Public reluctance impedes fight against plastic

By Linh Do   October 24, 2019 | 04:40 pm PT
Public reluctance impedes fight against plastic
A customer uses plastic bags when shopping. Photo acquired by VnExpress.
Vietnam seeks to reduce plastic use, but is hampered by people seeing plastic bags as convenient and rampant evasion of plastic tax.  

Every evening Nguyen Thi Phong, a Hanoi resident, discharges as many as five plastic bags as she collects her trash for the day. 

Sometimes she tries to dump the trash together in one or two plastic bags, and sometimes she doesn’t bother. "If I’m the only one who tries to reduce plastic waste, it won’t make much difference," Phong told VnExpress International. "Everybody has to do it."

Phong expresses a general sentiment these days when it comes to reducing plastic bags and other plastic waste. In recent years, thanks to media coverage, people have become increasingly aware of the harmful effects of plastic waste on the environment and human health. 

However, the extent of behavioral change varies as individual shoppers, store owners and supermarkets all have their own ways of dealing, or not dealing, with plastic waste. 

For Ngo Thi Thao, another Hanoian, carrying a basket to markets as an alternative to using plastic bags is too inconvenient. "In the past we did use baskets. But now, as I drive my motorbike around, a basket would be cumbersome."

Her opinion is shared by other shoppers such as Nguyen Thi Thanh, who has gradually switched from baskets to plastic bags since they are provided freely by shops. 

She was quoted as saying by a media outlet that though she knows about the harm plastic bags cause, she uses them because they are convenient. 

For many people, plastic bags are still too convenient to give up since they are small and light, and can be used to carry many things. Thus, even when they buy a few little items like lemons or green onions, people have a habit of asking for plastic bags to carry them and a seller who refuses is stigmatized as cheap.  

For their part, many shops in traditional markets and even supermarkets are yet to offer more environmental-friendly options to replace plastic bags. 

Thao said though she is open to alternatives, she has rarely seen supermarkets in Hanoi offer anything other than plastic bags.     

In HCMC, many supermarkets have recently switched from plastic bags to alternatives such as biodegradable bags, banana leaves, hyacinth leaves, bamboo strings, and paper boxes. 

But they are only being used in small quantities to wrap certain items such as fragrant herbs, winter melons and bitter gourds.   

According to Do Quoc Huy, marketing director of the Saigon Co.op supermarket chain, there are still difficulties in changing consumer habits, as well as in ensuring organic alternatives meet food sanitation and hygiene standards.

Green onions are wrapped in banana leaves at a supermarket in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Nghe Nguyen.

Green onions are wrapped in banana leaves at a supermarket in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Nghe Nguyen.

In June Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc kicked off a national anti-plastic waste program under which the government aims to eliminate single-use plastic bags and plastic products by 2025. 

According to Ipsos Business Consulting, a France-based global growth strategy consulting firm, Vietnam’s plastic waste per capita is the third highest in Southeast Asia after jumping over 10 times in the last three decades.

In Vietnam every household uses about a kilogram of plastic bags every month on average. Hanoi and HCMC each discharge around 80 tons of plastic waste, including plastic bags, every day.  

Huge production  

The government is not helping much with an environmental tax that is not enforced effectively to curb plastic bag consumption.  

Despite an environmental tax of VND50,000 ($2.2) imposed since the beginning of this year on every kilogram, plastic bags are still sold at dirt-cheap prices everywhere.  

In HCMC, plastic bags of all sizes, colors and thickness are packaged in sets and sold by the kilogram, which can contain over 1,000 pieces and cost VND30,000-60,000 ($1.3-2.6),  depending on thickness and size. 

In Hanoi, they are much cheaper, with the transparent white bags used to contain hot food being the most expensive at VND45,000 ($1.9). 

Over the years, instead of thousands of billions of dong ($1=VND23,200) in environmental tax being collected, the pickings have been meager and even decreasing, despite the rapidly increasing use of plastic bags.

According to the Ministry of Finance, tariffs on plastic bag imports were worth only VND20.1 billion ($874,000) in 2016 and VND22.7 billion ($987,000) in 2017. 

According to Dr. Dinh Trong Thinh of the Academy of Finance in Hanoi, if tax collection is efficient, the prices of plastic bags will increase by 4-5 times and help curb consumption.  

Dr. Nguyen Hoang Nam of the Institute of Strategy and Policy on Natural Resources and Environment under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment suggested imposing an environment tax directly on plastic bag consumers.  

The media quoted him saying taxing consumers seems to be a more common practice worldwide as it immediately changes behavior and helps reduce plastic bag use. 

He has another suggestion: taxing by the bag, rather than by the kilogram. He said every plastic bag should be subjected to a tax to prevent very thin yet harmful bags from getting through cheaply.  

Vu Vinh Phu, former chairman of the Hanoi Supermarket Association, suggested cutting taxes for producers of biodegradable bags to help them reduce prices and make them more competitive. 

Phan Thi Thuy Phuong, director of public relations at General II Trading and Manufacturing Limited Company in HCMC, said there are almost 3,000 plastic bag producers in HCMC, and the government should help them switch to producing biodegradable bags.

It would not be too difficult to switch because they do not have to invest in new equipment or human resources, or use more electricity or water for production, she said, explaining all they have to do is add biodegradable additives as an extra raw material.

As for shoppers like Phong, they think the best way to reduce plastic bags is for shops and supermarkets to offer better bags and packaging themselves. 

There were good tidings from Thao: she might consider carrying a sedge or fabric bag when shopping.

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