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We continue to have a wasteful attitude to waste

January 20, 2022 | 05:08 pm PT
Vu Kim Hanh Chairwoman of the Business Association of High-Quality Vietnamese Products
It's in speeches and even in documents, but Vietnam is yet to adopt in practice a circular economy that leaves nothing to waste.

The sooner we realize that this undermines our efforts to achieve sustainable development, the better.

A Chinese company came to Vietnam a few years ago, asking to buy every part of the shark catfish that we filleted, like their heads, fins, skin, fat and blood. Later, it turned this waste into a "fish skin snack with cheese," a canned product that sells like hot cakes in Vietnam.

Eight years ago, another company figured out how to extract collagen and gelatin from the discarded skin of filleted fish. It used them to produce cosmetic products and shipped them around the world.

I have traveled through the Mekong Delta and seen the ingenious ways people make use of discarded parts of tropical fruits, from pineapples to coconuts to jackfruits. No matter how ripe or unripe, there is always a use for them. The same goes for their leaves, branches and roots, things we pay no mind to when consuming the fruits. These things became fertilizer, feed, fuel and other things.

When by-products are recycled to become something new, it creates a cycle, which brings high economic value, saves resources and prevents pollution.

At the Mekong Connect forum in Ho Chi Minh City last December, a farmer told me they recycled everything simply because they needed more money, not for some "circular economy."

The farmer and the rest of us should realize that the circular economy is a global trend that benefits businesses, society and the environment.

Unlike a normal economy, which consumes resources and releases by-products into the environment as waste, a circular economy doesn't waste anything. The by-products are recycled to become part of something else.

Years of consumerism has depleted resources, severely upset the ecological balance and decimated the natural environment. It's almost too late that the world is moving towards sustainable development, of which a circular economy is a crucial part.

However, in Vietnam, the sense of urgency seems to be missing, raising doubts about how serious we are about shifting to a circular economy. In a recent draft document proposing amendments to the Law of Environmental Protection, authorities continue to treat plastic, cartons, glass and aluminium as waste that need to be disposed of, instead of recognizing and looking to tap their economic value.

If these things are still treated as trash, businesses would need to pay fees for them to be dealt with and would not even be allowed to recycle them on their own.

I have tried to explain to people that a circular economy would take time to develop in Vietnam, but several have responded that there was no time to waste, that Vietnam already lags far behind in the recycling industry, an essential cog in a circular economy.

As long as we still treat trash as something to be burnt or buried, we are not only missing out on a huge opportunity, but also harming our businesses. Disregarding their latent economic value would mean increasing products' prices and placing roadblocks on the path to a circular economy. It also goes against the global trend that Vietnam is supposed to care much about with its oft-stated focus on international integration.

Sweden is a recycling success story that Vietnam can learn from. As little as 1 percent of its domestic waste is sent to landfills. Then there is France's Paris, which aims to cut its waste by half before 2025.

We should ask: why won't the government allow businesses to recycle their own waste as per national standards, like so many countries have been doing? It would surely promote innovation and generate a new recycling industry in Vietnam.

Shifting from discarding waste to recycling it certainly takes time and also requires a lot of changes to the system.

But if we want to build a green economy and further international integration, we have no time to waste.

*Vu Kim Hanh is the chairwoman of the Business Association of High Quality Vietnamese Products. The opinions expressed are her own.

 
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