For many Vietnamese people, it is a ritual as circadian as the sunrise: On the way to work, they pull over their motorbikes to grab an iced coffee from a street vendor, complete with a plastic cup, plastic lid, plastic straw, and plastic case to hang from the bikes as they drive.
The coffee, with four separate pieces of plastic for a single drink, exemplifies how this packaging has became such a common and wasteful scourge on Vietnam’s environment. But some citizens have become alarmed by the trend and begun fighting back against the pollution.
More Vietnamese than ever are looking for alternatives to plastic, from metal bottles to cloth tote bags, just as many communities around the world are starting to believe they have relied for too long on cheap and versatile -- but ecologically disastrous -- plastic. Rwanda was remarkably efficient at banning plastic bags, while Durham, North Carolina has a volunteer program to distribute reusable takeout containers, and an Amsterdam grocer introduced an aisle of products with no plastic.
What makes Vietnam special, to the chagrin of environmentalists, is that it ranks among the top five countries in the world that send plastic trash into the ocean, according to the Ocean Conservancy. To have become a top polluter is staggering for the Southeast Asian nation, especially when there are dozens of countries with much larger economies but far less plastic waste.
“Everyone, every country should be responsible, it doesn't matter the size,” said Tran An, a volunteer at Precious Plastic Saigon. “In Vietnam we should do what we can to solve the plastic problem.”
Her green advocacy group has taught Vietnamese how to make their own straws out of bamboo, as well as how to distinguish between different kinds of plastic to facilitate recycling.
Locals are getting creative with the ways they are cutting plastic out of their daily diets. It seems each week another restaurant in Vietnam is switching to paper straws, while supermarkets have started giving shoppers cardboard boxes in which to take home their groceries, similar to Costco in the United States.
Plastic water bottles are a popular target. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has swapped them out in favor of metal bottles at meetings. One business chamber is encouraging members to replace them at the office, providing water coolers for employees instead. A coalition of foreign consulates in Ho Chi Minh City signed a pledge this year to do the same. And at conferences, one hotel puts out glasses that guests can refill from dispensers.
“One of my favorite examples is that, you know, the youngsters in Vietnam, we are so gaga over bubble tea. And all that is plastic,” An said. “But now if you go to those shops you will see that they started getting the carriers made by canvas, or something else instead of a plastic carrier.”
The carriers are similar to those used by motorbike drivers to transport their iced coffee. Straws and carriers are small change, though, compared to the macroeconomic change needed to cut down on plastic, which will take up more space in the ocean than do fish, if nothing is done, by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The “industries responsible for the major plastic wastes must be targeted with specific industry agreements and producer liability arrangements, with requirements for handling, collection and reuse of waste and broken plastic equipment,” Nina Jensen, CEO of the environmental group REV Ocean, wrote in a blog post.
Vu Thinh, who works at a trading company in Ho Chi Minh City, thinks the growing interest in eco-friendly consumption could be good for business.
“One of my special products is to make a plastic bag, so I think this is interesting, this topic, because in the next year we will produce this product,” he said.
His bags would be made of potato starch and other natural ingredients that can decompose within two years, unlike plastic, one of the least biodegradable materials.
But this would cost more than single-use plastic bags, demonstrating the difficulty of finding a new business model for companies that depend on plastic.
“Of course we want to export to Europe or America because this is more expensive,” Thinh said. “You know in Vietnam now [we] have some companies produce that product but it is not good, the market is not good, the price is high. We will research the market more.”
With the waste already blanketing the streets and seas, and with the cost of alternatives still pricey, plastic can seem like a mountain of a problem. But An said she has reason to be optimistic because the next generation is more idealistic.
Older Vietnamese think, “why go an extra step for something if it won’t make a difference?” she said. “But for the youngsters I think they feel that one action counts anyway.”