In 2015, Vietnam was named as one of the five countries — alongside China, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines — that dump more plastic into the ocean every year than the rest of the world combined.
The rapid urbanization of Vietnam, combined with soaring GDP growth, has seen the amount of waste disposed every year skyrocket to 12 million tons in 2014. This is expected to reach 22 million tons by 2020.
But while GDP grows, funding for waste management infrastructure struggles to keep up. Often, sorting for recyclable waste is left to local door-to-door collectors, known as nguoi luom ve chai. However, only 20% of plastic waste is considered valuable enough for them to pick up, while the rest is generally sent off to a landfill.
In fact, even the government’s well intentioned ‘3 Rs Campaign’ — reduce, reuse, recycle — was marred in scandal after it became apparent that, once collected, recycled waste was often just thrown into the same landfill as non-recyclable waste.
In the fight back, the government has implemented the National Waste Management Strategy. By 2025 the strategy aims to collect and treat 90% of solid waste in urban areas, 85% of which will be reused or recycled to produce energy or organic fertilizer.
The problem is that the facilities to achieve this goal do not yet exist.
Deplasticize is a group based in Hanoi that aims to fight the issue of single-use plastic trash by raising awareness and incentivizing businesses to steer clear of relying on plastic.
“The majority of people we interview admit that they use single-use plastic because of its convenience,” says Thanh Nguyen, the leader of Deplasticize. “It makes people lazy to bring their own reusable bottle or bag — but the hidden cost is health, for people and the environment. Most people just don’t see the bigger picture.”
While education on recycling is included in the school curriculum, many young Vietnamese remain ignorant of the severity that untreated plastic waste has on the environment.
“At the moment we’re running workshops at Hanoi National University,” says Thanh, “to educate the students about the negative effects of single-use plastic trash. We’re also making reusable bags from recycled clothes, and giving them to the students at the university. We spoke to the shop owners on the campus and they agreed that if we supply them with cloth bags for free, then the students who reuse them will receive a store discount.”
He adds: “We’re also working with other local organizations to petition Highlands Coffee to use paper cups for takeaway, instead of the plastic ones that they now use.”
From the Bottom Up
One only has to look at similar examples of petitioning businesses to see the potential. Starbucks were pressured into using only fair-trade coffee partly due to petitioning from its customers.
Action in such everyday environments helps to cement the issue into the public consciousness, and will add to the pressure already mounting on the authorities to take more assertive action on the issue of untreated plastic waste.
“If we want change, we have to educate people,” says Thanh. “We have to provide them with proper knowledge on single-use plastic trash so that they can be aware of its negative impacts on their health, the environment, and on animals.”
He continues: “Working in this field is quite challenging for us, we all acknowledge that. We have to change people’s mindsets, and we have to do it gradually, over a long time.”
To find out more about Deplasticize, and the issue of single use plastic trash in Vietnam, visit their Facebook page — Deplasticize.