While not an attractive topic, we thought it was important to talk about one of the most impactful shifts we have recognized since moving to Viet Nam. So what’s one of the things that have stuck with us the most as we navigate our new lives? It’s plastic pollution. In countries like Viet Nam, where communities are increasing, with improved quality of life, growing economies, and lower poverty rates than before, they haven’t been able to keep up with waste management systems. This is probably a good time to mention that we know America isn’t perfect in the movement to end plastic waste, either. Also, we see a move away from straws is a global phenomena; however, it’s just a tiny piece of the problem (but, baby steps!).
We know there are incredibly harmful effects of pollution on the environment, people, and animals so it’s hard for us to understand the dependency on plastic. While research varies on how long it takes for plastic to decompose, we know that it can range from 50 to 450 years or longer! Where we see it the most is in the water canals and ocean coast. Here are some facts to give context to plastic pollution in Viet Nam.
- In 2014, the country threw out 12 million tons of solid waste, and it is estimated that urban areas alone will be dumping 22 million tons per year by 2020, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MARD).
- MARD also reported that In Viet Nam, only 40 to 60 percent of waste ends up in dumps, while the rest is discharged into canals and rivers that flow into the sea.
- 9 million or more than 50 metric tons of plastic bags are used everyday according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
- Sea Education Association and University of Georgia named Viet Nam as one of the top 5 countries that are responsible for ocean plastic pollution.
More importantly, we are not seeing the action items that it takes for a community to shift their way of thinking about a cultural norm such as waste. We recognize we are outsiders, but we find many of our colleagues are frustrated by the pollution as well and want to discuss alternatives with us. They find it difficult to change because it is so ingrained in their daily life, especially their food system. Everything from our delicious banh mis (two bags) to candies (four wrappers) to a grocery run (six bags) come in more plastic than necessary.
We also see the difficulties of implementing policies to reduce plastic and change behavioral norms. For example, water for everyone must come from a filtered source which is sold in bottles. There is no natural tap for the majority of people as only 39% of rural people have safe drinking water and there is evidence of arsenic in North. People have to buy their drinking water every couple of days in large __ litre bottles to ensure that it has been cleaned. This is a component that will not be changed by one initiative or one policy. However, it’s not all bleak.
Some positive steps forward we’ve seen include:
- Tra Vinh University’s Going Green Initiative
- Various regional competitions or contests to reduce plastic waste
- Viet Nam’s national waste management strategy to reduce or reuse waste by 85%.
- Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) on January 23 kicked off a programme for advancing circular economy to protect the environment.
We try to do our part, too. We bought reusable glass containers, try to eat at home or in the restaurant (rather than taking it to go and getting 4-5 bags of food for one meal), and learning to say ‘không’ (no) every time they try to bag something that is unnecessary. Justine is working on writing grants for municipal waste projects for Tra Vinh and other environmental work to reduce plastic, but we’re hopeful we can get more people on board, especially students to build a happier and healthier community.
Any ideas for us?!