Childhood memories trigger a straw revolution

By Thanh Thu, Tinh Nguyen, Phan Anh   January 16, 2020 | 11:55 am GMT+7
Childhood memories trigger a straw revolution
A man cuts down reeds for making straws in Kien Giang Province, southern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress.

Huynh Van No grew up with reeds all around him.

He has fond memories of older kids helping him drink coconut water buy sucking it using a reed stem.

But his childhood memories only acquired practical significance much later, when he traveled abroad as a tour guide.

During his trips, he became more aware of the pollution problems facing the country and the world, and was struck by the ways in which some people in some countries were responding.

It was on one of these trips that the thought struck him.

"I thought to myself: ‘Why shouldn’t I try using reeds as straws, which are both environmentally friendly and can provide jobs for my people?’"

No, 27, is a native of Go Quao District in the southern province of Kien Giang.

Today, he's the proud owner of a workshop that produces reed straws that are selling well, and he is eyeing the possibility of expanding export horizons in the future.

Huynh Van No chooses reeds to make his straws. Photo by VnExpress.

Huynh Van No chooses reeds to make his straws. Photo by VnExpress.

Reeds are grasses that grow wild in different areas of the Mekong Delta. No first thought of making straws with the reeds back in April last year.

The reeds he uses are taken from the U Minh forest, about 20 km away from Go Quao.

Huynh Van Tu, No's brother, transports the reeds from the forest to the workshop on boats. Reeds that are straight, of a certain maturity and not too segmented are selected to make the straws.

How they are made

First, the reeds are dried to get rid of the moisture. Then they are cut into 15-21 cm segments, depending on customers' requests. No had to create the machines needed to process the reeds on his own.

The most important steps in reed processing are cleaning them and making them hollow. As these are make-or-break steps, meticulousness is an absolute requirement, No said.

A worker uses a tool to make the reeds hollow. Photo by VnExpress.

A worker uses a tool to make the reeds hollow. Photo by VnExpress.

The reeds, now closer to becoming straws, are dried again for about two days until they are around 70 percent dry. Each straw from No's workshop costs VND1,000-1,200, and can be stored for up to six months in dry conditions.

"My workshop has already sold around 500,000 straws both domestically and in Taiwan, Singapore and, in the near future, Germany."

He said his workshop employs 12-15 workers, each earning between VND150,000-170,000 ($6.47-$7.34) a day.

"I hope to scale up the business model so plastic straws can be replaced."

No and his co-workers pack the straws into bags. Photo by VnExpress.

No and his co-workers pack the straws into bags. Photo by VnExpress.

Others in the game

The concept of eco-friendly straws isn't new.

With growing awareness of the plastic waste problem, some businesses have begun using straws made of bamboo, steel, glass and even dough, and others have realized potential opportunities in making these alternative straws.

Le Xuan Ha, who runs a workshop that produces bamboo spoons and straws in the north central Thanh Hoa Province, said they can make between 50,000 and 100,000 straws a month.

"The monthly revenue from the straws is VND50 million ($2,159)," he said.

With more cafes and restaurants making the shift and even supermarket chains like Saigon Co.op, the biggest in Saigon, stopping sales of plastic straws, demand for eco-friendly products is set to rise. The ancient town of Hoi An, a UNESCO cultural heritage site, has also favored the common reed straws over plastic ones since 2018.

Vietnam is the world's fourth-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution, according to a 2015 study by the University of Georgia. Its plastic waste per capita is the third highest in Southeast Asia after increasing more than 10-fold in the last three decades, according to a 2019 report by Ipsos Business Consulting, a global growth strategy consulting firm based in Paris.

Every Vietnamese consumed only 3.8 kg of plastic in 1990, though this had risen to 41.3 kg 28 years later. In Southeast Asia, only Malaysia (75.4 kg) and Thailand (66.4 kg) generate more, said the Ipsos report.

Sustainability concerns

Despite their obvious environmental advantage, alternative straws, especially those made from plant products, are not a permanent solution.

Tran Minh Tien, 32, who runs a company in Long An Province that produces straws made from the Lepironia articulate grass, said these cannot be a permanent fix given the limited supply of the grass in Vietnam. As demand increases, Tien said he has to be careful about how fast he can expand his operations.

"Right from the start, I formed this idea around the fact that the harvesting can never exceed the grasses' natural reproduction rate," he told Reuters .

"Nature has to have enough time to recover as well."

 
 
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