Vietnam inches towards disposing disposable plastic

By Long Nguyen   September 6, 2020 | 05:16 am PT
Many people and businesses have begun to reject single-use plastic, but it’s only a small step towards addressing a gigantic problem.

"No plastic straw, please," Nguyen Thanh Thuy reminded the waiter as she ordered iced coffee at a quiet coffee shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Thuy was not the only one in her group of friends hanging out at the coffee shop who had eschewed the use of plastic straws. She and a friend reached into their bags and pulled out a stainless steel and glass straw, respectively.

"It took me several months to get used to taking along reusable straws. I dropped the plastic ones because of their environmental impact," Thuy said, adding she uses a bigger straw for bubble tea and always has a cloth bag handy for shopping.

The 28-year-old woman is one of a growing number of Vietnamese, especially among the urban youth, to have reduced their reliance on single-use plastic and turned their attention to sustainable alternatives over the past few years.

A coffee shop offers grass straws. Photo courtesy of Zero Waste Saigon.

A coffee shop in HCMC serves grass straws. Photo courtesy of Zero Waste Saigon.

Among the millennial and generation Z Vietnamese, the habit of bringing their own bags to stores and markets and avoiding single use plastic items like straws, bottles and cutlery is gaining traction, particularly in big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where they do not mind paying more for non-plastic products.

"I read the news and watch TV, and so many people are talking about plastic waste in Vietnam and its severe effects, so I have changed my habits," said Le Thi Minh Ngoc, who works for a bank in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District.

Ripple effect

Many other citizens have begun pitching in after seeing their friends and family members adopt eco-friendly replacements for single-use plastic, creating a ripple effect and attracting more people.

Nguyen The Thanh, a student at Hanoi University of Science and Technology, recently bought two tote bags for his mother to go shopping after she saw him use them and wanted some for herself. Thanh said his mother used to bring home dozens of such bags from the market earlier.

The "word of mouth" campaign has been boosted by tech-savvy people using social networks to creatively and effectively convey green messages to large sections of the population.

Several environmental campaigns have attracted celebrity support, including NoStrawChallenge and NoPlasticBag, both calling on netizens to give up single-use plastic straws and bags.

Zero Waste Saigon, with over 19,000 Facebook members has become a popular platform for local residents to share resources and exchange ideas on stemming the plastic tide.

Swayed by public information and social media campaigns enumerating the damage that plastic has been inflicting on the environment, other people are also getting in on the act, including local authorities and government offices.

A common fight

Some cafés and restaurants have already begun offering straws made of metal, rice and grass. Supermarket chains like Saigon Co.op, the biggest in HCMC, Lotte Mart, and Big C, have started using banana leaves to wrap some of their products and are offering biodegradable shopping bags.

Some supermarket chains in Vietnam use banana leaves to wrap vegetables. Photo by VnExpress/Nghe Nguyen.

Some supermarket chains in Vietnam use banana leaves to wrap vegetables. Photo by VnExpress/Nghe Nguyen.

In 2019, nine corporate biggies joined hands to recycle packaging materials, most of which are plastic, aiming at 100 percent recycling by 2030.

Local authorities in central Thua Thien - Hue Province and Da Nang City have also required their offices and agencies to avoid bottled water and limit the use of plastic bags, straws and one-time wipes.

Last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc launched a campaign targeting zero disposable plastic use in urban shops, markets and supermarkets by 2021, extended nationwide to 2025. He acknowledged then the limitations, including personal and business mindsets, that have hampered efforts to reduce plastic waste in the country.

"Vietnam needs to take practical, specific action to control and prevent plastic waste generation, ensuring current and future generations can live in a clean, safe, and sustainable environment," Phuc said.

Recently, on August 20, government offices and agencies nationwide were asked to reduce plastic and choose eco-friendly alternatives during official events and daily activities. Ministries were also asked to research and issue policies encouraging people to use more eco-friendly materials and place more taxes on virgin plastic.

While the new habits and practices being adopted by individuals, businesses and government offices are an important start, the nation has a long way to go before the plastic menace is removed.

Nationwide, plastic bags and disposable boxes are still piling up and related waste management remains a huge problems.

The country generates about 2,500 tons of plastic waste a day, according to official figures. Its plastic waste discharge is among the highest in the world, according to Ipsos Business Consulting, a global growth strategy consulting firm based in Paris.

Every Vietnamese consumed only 3.8 kg of plastic in 1990, but 28 years later, this had risen to 41.3 kg. In Southeast Asia, only Malaysia (75.4 kg) and Thailand (66.4 kg) consume more.

Plastic waste treatment has been lagging far behind required levels. Nguyen Thanh Lam of the Vietnam Environment Administration admitted the country faces challenges in plastic waste treatment and management, given its inefficient waste recycling plants.

International experts have advised a complete ban on single-use plastic, but the government has opted for a more gradual approach.

Policy level interventions have also lagged far behind in tackling the problem, with taxes on plastic products remaining very low. This has disincentivized major changes in public behavior, with plastic being far more convenient and cheaper than eco-friendly alternatives.

At many supermarkets, biodegradable bags and banana leaves are only used in small quantities to wrap certain items such as vegetables, and the use of plastic bags has continued without let up.

Do Quoc Huy, marketing director for the Saigon Co.op supermarket chain, said there were still several difficulties in changing consumer behavior and ensuring organic alternatives.

Another reason sustaining the popularity of single-use plastic products is that they are "really cheap," Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Vo Tuan Nhan admitted.

The highest tax rate for single-use plastic bags of VND50,000 ($2.17) per kilogram is "not enough," he said at a conference in Hanoi last November.

Opinion is divided on Vietnam taking plastic reduction step by step, with some experts arguing that it is already too late and far more drastic is needed urgently.

Hoang Duong Tung, a senior environment official, said, however, that the commitment shown by federal and local authorities is a positive sign in the battle against plastic.

Thuy, sitting in the Hanoi coffee shop, said she "knows it is not easy to ditch plastic bags and styrofoam boxes" because they are far too convenient and affordable in a country like Vietnam.

But she remained positive. Cleaning her straw with a brush after finishing her "ca phe sua da" (iced coffee with condensed milk), she said: "Even if the impact of using reusable straws and bags are minor, they create awareness and ripple effects attracting more warriors to the cause."

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