We are the answer to Vietnam's drastic plastic problem

By Luu Dinh Long   November 20, 2020 | 09:13 am GMT+7
I have been saving more than $100 each month by cooking my own meals and not buying takeaways or deliveries.
Luu Dinh Long

Luu Dinh Long

But saving money was not my initial motivation. It was to cut down on the use of plastic as much as possible.

"When I pour your coffee in this, please don't ask me why it's lesser than normal," the employee of a coffee shop on Dien Bien Phu Street in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District warned me.

She said this after giving me a strange look as I gave her a tumbler I had taken with me and asked her to pour my coffee into it instead of serving it in a single-use plastic cup.

My tumbler was a bit bigger than the size of the plastic cup used by the coffee shop, so when the usual amount of coffee and ice was poured into it, it would look like I was being served less coffee than normal.

It was totally cool for me, but not for her.

Normally, to serve a cup of take-away iced coffee, she would pick a single-use plastic cup from a pile, pour coffee, or a mixture of coffee and milk, and then fill it with ice before closing it with a single-use plastic lid and sticking a plastic straw through an opening in it and putting the whole cup into a plastic bag. The process is quick and smooth, because every plastic item involved is in its position on the counter for her to pick up. The break in this routine because of my special request explained why she wasn't so cool about it.

But I did not feel offended at all. I must be one of the few customers breaking her practiced routine.

It’s been 10 months since I set myself the target of reducing the use of disposable plastic as much as possible. I have a glass lunch box and a stainless steel tumbler. I have stopped buying food served in styrofoam/plastic containers or drinks served in plastic cups along with plastic straws. I have started cooking the food myself at home and taking it to work; and if I have the time in the morning, also make coffee and pour it into the tumbler. I put all this in a cloth bag and wash the bag once a week.

I also have another cloth bag to use at the market. I stop by the market every day on my way home from work and ask vendors to put my purchases in it, avoiding the use of plastic bags to the maximum.

Early this year, when I was forced to stay at home because of Covid-19, I spent some time thinking about what many people and I discharge into the environment in one day.

Like most office workers in HCMC, I use and discard around two plastic cups, two plastic straws and two styrofoam or plastic containers for breakfast and lunch each day. I need around three to five plastic bags for carrying the food and drinks. Then I need several more of the bags when shopping at the market.

On average, I discard 50-60 plastic cups, 50-60 plastic straws, 50-60 single-use containers, and 90-150 plastic bags in a month, I estimated.

Though I have not solved the problem, it has made me feel good that for the last 10 months, I have saved the environment from hundreds of plastic containers, cups and straws, and more than a thousand plastic bags. And as a bonus, I have saved an unexpected amount of money.

Danh, a colleague, has been doing the same thing. Every day, she brings a sedge bag with her lunch box and a tumbler inside. On days she is too busy to cook, she brings a stainless steel food container to buy her food.

Thanks to the pandemic and the period of being stuck at home, we have realized how much we had consumed and taken steps to change our lifestyle and become more environmentally conscious.

I still see many people carrying plastic bags of various sizes when returning home from the market and using a lot of plastic straws and cups at coffee shops, because those plastic items are just way too convenient. Convenience and more convenience is perhaps the cornerstone of economic development and everyone feels that they have the right to enjoy themselves. And when the convenience and comfort is being enjoyed by the vast majority of the population, calling for its removal would be considered crazy.

I knew, therefore, that I could not make an on-the-spot presentation to the girl at the coffee shop to explain my actions. I could not stand there and lecture her that Vietnam is one of the biggest plastic polluters in the world. Hanoi and HCMC, the two biggest cities in Vietnam, dump 80 tons of plastic garbage each day. It takes 100 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose. Environmentalists call it the "white pollution."

I am reminded of Le Van Ho, former chairman of Nam Son Commune in Hanoi’s Soc Son District, saying that it was an action of last resort when locals protested and blocked entry to the Nam Son waste treatment complex, causing garbage to overflow on Hanoi streets.

"We’ve lived long enough to die now but we have to care for the younger generation," he said, expressing concern about the future of those who would grow up next to the biggest landfill in the capital city.

For several years now, residents of Nam Son and Hong Ky communes who live around the landfill have protested several times by preventing garbage trucks from entering the site, and volubly complained about local authorities’ slow payment of compensation, which has prevented them from relocating.

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

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

We are the problem

In addition to zero or very loose management of single-use plastics and the absence of strict regulations on sorting and treating this type of waste, our habit of using disposable plastics without thinking twice is a major reason for the terrible situation we face now.

A trash can full of plastic waste at the pedestrian area along Hanois Sword Lake, February 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

A trash can full of plastic waste along Hanoi's Sword Lake, February 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Progressive economies around the world have announced their transition from a "linear" to a "circular" economy. In a linear economy, raw materials are used to make a product, and after its use, any waste, like the packaging, is thrown away. The circular economy is one based on recycling, in which most materials are reused.

More than 60 countries and territories have imposed prohibitions or a fee on single-use plastics. What is stopping us?

San Francisco has banned plastic bags since 2007. In New Delhi, the ban has been applied since 2017 after the authorities said it "led to cow deaths" and polluted the environment. Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and Thailand, also among top polluters, have imposed plastic bag bans since early this year. In August, Japan introduced a mandatory fee for each plastic bag used at all stores.

It’s high time now that Vietnam makes the campaign against plastic waste an official national policy to create a collective habit rather than just leaving it to small-scale movement led by some group or individual.

The first step to deal with plastic waste in our country is changing consumers’ behavior. It is incumbent on each and every one of us to take that step without further delay.

The next step is to improve the system of sorting and collecting trash. This is not rocket science and many countries have already shown it can be done quite efficiently and effectively.

But the second step will be ineffective without the first. We can develop a new habit only when we realize that the old one is a bad one. I believe the first step for a community to say no to disposable plastics should be done first in schools and residential areas.

Students have their breakfast, snacks and drinks in styrofoam and single-plastic containers during the school day and housewives have been bringing home disposable plastic bags of various sizes and colors every morning they return from the market. This should stop, immediately.

My mother has been convinced to bring along with her a basket to the market and put everything she buys in it instead of bringing home several plastic bags per day.

My friends these days have stopped meeting each other at coffee shops that use an excessive amount of disposable plastic cups and straws.

Saying no to brands that insist on using plastics immoderately is also a way to become a responsible consumer.

I have started. It’s up to you, you and you to do the same.

*Luu Dinh Long is a journalist and book author. The opinions expressed are his own.

 
 
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