When scrolling through ‘top stories’ on the BBC news and Guardian apps on my phone, I find myself reading headlines like the ones below, on a daily basis: ‘40kg of plastic found in dead whale’s stomach’, ‘Microplastics found in every lake and river in Britain’, ‘Coca-Cola admits it produces 3m tonnes of plastic packaging a year’. The sheer volume of plastic ending up in our oceans is increasing at a rate of 8 million metric tonnes a year. That’s the equivalent of 1.6 million elephants. If nothing is done, this figure could rise tenfold to 80 million metric tonnes a year by 2025, just five years from now. Plastic is smothering our oceans, drowning the wildlife within them and impacting on human health in the process.
Sea Lions are being suffocated by plastic rope Coastal Birds are literally drowning in plastic, 60% of all ocean plastic comes from just 5 countries, and sadly, Vietnam is one of them.
Back in the UK, it was hard not to be aware of the plastic problem due to mass media headlines. However, I wasn’t overly concerned because I was witnessing positive attempts to reduce the amount of plastic waste we were producing: Price tags on single use plastic bags, the ban on single use plastic at Glastonbury Music Festival 2019, and the launch of plastic free zones in supermarkets, to name a few. Living in Vietnam has well and truly opened my eyes to the scale of the problem. 60% of all the plastic in our oceans comes from just 5 countries – and unfortunately, Vietnam is one of them. Vietnam’s population reached 93.7 million last year, and that total population generates nearly 18,000 tons of plastic waste a day. That’s 1.5 London buses of plastic produced daily.
The ocean is Vietnam’s plastic dump Local bin in Da Nang overflowing with plastic.
Every time I leave the house, I can’t help but be drawn to it. Bins are overflowing with takeaway boxes and plastic bags. All takeaway coffee comes in a plastic cup, inside a plastic bag along with a complimentary plastic straw, which is wrapped inside – yep, you guessed it – plastic wrapping. A plastic bag here has an average “working life” of 15 minutes. As a keen bean environmentalist, I decided to dive into how Vietnam is beginning to tackle this plastic mountain, if at all.
As you are aware, Vietnam is one of the top 5 ocean polluters of plastic globally. Why do you think this is?
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “Indeed, here in Vietnam you cannot ignore the plastic problem, and you can see it everywhere. Vietnam is a contributor; however, it is not only coming from Vietnam. There are 3 main causes of Vietnam’s plastic waste. The first is that most of Vietnam’s landfill areas are close to rivers and other waterways, so the waste ends up in these waterways and is unfortunately transported to sea. Second, a lot of plastic waste is ‘dumped’ in Vietnam by other countries (EU, China, Japan etc) and the country doesn’t have the capacity nor the systems to properly ‘deal’ with the waste. Finally, Vietnam is still a developing country, but with a fast growing economy and population, it is moving away from a traditional way of life to a more consumptive and convenience economy. And unfortunately, plastic is very much part of that consumption.”
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “Vietnam has a 3,260km coast, with 28 provinces and 15 economic zones located in the coastal areas. With cities and development so close to the ocean, Vietnam dumps about 1.8 million tonnes of plastic waste annually in the sea.”
What inspired you to set up your organisations to try to curb the plastic problem?
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “The founder of Rethink Plastic Vietnam watched the documentary “A Plastic Ocean” by Craig Leeson and decided she wanted to really do something about the problem of plastic pollution in her own community and host country. She got together a group of people who had the same vision, and the rest is history.”
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “Precious Plastic was started by a group of 4 people from different corners of the world inspired by the idea of reducing plastic pollution in Da Nang and raising awareness of this problem, particularly amongst children.”
What do you aim to achieve? And how are your organisations doing this?
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “Our mission is to make Vietnam an example of the solution instead of the problem of plastic pollution in South East Asia, and see it being removed from the top 5 most plastic polluting countries in the world. This will be achieved through creating awareness and connecting stakeholders from business, community and government bodies. In 2018 alone, we organised clean up events, in-company programs, school visits, Plastic Awareness Month and University Lectures.”
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “We aim to educate children and the local community through our beach clean ups and workshops. We are also designing our own machines in order to recycle plastic and create new objects e.g. key chains, coasters etc, to raise awareness and demonstrate the importance of community involvement.”
Precious Plastic beach cleanup Rethink Plastic education session
Environmental issues such as plastic waste are very much on the media agenda in the UK at present. Is this the case in Vietnam?
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “The plastic waste issue is covered in the media but not on a large scale. Last month we had a crew from the local channel covering our ocean clean up. They also covered other initiatives throughout Vietnam aimed to tackle this issue.”
Generally speaking, how aware are Vietnamese locals of the plastic problem?
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “We feel that they are becoming more and more aware, and we encourage them to become part of the solution. It feels the time is right.”
Are environmental problems such as plastic waste on school curriculums? And how are businesses tackling the issue, if at all?
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “Kids who study at international schools may have this topic covered in their curriculum, but overall, public schools do not seem to cover it currently which is something that needs to change.”
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “We see more and more businesses joining forces to tackle the plastic pollution problem together. And we see an increased demand from companies who want to get involved more actively and join our campaigns.”
In the UK, measures are beginning to be set in place to reduce plastic e.g. plastic free zones in supermarkets, the price tag on plastic bags etc. How long do you think it’ll take for Vietnam to implement the same sorts of measures?
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “On June 9, an announcement was made by Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, aiming for a nationwide eradication of single use plastics by 2025. He has launched a national campaign on plastic waste prevention and set a target of removing single use plastic products from urban markets, convenience stores and supermarkets by 2021. Let this be the beginning of more steps.”
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “We believe they are slowly implementing measures to reduce plastic waste – some big supermarkets are using banana wrap instead of plastic, and more cafes and restaurants are switching to bamboo, stainless steel straws or other plastic alternatives.”
Stainless steel straws are being implemented in some local Da Nang coffee shops My An beach in Da Nang has built a giant fish plastic recycling unit.
What do you think the solution is to significantly reduce Vietnam’s plastic waste?
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “We believe the education of children is key, as well as raising awareness on TV and reaching out to more people through mass media. Also, the development of a proper garbage pickup system, and creating centers for garbage separation, is essential. We also think introducing bans for individuals and organizations that dump plastic waste in the sea or in the mountains would be a game-changer.”
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “On Government level, the launch of the nationwide eradication of single-use plastic campaign is a big step in the right direction. Further we absolutely must continue to raise awareness and present solutions in the communities and help people understand you can and need to make a change now.”
How can the locals reduce plastic make a difference in their day to day lives?
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “By choosing alternatives to single use plastic e.g. refillable water bottles, grocery bags and food containers. Raising awareness amongst peers will also make a difference.”
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “Even small things like refusing to take plastic bags at the market, saying no to plastic straws, and using a reusable coffee flask will be effective!”
If people would like to get involved with Precious Plastic Da Nang and Rethink Plastic Vietnam, how can they go about this?
Precious Plastic Da Nang: “You can join our FB group or follow us on instagram preciousplastic_danang. Feel free to send us a message on either of those platforms and stay tuned about our events on the FB page.”
Rethink Plastic Vietnam: “Please follow us on FB and Instagram; we are always looking for volunteers to support us with our activities.”
Sophie Johnson is a British Zoology graduate and conservation blogger, keen to raise awareness for the biggest environmental issues of today. She is currently living and teaching in Da Nang, Vietnam, and has undertaken conservation projects in Madagascar and Zimbabwe. Prior to her move to Vietnam, Sophie was interning with BBC Wildlife Magazine back in the UK.