Plastic Ocean: Shopping Bags in HCMC

By: Keely Burkey

Walk into pretty much any store in Vietnam, and the process is generally the same. Bring your items to the counter, pay and receive a plastic bag for transport. Buy a carton of orange juice along with some toothpaste, and you’ll most likely receive two plastic bags: one for the orange juice and one for the toothpaste.

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The convenience might be nice, but the results? Tragic and irreversible.

Trash Vortex

It’s estimated that a staggering 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year. At this rate, by 2025, there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish.

In HCMC alone, 8,000 tonnes of garbage is produced daily, and according to VietnamNet, 10 percent of this waste is plastic shopping bags. These have devastating effects on the aesthetic landscape along with marine life in general.

If you haven’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – or its more ominous nomenclature, the Pacific Trash Vortex – yet, here’s the ultimate wake-up call: according to a study put out by Greenpeace, no less than 270,000 square kilometres in the central North Pacific Ocean is filled with plastic trash swept together by the ocean’s various currents.

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Captain Charles Moore, the environmental activist who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, spoke to us about this issue in an interview via Skype. He said that the reliance on plastic goods we’re currently seeing in many ASEAN countries (the biggest plastic polluters, according to The Asian Foundation, are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand) is a byproduct of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

“Super rapid development, like we’ve been seeing in Asia, has to leave a lot of issues by the wayside,” he said.

“We now have this permanent detritus, plastic, which doesn’t decompose. And it’s versatile. It packages everything and creates a kind of feeling of wealth amongst a poorer population because it’s things.” But when they photodegrade and break, they don’t simply go away.

Solutions, however, are hard to come by. After all, customers will always demand some vessel to carry products with ease. If not plastic, then what? David Bonnin, co-founder of Direct Imex in HCMC, offers a few solutions.

The small company run out of District 2 provides suggestions to companies looking to switch to more environmentally friendly bags. Around 30 plastic manufacturers currently operate in and around HCMC, and it’s Bonnin’s job to communicate with them about multi-use bags, biodegradable bags or compostable bags. However, each bagging option comes with its own, well, baggage.

No Easy Solution

For example, take biodegradable bags. There’s still a certain amount of plastic that goes into making them, meaning that plastic will still exist for hundreds of years on land or in the ocean, just in smaller pieces. There’s a market for these bags, and in some ways that’s a problem: biodegradable bags look and feel exactly like regular single-use bags, leading some companies to simply stamp “biodegradable” on regular plastic bags to increase their value.

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Compostable bags, on the other hand, are an entirely different animal (or vegetable, as the case may be). The bags made in Vietnam are composed out of a tapioca-based formula, meaning that within six months, these bags will completely dissolve if left in a compostable area. This seems like the perfect solution, but Bonnin regretfully informs us that the complicated production process makes each bag cost twice as much as its biodegradable counterpart, making this product a hard sell.

The best answer? Multi-use bags.

Made from thick plastic, cloth or any other sturdy material, multi-use bags will dramatically cut down on the amount of bags bought and given away. According to Thanh Nien News, a Vietnamese family on average uses more than a kilogramme of plastic bags every month. With a few sturdy cloth or multi-use plastic bags, this alarming number could be brought down to almost nothing.

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The key to making this work, however, is educating consumers. As Bonnin points out, “There’s no use providing multi-use plastic bags if everyone uses them like single-use plastic bags. At that point, there’s more plastic involved so the waste would be even greater.”

With Vietnamese consumers enjoying the manifold conveniences associated with plastic bags, making the switch might be the toughest challenge of all.


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