial sun, Ho Chi Minh City is filled with a haze of dynamism. Projected to be the second fastest growing city in Asia by 2021, Saigon is Vietnam’s driving force of change – what people do or don't do here have rippling implications for the rest of the Country.

As the city and country expands at such a fast pace, the impacts on the environment accelerate as well. Saigon is just as rife with environmental challenges as it is filled with Cafes and streetside canteens. Besides a visibly degrading quality of air, the city contributes a hefty quarter million tonnes of plastic waste to the country’s annual total, most of which can be found clogging up waterways, poisoning local ecosystems, and eventually making its way into the ocean.

But don’t let the smog, smoke, and refuse fool you. The people who call the city home – both local and foreign – bring a vast array of skills, knowledge, and expertise to the table; and where complacency once reigned supreme, conversation is taking place. People are pooling their resources to mitigate Saigon’s plastic footprint.

I wanted to uncover what was being done, so I sat down with a small group of professional residents who are passionate about this solving this plastic problem. Here’s what I learned:

ReThink Plastic Vietnam

ReThink Plastic Vietnam is an event turned platform, started by a sharp team of women who decided to jump to the front lines of this challenge. The forerunner of the team is Madeleine Van Hasselt, a change manager and expert on behavioral change management. Another key ReThink teammate is Dr Nika Salvetti from Italy. Dr Salvetti has extensive experience in global development work and expertise in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability research and advocacy. She is a prolific expert and leader in her field, consulting with corporations to facilitate socially responsible change. Other high-contributing team members include Raffy Luik, Maaike Evers, Karen Smit and Hester Eggink.

Collectively the team possesses a level of skill, expertise, knowledge and– most importantly– passion, that is as effervescent as it is undeniably impressive. And they have dedicated themselves to sparking conversation, bridging connections, and building a platform for key changemakers to exchange ideas, ask difficult questions, and come up with lasting solutions.

The Rethink Plastic Team are part of a growing movement of people galvanizing change from every angle imaginable. They are busy at work finding and connecting people and organizations, answering important questions, and searching for answers. But what exactly are they looking for?

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: thenational.ae

A Quest for Answers to Vietnam’s Plastic Problem

Just a month earlier, Van Hasselt addressed a crowd of over 100 community members at Ho Chi Minh City’s first ‘ReThink Plastic’ seminar. The groundbreaking seminar focused on exploring the realities of plastic waste distribution and management in Vietnam while providing a platform for organic, solution-based conversations to germinate amongst attendees.

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: facebook.com/rethinkplastic

The ReThink Plastic team in conjunction with famous Australian journalist and director Craig Leeson, Nguyen Thi Thanh My Deputy Director of DoNRE (HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment), engaged local business owners, researchers and policymakers, and with the support of Dr Carel Richter, Consul-General of the Netherlands and corporate representatives from DBAV (Dutch Business Association in Vietnam), LDC (Louis Dreyfus Company), Phillips and Heineken the ReThink seminar sent a clear message: It’s time everyone does their part to ReThink our relationship with Plastic.

Since then, ReThink Plastic has evolved from an isolated event to a platform for ongoing conversation. An impressive 40,000 people on Social media and four thousand people in Vietnam have been engaged through direct or indirect action.

What started with awareness-raising has led to people posing the important questions. And now, the ReThink team is pooling their resources, expertise, and connections to help people find answers.

During our conversation, Van Hasselt explained that she was not always so active when it comes to reducing plastic waste. Like most people, she suffered from an out of sight, out of mind mentality-bothered by plastic, but not enough to do anything about it - until she saw one of the most important documentaries of our time, and one of the sparks that ignited this ReThink Plastic movement in Vietnam.

A Plastic Ocean by Craig Leeson Encited Action

Craig Leeson’s remarkably shocking film titled ‘A Plastic Ocean’ hits you like a visceral trash tidal wave. One of Australia’s most prolific journalists, Leeson uses his storytelling prowess to inform and inspire viewers to turn complacency into urgency.

A Plastic Ocean’s investigation of plastic’s insidious infiltration of the earth’s bio-systems exposes the true scope of the world's plastic problem. The message is as undeniable as it is explicit: Our dependence on and consumption of plastic is an issue we should all be talking about.

Van Hasselt watched the film with her daughter and was moved to act. She wanted to know what was being done and what could be done at all levels of Vietnamese society and sought out key-players at the forefront of the fight, starting with people in her network.

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: independent.co.uk

But, why would European Internationals residing in Ho Chi Minh City dedicate so much time and effort to solving this local problem? Well, this plastic problem is actually so big that it has global implications that we will look at next.

Vietnam’s Plastic Contribution

It’s no secret that Vietnam boasts some of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after nature, food-tourism, and historical and cultural experiences. However, like many places in this region of the world, it doesn't take long to see plastic...everywhere.

From marketplaces to convenience stores and coffee shops to street vendors, almost anything you purchase comes with some form of single-use plastic. Considering the historical popularization of plastic throughout the developed world since the 1950’s, it makes sense: Plastic packaging is convenient, cheap, sterile, and durable. Some even argue that plastic drives development.

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: squarespace.com

But where does all of this plastic end up? Take a look around! Vietnam’s streetside, waterways, and green areas–discarded spoons, straws, poly bags, and styrofoam lunch containers abound. But that’s barely the tip of the iceberg. Annually, Vietnam churns out the fourth largest volume of plastic waste in the world. Thanks to the rivers and waterways that act as arteries connecting the land to the sea, the country adds significantly to a whopping 8-million tonnes of plastic proliferating in our oceans each year.

However, Vietnam is not to blame alone. Although many countries in Southeast Asia are poisoning the world’s oceans, plastic is as much a global concern as it is a global commodity.

Vietnam’s Plastic waste: A Global Cause for Concern

Leeson’s ‘A Plastic Ocean’ makes an undeniable case: as a global community, we’ve become far too dependent on plastic, and the effects are terrifyingly unknown. In fact, each year, we produce more than 300 millions tons of plastic, half of which are single use. A staggering 80% of plastic debris in the ocean comes from land. Once in the sea, the plastic is broken down by the sun, the action of the waves, and contact with sea life.

The smaller particles become what are called microplastics, or tiny particles of plastic that are invisible to the naked eye. These particles attract harmful chemical pollutants that are stored and then released directly into the fatty tissues of sea animals that mistakenly consume them. And evidence shows that these are being consumed by a vast majority of sea creatures including plankton. That means the pollutants have gone through a process of bioaccumulation to infiltrate everything from the ocean floor, all the way up the food chain to the world’s number one predator: Us.

According to a study cited in ‘A Plastic Ocean’ 97 percent of U.S. adults have traces of Bisphenol A (BPA), - a toxic, endocrine interrupting chemical used to make plastic more durable - in their blood. And children aged 6 to 11 have up to three-times that concentration. The presence of plastic in urine has been linked to childhood obesity, infertility, and certain types of cancers in men and women.

So what does this mean for the world's health? The scary thing is that we don’t actually know how far reaching the implications are, and we are just barely beginning to understand.

Microplastics in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam’s plastic use is part of a larger, more complex global issue, which begs the question: How does the problem pan out on a local and national level? And that is exactly what ReThink Plastic sought to uncover.

Saigon, the country’s most populous urban center, produces over 250,000 tons of plastic refuse annually, and 80 percent of it ends up recycled or disposed of directly into the environment. What does this mean for the health of this city’s 8 million inhabitants?

Dr Emilie Stradya researcher at the University of Technology in HCMC who is funded by the French Institute of Research and Development (IRD), and keynote speaker at Rethink Plastichas joined forces with local scientists at the Asian Water Research Center in Saigon to look for answers in the elements.

Dr Strady and her team have surveyed the presence of macro, micro, and nano plastics in the Saigon river, air, soil, and fish samples. In the river they found shocking concentrations exceeding 1000 times that of European rivers. Being that this is the first project of its kind, the ramifications of such numbers are vastly unknown.

Video source: IRD

What Needs to Be Done to Curb Plastic Use in Vietnam?

For people who are aware of the harm that plastic causes the environment, it's easy to get frustrated with the sheer amount of plastic that people consume in Vietnam, and the complacent attitude of most locals. Like many developing countries, plastic has become a vital a part of Vietnam’s economic growth because of its durability and cost-effectiveness.

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: cleantechrising.com

Thanks to globalization and food commodification, the public was forced to buy into a plastic economy much faster than they could understand and adapt the prevailing socio-structural ecosystem to absorb its harmful environmental implications. Now, people's day to day lives require an alarming amount of plastic.

However, it's important to remember intention vs. impact: most people don't have the intention to be environmentally harmful, even though that is their impact.

That’s why, alongside legislation, all levels of government should consider creative methods to engage the public with critical information. This includes communal education, and awareness-raising campaigns that target community members, key stakeholders, and people at all levels of society. Getting real people to look around at their own communities and care about the problem is the first step to a well-needed collective, grassroots rallying for solutions.

Leeson adds that sustainable solutions in any context include developing a better infrastructure equipped to process plastic waste effectively, banning single-use plastics completely, directing monetary resources to sustainable companies so the market will follow, and most importantly– educating the younger generation.

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: ecoactionarlington.org

Businesses Play a Vital Role In Sustainable Action in Vietnam

As pointed out by Leeson and ReThink Plastic, it's not just up to government and locals: businesses and corporations also play an integral role. Though consumerism is the main driving force behind the plastic economy, discourse often shies away from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Dr Salvetti’s field of expertise.

She says, "To address plastic, we need to change how we think about products – the way they’re sourced, packaged and sold, and where they go after the product expires". Dr Salvetti says that the solutions that companies must put forth can't be band-aids, they must be willing to make a long-term commitment to finding solutions and evolving their business model at the fundamental level.

“Changing the corporate relationship with plastic needs to become a part of the company’s mission and values. The change will not happen overnight, but companies need to see the value in the long-term conversation,” She adds.

The ReThink Plastic team is a proponent for building connections between companies. Since the entire production chain is entangled in supply-chain relationships, it’s about businesses and corporations working with each other to find solutions.

What is Being Done about Vietnam’s Plastic Waste?

However complacent local businesses, community members, and government officials may seem, ReThink Plastic proved that there are increasing efforts to address this precarious issue.

Strategies implemented by the Vietnamese Government

The director of Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE)Ba Nguyen Thi Thanh, spoke at ReThink to discuss what is being done at different levels of government. Thanh says all 63 of the republic’s major municipalities are implementing their own strategies to manage solid waste.

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: anthesisgroup.com

The Cities of Hoi An and Hai Phong hold some of the highest concentrations of plastic waste due to the prevalence of manufacturers who import plastic from around the country and the globe. The National Government has recently followed China and placed heavy restrictions on such imports.

Thanh says city Officials in Ho Chi Minh City have deployed 3 long-term plans to raise awareness, reduce, reuse, and recycle solid waste. Developed in 2010 and implemented 3 years later, the plan seeks to reduce solid waste by an ambitious 60 percent.

Popular Solutions outside of Vietnam include government enticing local and foreign business owners and corporations to buy into the sustainable economy with subsidies or tax incentives. Also, raising tariffs on single-use plastics or deterring their use through tougher laws and regulations are what many cities and countries around the globe are doing, however, the drawbacks on commerce and the local economy are hard to work around.

Though a noble effort, the greatest challenge has been getting the general public to value such initiatives, especially in places like markets and streetside where disposable plastic is an integral part of everyday life.

Community Solutions

When it comes to community solutions, there are many examples of locals taking charge. In Vung Tau, a popular beach city just southeast of HCMC a community-led group called Chạy Nhặt, or ‘picking up’ in english, hosts daily beach cleanups. The group was started by Mr. Phat Nguyen, a Vung Tau Local.

In Danang, city officials are working closely with locals and businesses to carry out the ‘Say No to Plastic’ campaign works directly with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to upgrade the cities waste management capacities and raise public awareness to reduce the amount of single-use plastic consumption.

In Saigon, a facebook Group called Zero Waste Saigon has over nine thousand members, a majority of which are locals. The group– which has since become a small startup for selling zero-waste products– is a platform for Ho Chi Minh City residents to share resources and exchange solutions and ideas. Since its beginning, many isolated sustainability businesses have found a way to share and interact.

Re-think plastic vietnamImage source: birdlife.org

Business Solutions

Rethink Plastic also provided a platform for the following local entrepreneurs and businesses to share their innovative solutions and initiatives. Here are some of the businesses that shared their products at the seminar:

Wave Vietnam

Started by foreigners Roberto Guzman and Malou Claessens, Wave creates sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics. The company developed a plastic bag that is made from cassava protein. The bags are durable, waterproof, and completely harmless to fish and wildlife, dissolving in water above 80 degrees Celsius.

Upcycling

This locally owned company recycles plastics by turning refuse into durable outdoor materials for parks, gardens, and residences. They create things such as benches, poles, planks, etc. The materials are completely UV resistance, nonslip, and maintenance free.

Reform

Investigates plastic waste barriers at meso and macro levels working with key stakeholders to facilitate locally inspired solutions through the informal infrastructure.

Impact Vietnam

A sustainability advisory organization that provides resources for local tourism, finance, water, IT, and agribusiness sectors. Their most recent project is titled the ‘Refill my Bottle Campaign', placing water refill stations at different locations throughout the city. People can use an app to find where they can refill, earning points for discounts and prizes. Local companies who use the refill station have to pay nothing and benefit from the added foot traffic. So far they have acquired 100 stations and counting.

The Future of ReThink Plastic Vietnam

ReThink Plastic was an event that acted as a catalyst for conversation. From the conception of the seminar and beyond, the group has dedicated themselves to ReThink Plastic as a force for meaningful change in Vietnam. And, they are aware that this is much bigger than them.

Since the event, ReThink has become a platform. Many corporations, schools, start-ups, and community members have become aware of the daunting challenge at hand, and looked to ReThink for solutions. Dr Salvetti says that no one place can provide all of the answers or solutions, but ReThink’s goal is “to engage all stakeholders at all levels in a sort of cultured thinking and common agenda and see how that translates in to real world practical changes.”

Rethink Plastic is a big deal for Ho Chi Minh City, but only a tiny part of a global puzzle. The important takeaway is this: the conversation on how to reduce plastic waste in Vietnam is happening and we all have a duty to do our part. Plastic pollution affects everyone, and we all have a duty to do our small part to educate ourselves, rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle, and take actionable steps towards a plastic-free future.

Banner Image source: waycarbon.com

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