The #NoPlasticStrawChallenge: Another Case of Greenwashing?

Blogs - Vietnam: Oct. 15, 2018

As Vietnam comes to terms with being one of the world’s worst plastic polluters, #iAMHCMC asks the question: Are campaigns like the #NoPlasticStrawChallenge an example of the public being environmentally hoodwinked?

No.

At least, that’s the opinion of long-term Australian expat Mark Bowyer, owner of The Old Compass Cafe in District 1, a venue that has taken up the challenge since opening.

“This movement is in its infancy”, he told #IAMHCMC, “but the seriousness of the plastic crisis is urgent. Anything that draws attention to the problem is good [but] the campaign shouldn’t limit itself to straws.”


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Acting locally

In Ho Chi Minh City, the #NoPlasticStrawChallenge has been taken up by several groups. Local NGO ChangeVN is one, well known for its work on a “Save the Rhino” campaign last year. In 2018 it has been joined by a new organisation called Zero Waste Saigon. On April 22, Earth Day, the latter addressed a gathering at the US Consulate, where it promoted its environmental message.

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As part of that address, it talked up locally-supplied, eco-friendly straw alternatives, which you can order in bulk via its website as well as a system of “zero waste medals”, which it will distribute to businesses who make a commitment to waste reduction practices. In exchange, these businesses will be promoted to the Zero Waste Saigon community, a growing collection of environmentally concerned residents.

The “But”

So, with social media commenters already asking the question and promotion of straw alternatives at fever pitch, is it fair to label the #NoPlasticStrawChallenge an example of “greenwashing”, the practice of spending more time promoting the perception of being green than actually being green in order to gain commercial advantage?

Fiona Li is another expat making alternatives available. She imports metal straws from China to supply the local food and beverage industry. At the moment, any order of more than 50 pieces will cost around 30,000VND per straw, while a bag of 500 locally produced plastic straws can cost as little as 7,000VND.

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Li agrees that this is still a barrier to entry for locally owned businesses especially, something she says she is working on with several factories.

“I am doing this because I realized that this was something I could contribute”, she said. “Big companies will only react once they see a benefit for them, so I think [of] this as a step towards that.”

The Long Game

Others, including lifelong devotee of sustainable living, bamboo farmer and product designer James Wolf, have questioned the need to produce any kind of alternative to straws at all.

“Non-plastic straws are a greener alternative”, he said, “but it’s something that can be done without. Part of sustainable living is not partaking, not consuming, not purchasing or using what’s unnecessary.”

Julia Mesner Burdge, co-founder of Zero Waste Saigon, is unfazed by any criticism.

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At the time of writing, the group had just announced a rule change to its Facebook page. Julia’s husband Michael, the other half of Zero Waste Saigon, posted a video explaining that they would now only approve posts about products for sale once a week, “to stop people feeling like they are being sold to all the time,” Michael says in the video, and “to help the culture of the group.”

“Communication is key”, Julia had told #IAMHCMC earlier, “and I’m focusing on those who will listen.”

“I’m not here to tell anyone what to do,” she continued. “The more we grow our effort, the more people will listen and be ready to act. It’s little, it is baby steps, but something is happening, I can see it.”

Video source: Lavendaire

Reach out to Zero Waste Saigon at facebook.com/zerowastesaigon. ChangeVN will launch its 21-Day #No Plastic Challenge in mid-June. Find out more at its website, changevn.org.

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