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Dr. Plastic, the Hanoi Duo Who Give New Life to Single-Use Plastic

Plastic pollution is considered one of the main environmental threats to our planet’s health.

It is estimated that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Vietnam, though famous for its beautiful beaches, is increasingly scattered with plastic waste. Even with the surprising speed of Hanoi’s waste collectors, single-use plastic can still be seen strewn on the pavement across the city, and recent reports claim that the Nam Son landfill site in Soc Son District, where most of Hanoi’s waste is taken, is “running out of space.” In short, Vietnam, like the rest of the globe, is starting to drown in plastic.

At times, it seems an issue too great to tackle, yet two innovative environmentalists based in Hanoi are attempting to do just that. Ben Baron and Đức Phạm have joined forces in the fight against plastic pollution by creating Dr. Plastic. This solutions-focused initiative, which began in early 2020, has clear goals: educate about pollution and recycling, change local mindsets, and increase the value of plastic waste. They aim to support anyone who wants to help but doesn't know how to start.

Ben and Đức met online on a web forum discussing global pollution. The latter, who was born in Hanoi and has lived here for much of his life, has observed an increase in plastic use in Vietnam in recent years and knew he wanted to do something about it.

As Đức scrolled through a forum on the Precious Plastic website, he spotted a Vietnamese flag under Ben’s name, and thus began their friendship. Both had experience working in the environmental industry, and together they talked, shared knowledge and research, and eventually collaborated to launch Dr. Plastic. “Vietnam is not the first country to not recycle enough,” Đức told Saigoneer, “so we have looked to Europe and other developed countries for their solutions and research.”

“We want to make people think differently about plastic. This is why we have stepped in,” they explained as we wandered through Xom Bac Cau, a beautiful, natural community garden project on the tip of Bac Cau, just east of Hanoi. We reached a small workshop full of machines the duo has sourced or built to put their plans into action. Their goal is to recycle the plastic that is usually discarded without a second thought. “We see the opportunity to use this stuff and we don’t think it should be single-use. We concentrate on the plastic that the street waste collectors won’t pick up, including plastic bags and yogurt cups," he explained. "We try to recycle them to give them more value and another life.”

The duo enthusiastically showed me around their workshop and talked through their processes. For items made from HDPE, like shampoo bottles and yogurt cups, this involves shredding the plastic into small pieces before heating it and pouring it into molds. Using this process, they can make various shapes and objects. For example, the pair are currently working on a project to build climbing walls for children. Each individual hold for a wall uses approximately 30 takeaway containers or 50 plastic bags.

Other creations include coasters made from melted bottles, wallets created from plastic bags, and tokens designed for school teachers to reward students with. “We love these tokens,” Ben exclaimed. “They go right to the kids. They can treat it like money, collect it, treasure it, care for it and exchange it for something. That’s so different from the plastic it was made from that would just be thrown away.”

But Dr. Plastic faces plenty of challenges, not least their understanding that their work really is “a drop in the ocean.” It is difficult to get machines built and to finance the projects. Also, there are a large number of people who do not want to go through the effort of saving their waste for Dr. Plastic rather than simply throwing it away.

The recycling process in action.

That’s why inspiring the next generation is a particular focus for Dr. Plastic. Small school groups have already visited the workshop to learn about what can be created from the waste they produce and see every day. The pair hope to build educational relationships that will motivate children and young people to care about plastic pollution.

Through selling products to businesses and in stores, they hope to generate capital to buy larger machines, which will enable them to recycle even more plastic and create a wider range of items to sell.

Some products that Dr. Plastic made from used plastic: a carabiner (left) and climbing holds (right).

Tokens that teachers can used in teaching (left) and a coaster (right).

Dr. Plastic offers an opportunity for us all to help tackle the plastic problem for Hanoi and our planet. No matter how large or small your recycling contribution is, it is a step in the right direction. Of course, we must reduce our waste where we can, but Duc and Ben are working wonders with the waste that we can’t avoid. 

Currently, Ben and Đức are receiving plastic from some schools and organizations. Individuals can also take plastic waste to Viet Climb (40 ngõ 76 An Dương), the Green Gem shop (587 Lac Long Quan, Tay Ho) or straight to the Xom Bac Cau community garden (1 ngõ 404 Bắc, Cầu, Long Biên). They can collect and use: HDPE (look for ‘2’ on items like shampoo, detergent or soap bottles and yogurt pots); LDPE (including plastic bags and rain ponchos); and PP (look for ‘5’ on takeaway containers, plastic dishes and cutlery).

For more information on what Dr. Plastic does, they can be reached via Facebook. Latest items on sale from Dr. Plastic can be found at Green Gem Shop.

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