Turning the tide

People around Vietnam are beginning to see the problems plastics cause for the world’s oceans and are taking action.

By KEVIN RAISON on February 15,2019 10:16 AM

Turning the tide

Photos: Viet Tuan

While walking along a dusty road at the edge of a desert in Israel looking to hitchhike to Haifa, I met an engineer. After I climbed into the cab of his pickup truck he explained something to me on the ride to the train station that I came to believe: plastic is an amazing substance. We’ll get to that, but I just want to promise from the start that this is going to be a positive article - just trust me on that.

Anywhere in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, look out the window. No really, get up and look out the window. If you can see out to a public space, I’m 98 per cent sure if you look hard enough you will see some plastic trash out there. Point made, you can go sit back down now.

Vietnam has had issues with its plastic waste. If you sit in traffic, as one is prone to do in either of the large cities, as it won’t be long before you see an adult throw something out their car window or a child toss something from the back of a motorbike. This seemingly cultural cocktail of minimal environmental consciousness, laziness, and/or perhaps sheer selfishness that maintains an “out of sight out of mind” mentality with regard to pollution is certainly wreaking havoc on the environment. Again, this is a positive article, so stay with me.

Vietnam puts millions tons of plastic waste into the ocean every year. Distributed on average across the entire population, that means you, dear reader, and every single person you see around you, contribute over thousands kg of trash going to the ocean every year.

That’s what happens when we have some plastic and just decide to “throw it away”. Problem is, “away” is still somewhere, and all too often it’s the environment. As the earth is a closed-loop ecosystem, the plastics often then end up in food and then, of course, in us. From there … it’s not good.

But I said that plastic is a fantastic substance and that this article would be a positive one. Thanks for holding on through that rough reality check - this is where I deliver on my promise.

This seemingly cultural cocktail of minimal environmental consciousness, laziness, and/or perhaps sheer selfishness that
maintains an “out of sight out of mind” mentality with regard to pollution is certainly wreaking havoc on the environment.

This seemingly cultural cocktail of minimal environmental consciousness, laziness, and/or perhaps sheer selfishness that maintains an “out of sight out of mind” mentality with regard to pollution is certainly wreaking havoc on the environment.

Plastic is cheap, malleable, and can last almost forever. This lends it well to different kinds of construction and machinery parts, along with countless other applications. Just one of my favorites - we can use plastics to 3D print custom stents to help keep veins and arteries open and potentially save people from cardiac failure. The problem, however, is that we use it to make things we’ll only use once and then never again. It’s like using an axe to open a bottle of beer. Yes, it might work, but anyone with common sense can see that it’s not the best use of the axe and the results could be devastating. This is where the positive part comes in: people are starting to see.

There’s been a movement in Vietnam to turn around the country’s legacy of mismanaged plastics and their inefficient use. This year, Co To Island intends to ban plastic products. Phu Quoc Island wants to be mostly plastic-free by 2020, and Cu Lao Cham has already been working hard for the past ten years to eliminate single-use plastics and get rid of plastic bags. Awareness about environmental protection and the negative effects of misused plastic has been gaining traction across the country and is starting to work its way into the daily lives of citizens and visitors alike.

“Nowadays, young generations are more aware of the importance of environmental protection and do small things like reduce and reuse the use of plastic bags and straws.” This was the good news shared with me by Linh, a fellow of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative and Co-founder of Let’s Do It Nghe An, an environmental conservation organization. She pointed out that one of the main reasons for the plastic problem is a lack of awareness and education. She stressed that the problem is “extremely urgent” and that as soon as people understand how dire the situation is they’re likely to take steps to minimize plastic use. “We can easily reduce plastic by bringing our own bottle when buying milk tea, not taking plastic bags at shops, and using bamboo straws instead of plastic ones.”

Clearly every bit helps, and it’s not just activists who have a mind for improving the environment. More and more citizens are becoming aware of the problem and partaking in clean-up activities. Greenactus, an environmental organization in Ho Chi Minh City, likewise shares the sentiment that people are beginning to take note. Various key opinion leaders are starting to likewise spread the anti-plastic mentality. They emphasize their optimism by pointing out various groups that encourage customers to reduce, reuse, and recycle, such as Starbucks and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, which provide incentives to customers to bring their own reusable cups. Even RMIT provides small cash discounts to those who bring reusable cups or food containers to campus canteens. Such incentives are becoming progressively more common throughout Vietnam as a small way for a business to provide a no-loss incentive to people to do more to keep their local community clean. More than that, some companies may even find that their obvious concern for Vietnam and the earth’s well-being attracts new customers.

One company that has gone far beyond simply providing discounts is Spoonit House in Hanoi. Instead of using the cheap single use plastic delivery containers seen in much of the city, it uses eco-friendly boxes made from biodegradable sugarcane. “It came from our founders, who recognize that the environmental and pollution problems in Vietnam affect their daily life,” said Thanh from Spoonit. “They have been trying to practice an eco-friendly lifestyle. They wanted to do something not only healthy and helpful for them but also for other people. That’s why Spoonit was born.” A further motivation for the packaging choice they mentioned was the hope that it might encourage customers to be more conscious and responsible when consuming. I’ll admit myself that I never knew such packaging options were possible, so when I first had their food at Tedx Hanoi I was impressed by the boxing. The company has an interesting “bottle return policy” as well, where customers can return the bottles that drinks are delivered in. The glass bottles are then washed and used again for the next customer, just like when eating in-house at a restaurant. “It requires more effort from food suppliers,” Thanh noted, but on the other hand it does seem to create a stronger connection between the restaurant and the customer. Instead of just acting as a money-making establishment, such social responsibility transforms a restaurant, a shop, or a seller into a member of the community, a neighbor, a comrade in the fight to keep Vietnam and the earth able to even simply support life let alone our lives. Spoonit certainly isn’t the only restaurant starting to use environmentally-friendly packaging either, as many others are beginning to make the change as well.

Improving our plastic problem doesn’t just have to come from a business, or at some sort of an event. Large changes often start in small ways. It could simply be deciding to not use a straw, or opting to hold on to one’s garbage until you can find a proper receptacle for it. Everyone I’ve spoken to has pointed out that education is key. People must become aware of the problem, take personal responsibility for it, and begin to act themselves. Plastic-free zones and business efforts help tremendously, but pale in comparison to how effective we can all be working together. It wasn’t that long ago that Vietnam produced a tsunami of plastic into the ocean every year, but now at least it seems that the tide might be turning. See, told you it was a positive article.

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