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In Vietnam's Nascent Anti-Plastic Movement, Straws Are the First to Go

Saigon needs real solutions for its plastic problems.

I’m speaking with Julia Mesner Burdge, who founded Zero Waste Saigon along with her husband Michael. Their home is full of faux-flamingos, models that were left behind by the previous homeowners and have stuck, re-purposed as a theme for the Burdge household.

“We arrived here in September or August, something like that, and I really loved Vietnam. I really had a big crush on Vietnam," Mesner Burdge says. "It just felt like my new home because I think French and Vietnamese culture are so close.”

Her love affair with Vietnam encountered its first hitch shortly afterward when she became aware of its waste disposal problems, especially with regards to plastic.

“In January I saw some plastic but it didn't hit me at first. I was like ‘Woah, there are a lot of plastic bags,' or 'They give me a ton of straws,' but it didn’t hit me," Mesner Burdge shares with Saigoneer. "It was just like, there's a lot of plastic. They outlawed plastic bags in France quite a few years ago [a ban on plastic bags at stores in France went into effect on June 1, 2016], so I just grew up with that that mentality. It hit me when we went to Ho Tram and we went to this super beautiful forest and there was peace and quiet, no shops, no nothing. There was a group of monkeys, like baby monkeys, and they were eating plastic bags, and I was like, ‘Seriously?’”

She was then inspired to found Zero Waste Saigon, a project aimed at reducing plastic waste in Saigon. The organization produces reusable straws made out of steel, bamboo and green grass as alternatives to the ubiquitous plastic straws. They also provide awards as incentives to businesses that employ 'green' practices, with the majority of their focus on the elimination of plastic waste, something that many are recognizing as a major problem in Saigon, and in Vietnam as a whole.

Alternatives to plastic sold by Zero Waste Saigon. Photo by Kevin Lee.

The Plastic Problem

At a seminar held by the United States Consulate in April, Quach Thi Xuan, director of the Da Nang Centre for Consultancy on Sustainable Development, announced the results of a study which found that Vietnam produces nearly 18,000 metric tons of plastic waste daily, according to Tuoi Tre. The event, titled "Earth Day: Fish or plastic – What’s your lunch made of?", drew attention to recent studies showing that if no action is taken to curb the dumping of plastic waste into oceans, by 2050 they will contain more trash than fish.

Vietnam is not solely to blame for the abundance of trash in the Earth’s waters, but it seems to be one of the main offenders. According to Forbes, Vietnam is one of five countries which generates the most waste that ends up in the ocean. Combined with China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, Vietnam is responsible for dumping more plastic into the ocean than the rest of the world combined.

VnExpress quoted US-based Ocean Conservancy as saying, “These countries have recently benefited from significant increases in GDP, reduced poverty and improved quality of life.” the organization explained. “However, increasing economic power has also generated exploding demand for consumer products that has not yet been met with a commensurate waste-management infrastructure.”

Plastic kills marine life, chokes seabirds and makes seafood more toxic due to compounds that take decades to break down. Take one look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — which, according to Greenpeace, is more than 270,000 square kilometers wide — and it’s easy to see that action needs to be taken if the world’s oceans are going to be preserved.

Fortunately, Zero Waste Saigon is far from alone in their quest to rid the Southeast Asian country of its plastic problem. An Dang has his own campaign in Hanoi, making bamboo and stainless steel straws as alternatives to plastic ones. He told VnExpress about his experience watching the now-viral video of a sea turtle getting a plastic straw pulled out of its nostril. “I felt the pain as if it was my own nose. Then I realized that straws are not as harmless as they look. They are ubiquitous where I live, and they are so small that nobody notices them, no matter how many they use every day, even my environmentally-spirited friends,” he shared.

Founded by young Vietnamese, local brand JamLos is a fashion design company that specializes in making eco-friendly, plastic-free products such as fabric tote bags. They see that many of the problems surrounding plastic waste stem from a lack of alternatives, not a lack of concern for the environment.

They told Saigoneer via email: “Taking plastic bags from coffee shops and grocery [stores] makes us feel guilty for not having any replacement at that time. We feel like we have no choice: you’d better take the plastic bag, or you’ll have nothing to carry your items.”

Vietnamese brands are also joining in the green movement. Photo via Facebook page Jamlos.

They see their products not only as solutions to plastic waste problems, but also as methods of promoting awareness of these issues: “If we want to make change, we have to create alternatives. Fashion is one of the most significant industries that contributes to plastic waste through the use of plastic packagings and shopping bags. In other words, fashion happens every day, so it will be the best way to promote the message. Some get confused because we have no plastic bags for them. It has become the long-term habit of many people living in Vietnam to use plastic bags. We’d love to have many people who are running businesses in Vietnam share our concerns about plastic waste.”

Cycling for Change

Some concerned folks are using unconventional means to draw attention to Vietnam’s plastic usage. For example, a group known as Peloton Against Plastic is currently cycling across Southeast Asia, from Hanoi down the coast of Vietnam to Saigon and then across Cambodia and Thailand, ending in Bangkok.

Paul Hellier and Jamie Lepre explained the mission of Peloton Against Plastic to Saigoneer via Facebook Messenger: "This project for us is to firstly hear from and learn from local groups and individuals on what they see as effective ways to reduce plastic pollution in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Get inspired by them and help bring us all together to pool our resources and ideas."

The duo added: "Secondly, to test ourselves as travelers, avoiding single-use plastic and carrying what we didn’t avoid through to the finish. To hopefully inspire others to do [the same], both while traveling and in the comfort of their hometown. And third, we will create a documentary and fun videos on the good side of this story. Yes it’s an uphill battle, but the only way to fix this is to feel empowered, work together and start making changes now. If enough of us change our behavior the corporations and governments will have no choice but to change as well."

While they agree that Vietnam gets a 'bad rap' when it comes to plastic waste disposal, they are hopeful about the dialogues they’ve had with people on the trip. “So far we have been approached by people right across Vietnam, interested to talk to us about their projects to ease the menace of plastic, and to find out how they can get involved,” Hellier and Lepre shared.

When asked whether they were surprised by anything during their travels, they responded, “The biggest surprise is the awareness of the people of Vietnam. From young children to the elderly, everyone seems to be aware of the issue, though not always [to the same] the extent globally.”

The Peloton Against Plastic crew on a beach in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Peloton Against Plastic.

Thus far, the group, which reached Saigon late last month, has met with local organizations who have turned into allies with similar concerns. “The most exciting thing is that there are groups like Let’s Do It Vietnam, Vietnam Sach va Xanh, Live and Learn Vietnam, Keep Mui Ne Nice, Phu Quoc Sach va [X]anh, Clean up Vietnam, Rehash Trash, Plastic Free Cambodia and other individuals and small businesses aiming to keep our environments free of single-use plastic,” the organizers said.

Zero Waste Saigon uses more of a business-centric approach, capitalizing on people’s desire to support businesses with sustainable practices. Mesner Burdge explains, “We're not like, ‘Hey, can you please save the baby penguins?’ We're just like, ‘Hey, you want to make money? Start being green.’ Everyone who has some money right now in Saigon...they're against plastic now because this is a big thing going on. Everyone has seen the video of the turtle with the straw in its nose. After you see that you think, ‘Do I really need this straw?’ Everyone is going to be thinking twice. If the day after you see that video you go to a restaurant and they're using a bamboo straw you're going to say, 'Oh, this is pretty cool! We’re on the same team!' And it’s not so expensive. I mean, when you're selling steaks at USD20 a steak, you can afford it.”

The fellows from Peloton Against Plastic, meanwhile, are optimistic about the future of Vietnam and its move towards eradicating single-use plastics: “Everyone should feel hopeful of the future because people are starting to work together and business[es] and government[s] around the world are starting to respond. We can do this, because we have to. No one said it was going to be easy, but people are awake to this now.”


Related Articles:

- Solving Vietnam's Trash Problem One Moving Truck at a Time

- Southeast Asia Is Responsible for Over Half the Ocean's Plastic Pollution

- Saigon Launches Major Initiative to Reduce Plastic Use in Local Markets