Making it happen

When it comes to replacing single-use plastic, though challenges remain, the work being undertaken already should not be overlooked.

By SAM PATERSON on October 08,2019 02:12 PM

Making it happen

PHOTOS MAKE IT HAPPEN

“I’m shocked by the amount of single-use plastic I’ve seen,” a friend from home remarked upon visiting Hanoi. In a place where it’s common to buy a drink in a plastic cup that comes with a plastic straw, from a store where literally everything comes wrapped in plastic packaging, it’s hard to disagree. Yet I felt defensive. To say the country has a plastic problem is to ignore the dedicated, proactive work being taken by a growing number of Vietnamese people.

Downtown I met with Minh Hien, a native Hanoian, entrepreneur, and founder of “Make it Happen”, a group created for promoting and educating people on ecological matters. The group has run a series of workshops on issues involving plastic reduction, with a recent one focusing on how to make beeswax wraps to replace cling film wrapping. As we sat down for a coffee, without plastic straws, we discussed some of the products used in Vietnam to replace plastic.

Food and beverages seem a pertinent place to start. Some cafés provide glass or even plant-based straws. When it comes to takeaway packaging, Minh Hien explained that “some shops are making deliveries in glass containers.” With personal hygiene, it’s possible to buy soap, shampoo, and shea butter to replace shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner.

Making it happen

Whereas many products are similar to alternatives from elsewhere, a few have a local flavor. There are a growing number of shops around the capital where individuals can buy locally-produced bamboo straws. To return to packaging, several restaurants do deliveries in sugarcane boxes. These boxes offer a way of reusing something as well as replacing the plastic that food is otherwise delivered in.

What caught my attention was the challenges associated with using replacement products. Take the sugarcane boxes. Despite being a material that is commonly used in Vietnam, the boxes need to be imported. Prices for alternative packaging are high and require mutual support for the cause from a customer base that places a high value on being ecologically aware. “These are people who believe that a small act can lead to a bigger change for the environment,” Minh Hien said of the typical customer at these places.

The plastic movement is nascent in Vietnam. When it comes to refill stations, where consumers can top-up on products that would otherwise come in plastic packaging, despite creating a sense of local buy, local produce, Minh Hien added they are “still not popular, with only a couple of places in Hanoi.” The same is true of many of the products. Shea butter, touted as a replacement for conditioner, it is still scarcely available in Vietnam.

Though it’s clear we’re only talking about relatively small numbers of people, the enterprising nature of these efforts deserves attention. It can be seen in the activities of “Make it Happen” or other like-minded grassroots organizations. My apartment is strewn with evidence of the impact of Ecobricks Vietnam, a Hanoian organization set up to promote the creation, collection, and use of Ecobricks made from plastic waste. Vietnam Recycles, meanwhile, has been set up to recycle electronic waste.

Making it happen

The battle in Vietnam against plastic takes place predominantly at the level of individual consciousness. I’m constantly having to remind places not to give me a plastic straw, while reminding myself not to forget or lose the bamboo one I carry around. Back home, despite being supportive when a major brand stopped using plastic straws, I didn’t do anything to help cause the change. Corporate and governmental policy converged to take a decision that made an impact across the market.

The case of the straw offers a wider perspective into the relationship with single-use plastic in Vietnam. It’s clear that a growing number of places are beginning to offer alternatives to plastic. When I asked one café in a small, independent place why they have replaced plastic with rice straws, I was told “we care about the environment.” This follows a pattern you can see across the city, where the decision to follow the non-plastic movement relates to action not reaction.

This is a point that often gets overlooked. Although the movement is very much on a low footing here, it is something that is working from the ground-up and without the type of impetus that dictates plastic policy in other places. The activities I’ve witnessed far outstrip anything I saw back in the home my friend was making comparisons to. When Minh Hien responded to the issue of shea butter being unavailable, she said “I’m thinking of organizing a workshop in the future, so people can learn how to make it.” This is symptomatic of a mindset where to be involved in reducing plastic you need to make it happen.

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