Living Zero Waste in Saigon, Vietnam
Anh Tín has been fixing bags for 35 years

Living Zero Waste in Saigon, Vietnam

Vietnam’s Plastic Problem

Ever since pitching a plastics-alternative marketplace at the YSEALI Summit 2018, I can’t stop seeing our copious waste of single use plastic. It’s estimated that 1 billion straws are used everyday worldwide, enough to cover the earth’s circumference 5 times. And that’s just straws.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where I live, 9 million plastic bags are used every day – double the amount that was used 4 years ago. And Vietnam is a growth market for plastics. The country’s per capita consumption of plastic products (40-45kg/capita) is half that of Thailand’s and one-fourth that of Japan.

Plastic is difficult to separate, clean and recycle, and has a limited number of recycling life cycles compared to glass and metal. About 6 billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown away every year worldwide, and only about 30% is recycled. Of that 30%, just one-fifth is processed to create fresh plastic bottles. So only 6% of recycled plastic bottles become new plastic bottles.

Plastic is not biodegradable, so plastics clog landfills and seep into groundwater. In Ho Cho Minh, 20% of plastics ends up in landfills, and given the city’s shortage of recycling facilities, we can assume most of the remaining 80% ends up in the rivers and ocean where it takes hundreds of years to decompose, leeching toxins into the food chain.

I love Vietnam, its people and its amazing food. But growing plastic use could harm the livelihood of millions and threaten the country’s food security. Vietnam is already the fourth worst ocean polluter of plastics in the world.

Highlands Coffee, the most ubiquitous coffee chain in Ho Chi Minh, uses one plastic cup, lid and straw for each serving of coffee. And you know how much Vietnamese love their ca phê sũa đá. Popular bubble tea chains only serve tea in single use plastic. All this plastic, used for 5 minutes and then discarded, where it will take hundreds of years to degrade.

Reducing waste will require government policies, innovation in packaging and recycling and most importantly, changing our behavior as consumers. In this post, I’m focused on the latter. Changing your habits may seem an insignificant difference, but if enough of us can change our habits, we can show an alternative way forward that wastes less.

The 5R’s of Zero Waste Living

The first step is to become aware of our habits of consumption.

I got this 5R model from Zero Waste Home:

  • Refuse what you do not need
  • Reduce what you do need
  • Reuse by using reusables
  • Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse
  • Rot (compost) the rest

The key insight of this framework is that mindful consumption – NOT recycling – is the key to sustainable living. We should question each purchase and the entire life cycle of the products we use. Do you need it? Can it be reused? And then if necessary, recycled or rotted?

Identify Your Use Patterns

Each person’s living situation is different. Most critical is to identify your common single-use patterns and find workarounds.

My Living Situation:

  • Live alone
  • Eat mostly plants
  • Carry a backpack for work
  • Ride a motorbike for transportation
  • Travel a lot so want to minimize stuff

My 4 Most Common Single-Use Plastic Scenarios (and Workarounds)

  1. Late night convenient store runs (carry extra bag in backpack and motorbike)
  2. Grocery shopping (bring reusable mesh produce bags, find wet markets that sell in bulk)
  3. Using plastics to store food (buy glass & silicone containers, beeswax wraps, and re-usable silicone microwave covers)
  4. Food delivery (eat AT restaurants, order less delivery and takeout, carry extra bag in backpack and motorbike)

So What If You’re Not Perfect? Just Get Started

I have found the following items to be indispensable for wasting less on a daily basis:

Starter Pack 

  1. Bag with reusable bags (less single use bags)
  2. Drink Thermos (less single use drink containers)
  3. Handkerchief (less single use tissues)
  4. Mesh bags (less single use produce bags when grocery shopping)

I don’t use straws and never pack food to eat at work, so I don’t need to carry reusable utensils or a lunch pack.

I’ve saved countless plastic bottles (and money) by carrying my thermos. And bringing along a few mesh produce bags while grocery shopping is easy.

Check out my full list of zero waste essentials.

Living Zero Waste in Saigon

So back to the 5Rs. In Ho Chi Minh, this could mean:

REFUSE what you do not need

  • Learn these Vietnamese sayings
    • không cần ống hút, cảm ơn (don’t need a straw, thank you)
    • không cần túi, cảm ơn (don’t need a bag, thank you)
    • không với đồ nhụa, cảm ơn (no plastics, thank you)
  • Join Zero Waste Communities in Ho Chi Minh for support and inspiration

REDUCE what you do need

REUSE + REPAIR goods

  • Reuse what you have
  • Buy reusable, recyclable containers practical to your living situation
  • Get stuff fixed and support local craftsmen
    • Get your bags fixed at Thành Tâm, 784 Nguyễn Định Chiểu, Quận 3 (8am-12:30pm, 2:30-6pm)
    • Clean your shoes with Mr. Laundry for 60,000 VND. 42 Đường 54, Thảo Điện

RECYCLE what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse

  • Studying Ho Chi Minh’s recycling system to get a better understanding – stay tuned!

ROT the rest

“With every purchase, the entire life cycle of a product should be evaluated, including recyclability. When buying new, we should choose products that not only support reuse but also are made of materials that have a high postconsumer content, are compatible with our community’s recycling program, and are likely to get recycled over and over (e.g., steel, aluminum, glass, or paper) versus downcycled (e.g., plastics).”

Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Home

More Resources

Zero Waste Mindset + Tips

Wasting less in Saigon will forever be a work in progress, so please let me know your suggestions, resources and additions in the comments below. I will keep this guide as up to date as possible!

Top up your soaps and cleaners at Refill Station (83 Xuân Thủy, Thảo Điền, Quận 2)

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