Vietnam breaks plastic stranglehold in 2019

By Minh Nga   December 20, 2019 | 08:05 pm PT
Plastic pollution is nothing new in Vietnam, though not until this year have government and businesses alike taken the problem seriously.

Vietnam's large-scale fight against plastic commenced in April with a series of supermarkets and stores across the nation ditching common veggie packaging for traditional banana leaves.

Several operators said the move formed part of a plan to up the use of a diverse range of environment-friendly products.

Previously, some cafés and restaurants had already encouraged the reduction of plastic by offering straws made of more environmentally friendly materials such as metal, rice and grass. Supermarket chain Saigon Co.op, the biggest in HCMC, had stopped selling plastic straws.

Vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves at a store in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VTCNews.

Vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves at a store in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VTCNews.

Central Thua Thien-Hue was one of the first provinces to require government employees not to use plastic at work. Offices and agencies across the region are now required to avoid disposable bottles smaller than 20 liters, as well as plastic bags and one-time wipes. The municipal finance department, meanwhile, is not allowed to pay for disposable plastic products.

In June, Vietnam's escape from plastic took a sharp turn when Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc launched a campaign targeting zero disposable plastic use in urban shops, markets and supermarkets by 2021, extended nationwide by 2025.

Phuc acknowledged limitations remain, including personal and business mindsets regarding plastic waste. "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."

According to Food and Agriculture Organization, Vietnam discards over 1.8 million tons of plastic waste, with only 27 percent recycled.

United Nations Environment Program confirmed Vietnam as the world's fourth largest marine plastic polluter after China, Indonesia and the Philippines. It has been estimated the country dumps an average of 300,000-700,000 tons of plastic waste into the ocean per year, accounting for 6 percent of the world's marine plastics.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc praises Thua Thien Hue Province for doing a good job in replacing plastic water bottles with glass bottles and cups during a meeting with the provinces administration in June, 2019. Photo courtesy of the governments office. 

PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc praises Thua Thien Hue Province for replacing plastic water bottles with glass equivalents at a meeting in June 2019. Photo courtesy of the government's office.

To improve the campaign's appeal, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment appointed the increasingly popular Vietnamese national men's football team and its coach as ambassadors.

Responding to the PM’s call, a number of businesses and organizations have joined the race in taking responsibility for their environmental footprint. 

HCMC Open University and HCMC Medicine and Pharmacy University announced a ban on plastic straws and bottled water on campus. Teachers and students have to bring their own bottles or use recyclable ones provided by the university.

In June, nine corporate biggies joined hands to recycle packaging materials, most of which are plastic, aiming at 100 percent recycling by 2030. The founding members of PRO Vietnam include nine major multinationals and local giants, some competitors: TH Group that runs popular TH True Milk brand, Coca-Cola Vietnam, Friesland Campina Vietnam, La Vie, Nestle, Nutifood, Suntory PepsiCo Vietnam, Tetra Pak and Universal Robina Corporation.

The alliance, now at 12 members, will endeavor to increase recycling rates and minimize the amount of used packaging dumped into the environment. The environment ministry in September signed a Memorandum of Understanding to aid the alliance when needed.

In the same month, Vietnam Airlines, Bamboo Airways, VietJet Air and Jetstar Pacific confirmed they are planning to phase out single-use plastics, saying the long-term change would be permanent.

In late July, the Ministry of Health requested all clinics, hospitals and medical centers to enhance the use of environmentally-friendly materials and work towards putting an end to all single-use plastic products and persistent plastic bags.

A hospital in Ho Chi Minh Citys District 3 uses paper bag to wrap medicines for its patients. Photo courtesy of the hospital

A hospital in Ho Chi Minh City's District 3 provides paper bags in which to wrap medicines. Photo courtesy of the hospital.

One after another, major hospitals across the nation rushed to replace single-use plastic cups with glass and ceramic alternatives, and plastic bags with paper equivalents.

Friendship Hospital in Hanoi has gone as far as ditching plastic films produced by imaging tools such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), switching to storing data digitally.

Vietnam's biggest bookstore chain Fahasa in July announced it would cease using single-use plastic and shift to biodegradable bags and paper wrappings, using paper bands to tie books purchased at their shops. For stationery items likes pens, pencils and cases, it would provide bags and wrappers made of recycled newspapers and magazines.

Late that month, HCMC authorities followed in Thua Thien Hue's footsteps to require its offices and agencies not to use bottled water, including at conferences, and limit the use of plastic bags, straws and one-time wipes. From 2020, the municipal finance department would not allocate funds to government agencies for buying disposable plastic products.

Starting August, 15 local firms operating tourist boats, kayaks and high-speed vessels across world-renowned Ha Long Bay embarked on a pilot program banning the use of all plastic products.

Boat owners will replace bottled water with large, fixed water jars with passengers supplied with environmentally friendly glasses. Wet paper towels will be replaced with cloth towels collected after use. Currently, an estimated 5,000 wet napkins and as many plastic bottles are used and discarded daily in the UNESCO heritage site, contributing to the several thousand tons of trash collected from its waters each day.

Also in August, National Assembly, Vietnam's legislative body, announced ditching plastic water bottles in all its meetings, replaced by water served in crystal bottles or glasses.

Not to miss out, authorities in northern port city Hai Phong started replacing one-time plastic products, including bottles, cups and straws with multiple-use or environment-friendly choices.

Just as it seemed the entire nation had joined the battle, it was announced by Ipsos Business Consulting, a global growth strategy consulting firm based in Paris, that Vietnamese per capita plastic waste was the third highest in Southeast Asia after increasing more than 10-fold over the past three decades.

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

The report released in September added Vietnam's plastic waste discharge is among the highest in the world, without revealing a specific ranking. Such figures make the fight against plastic even more urgent.

Plastic waste along the coast of Tuy Phong District, Binh Thuan Province in central Vietnam in 2018. Photo by Nguyen Viet Hung

Plastic waste along the coast of Tuy Phong District, Binh Thuan Province in central Vietnam in 2018. Photo by Nguyen Viet Hung.

Vietnam Buddhist Sangha that same month asked followers not to use any plastic in floral lanterns floated on rivers as a form of prayer "to avoid causing pollution and destroying the environment."

The statement came in response to many Buddhists who used plastic materials to create flower lanterns or placed small plastic cups holding a candle inside.

Vietnam's largest metropolis HCMC in October made a progressive step to free itself from plastic: it required all local supermarkets, shopping malls, convenience stores and bookstores to replace plastic bags with environmentally friendly options by next year.

Two weeks into November, ancient town Hoi An, a popular tourist destination in central Vietnam, issued a directive on reducing and controlling the use of plastic products.

All government offices and agencies in the town were ordered to cease using single-use plastic products at meetings and events by the year-end. By the end of 2021, plastic bags and other single-use plastic items would not be used at traditional markets and supermarkets in Hoi An, while the old town must ensure a complete end to single-use plastic items by 2025, according to the directive.

Shortly after, Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Vo Tuan Nhan told an online government conference that plastic bags should be made more expensive, suggesting a consumption tax aside from the current commercial tax rate of up to VND50,000 (around $2) per kilo at the highest, to dissuade their use.

He argued plastic bags were not only convenient but really cheap in Vietnam, many vendors readily supplying them before purchases are even finalized.

Thought the observation is true for nearly every market across Vietnam, Nhon Market is an exception.

Starting December, the market in northern Bac Ninh Province became the first to say no to plastic bags, encouraging customers to supply their own baskets, as seen in the below video.

Weeks into 2020, the central government gave the anti-plastic campaign a boost by issuing a national action plan on the management of plastic ocean waste until 2030.

Vietnam will cut down 75 percent of its marine plastics and stop generating plastic waste in coastal tourist areas by 2030, the government stated.

Accordingly, by 2030, the country would have reduced its amount of plastic waste dumped into the ocean and collected 100 percent of lost or discarded fishing equipment. Additionally, 100 percent of coastal tourism service providers would stop using disposable plastic products and non-degradable plastic bags, while 100 percent of marine protected areas would be free of plastic waste.

The government has tasked the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to expand annual monitoring activities and evaluate the current status of marine plastics at river mouths and across 12 island districts every five years.

To achieve its goals, the government would work to promote and raise public awareness on the issue of plastic waste; change public behavior and treatment of plastic products and marine plastics; collect, sort, store, transport and treat plastic waste generated by activities in coastal areas and on the seas.

The environment ministry has been assigned to work with coastal authorities and municipalities to develop and pilot models for managing, reducing and eventually ceasing the use of disposable plastic products and hard-to-degrade plastic bags.

As PM Phuc put it, the fight against plastic has now become more urgent than ever.

"It requires specific and feasible actions with participation of all parties in the society, from the administration to businesses and local people, and must not be stopped at mere propaganda."

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