Deadly package: Covid-19 virus is one thing, our viral behavior another

June 6, 2021 | 03:42 pm PT
Nguyen Lan Dung Teacher, biology researcher
My neighborhood has strictly followed the protocols on social distancing for Covid-19 prevention, but this becomes a problem when the compliance happens without awareness of other health implications.

These days, as I go in and out of the residential building where I live in Hanoi, I see stacks of styrofoam food boxes in plastic bags put on a table next to the guard's room.

As people avoid going out to limit direct contact with others, they have all switched to the e-commerce services. I’ve seen hot meals delivered to my neighbors on all days, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, aside from vegetables, clothes, books, flowers, and many more items, all packed in plastic, styrofoam and other environmentally-unfriendly containers.

The convenience of online order and delivery is obvious and matches perfectly with the current situation and related regulations, so people have been choosing this option without thinking twice. Understandably.

Cancer, anyone?

Unfortunately, most fail to understand that their actions are harmful, not just to the environment, but also they themselves and their loved ones, directly.

The National Research Council has announced that the styrene in styrofoam food boxes and other disposable plates and cups can lead to cancer in humans.

The Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology has more than once warned of the behavior to use way too many styrofoam food boxes of Vietnamese people.

Currently, most of the styrofoam food boxes in Vietnam are made with polystyrene.

As polystyrene is low molecular, it should never be used to store hot food because the heat will allow it to release the toxic chemical monostyrene, which would be absorbed into the food and then cause harmful impacts on consumer's liver and even lead to cancer.

Many countries have banned the use of styrofoam containers.

In the natural environment, it is very difficult for styrofoam to disintegrate and almost impossible for it to decompose for up to hundreds of years. Some scientific documents have even claimed that the foam could exist for thousands of years without biodegrading.

Almost all types of food and goods delivered to the residential building I live in are wrapped in styrofoam and plastic. All these containers will later be thrown into the trash bin placed along the hallway of each floor.

Before the pandemic, I rarely saw the bins overflow with trash, but it is a regular sight of late.

The building I live in rises 27 floors with 12 apartments each and it is fully occupied. Each day, if half the number of households on each floor ordered at least one meal, the number of styrofoam boxes discarded into the environment would be 400-500, supposing, very moderately, that each family has three members on average.

Now extrapolate on this from my apartment complex to all such places nationwide, where the use of this packaging is ubiquitous.

We should be terrified, scared out of our skulls!

A woman holds takeaway foam boxes. Photo by Shutterstock/triocean

A woman holds takeaway styrofoam boxes. Photo by Shutterstock/triocean.

Vietnam is most likely not the only nation to face the problem of plastic pollution amid this pandemic. What have they been doing to deal with the impacts of the sharp increase in demand for e-commerce and deliveries?

Japan, always a country to learn certain things from, immediately ramped up mass production of food packaging and containers made of paper and food powder. These are still firm enough to contain food, but they also decompose very easily and is very safe for the environment and therefore, for us.

What about us in Vietnam? The less said the better, I guess.

I once visited a local firm that produces biodegradable packaging on a large scale. It has exported its products to many countries and is quite well known in Southeast Asia, but not in Vietnam.

And this has not happened because the company does not care about the local market. They do care a lot about the excessive use of plastics in Vietnam and want to contribute to change the situation, but their products cannot compete with the cheap, disposable plastic bags and styrofoam packaging that is widely available and used in Vietnam.

In most cases, businesses and consumers in Vietnam are not willing to pay more for packaging, they said.

We should be very concerned about this.

The younger generation in Vietnam eats out a lot and almost all restaurants serve their takeaways in styrofoam boxes and even pack hot soup or broth directly in plastic bags, which is extremely hazardous.

We should remember that it is not just us, but our future generations that will pay dearly for the toxic habits we have developed today.

No excuse, really

So why don't we use this pandemic as a chance to adjust our lifestyle in a way that betters our health and protects the environment at the same time?

I've learned that many small start-up companies have produced eco-friendly products from corn flour or bagasse. We should encourage them and change our habits in small ways that have big impacts. For instance, we should buy food in containers that we take long with us, if we do not want to spend money on biodegradable packaging. We can use other types of food containers at home that we can wash and use again and again. Similarly, we can take our own bags to markets and supermarkets instead of lying at home and making one online order after another.

And when we do order things online, we should carefully consider if we really need what we are purchasing. Do we need that many clothes, all that equipment and devices that are delivered to us, wrapped in layers of plastic? Let us acknowledge and accept that the process to produce many products we use every day are harming the environment in varying degrees of seriousness. Once we accept this, it becomes easier to accept that we should change our habits and outlook.

When we read the news, it appears that we are aware of the problem at all levels – from the individual to the government.

According to the Vietnam Plastics Association, per capita plastic consumption in Vietnam rose from 3.8 kilos per year in 1990 to 54 kilos in 2018.

Vietnam annually produces 1.8 million tons of plastic waste, but only 27 percent is recycled, according to a report released in 2019 by Ipsos Business Consulting, a global growth strategy consulting firm based in Paris.

In addition to the Law on Environmental Protection, former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had approved in 2019 a project to tighten control over environmental pollution caused by the use of non-degradable plastic bags in daily life.

We also have a national strategy on integrated solid waste management with a vision to 2050. Directive 33 issued in 2020 seeks to strengthening the management, reuse, recycling, treatment and reduction of plastic waste. On April 25, 2019, the former PM sent a statement to all agencies, departments and organizations urging people to say "no" to traditional plastics.

But why have the authorities not taken a very simple, far reaching step, given that our lakes and rivers and canals and beaches are severely polluted?

One answer screams at us. Ban the use of single use plastics.

Just do it.

I know it is not easy to change the habits of just one person, far less a whole nation. But if not now, when?

*Nguyen Lan Dung is a teacher and biology researcher. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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