It's not too hard for Vietnamese to go zero-waste

By Ai Trinh   June 12, 2023 | 10:41 pm PT
It's not too hard for Vietnamese to go zero-waste
A man burns plastic waste at a landfill site on Binh Ba Island in Cam Ranh Bay, Khanh Hoa Province. Photo by Nguyen Viet Hung
In the olden days, many Vietnamese used to wrap food in banana leaves, store rice in vases and eat meals with bamboo sticks. All environmentally friendly materials.

We had so little waste back in the days. I am reminded about my mother, who currently lives in Norway, and how she so quickly catches on to the people's environmentally friendly lifestyles.

She told me that unlike in Vietnam, where a kilogram of plastic bags costs a mere VND30,000 ($1.28), in Norway plastic bags are notoriously expensive, enough to deter any consumer from actually purchasing them.

Even buying a bottle of water would require an upfront payment for the plastic bottle, and the bottle would need to be taken to "reverse vendors" in supermarkets, at which point consumers would be able to get their upfront payment back.

My parents, who were born in the Vietnamese countryside, told me how ancestors used to live in such harmony with nature, with so little waste produced. Many years ago, Vietnamese often wrapped things in leaves, from vegetables to beans to sugar to salt.

My grandparents often went to the wet market with a small container to carry fish sauce. They stored rice in vases, ate with bamboo sticks, and most other household objects were made from bamboo and the like as well.

Cattle and poultry were not simply raised for their meat; their excrement also served as natural fertilizers. We washed our hair with herbs, and used soap nuts as soap.

This used to be the way things were. It is why our ancestors barely produced waste, and the little waste they had often decomposed within weeks.

Even in my mother's time, she still brought her own bags with her to store goods. But now, everything is in plastic bags, and plastic bags would just be stuffed into larger plastic bags, which take around 1,000 years to be decomposed completely in nature.

We do not need to learn some fancy ways to protect the environment. We just need to look into our past.

As someone who works in environmental protection, I quickly understood what the book "Waste Not: Make a Big Difference by Throwing Away Less" by Erin Rhoads, an Australian woman who has been pursuing a zero-waste lifestyle since 2013, was talking about. But what I truly admire about her is what she does by living true to her principles, from minimizing plastic waste to a zero-waste life, or more accurately, a life without plastic waste or waste that is hard to be recycled or decomposed.

There is no waste in the natural world. Everything is part of an ecosystem, which depends on one another, which nurtures, sustains and develops alongside one another. Our linear system of modern life has created a burden on this cyclical system that has been here since primordial times, forcing it to take the back seat, and thus, distorted the natural world.

Unlike natural creation, man-made products are often difficult to process. It may take thousands of years for such things to completely decompose. As more and more waste builds up, pollution occurs and gradually takes over life on the planet.

In December 2022, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution to recognize the importance of zero-waste initiatives, and recognized March 30 as the International Day of Zero Waste. This has made me rethink my lifestyle. I started to use public transport to go to work, make my own compost, bring my own fabric bags to the market, and refuse to use one-time plastic products.

If everyone could spread such a lifestyle to the people around them, we would soon have a green community.

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