Phasing out single-use plastic bags
Pollution has been mounting in Vietnam with the growing use of nylon bags and plastic products, which must be replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives while improving consumer awareness.
Nguyen Thi Ha, a resident of Hanoi’s Bac Tu Liem district, buys her groceries at the local market. She brings no basket with her because everything she buys come in colourful nylon bags for free – which will take thousands of years to decompose.
“I bring home about five nylon bags each day. We keep them all and use them whenever we need them around the house,” Ha said.
At this marketplace alone, thousands of nylon bags and plastic products such as straws, chopsticks, and spoons are handed out each day. It is surrounded by garbage containers filled way over the brim with plastic waste and rotten fruits and vegetables, with the stench wafting around.
The nylon and plastic products used by Ha’s family and others’ are often produced domestically or imported from China for cheap. For example, at Hanoi’s marketplaces and supermarkets, nylon bags of different colours and sizes are sold for about VND40,000 ($1.74) per kg, while single-use plastic glasses cost VND1,300 (5 US cents) apiece and straws come at about VND20,000 ($0.87) a bundle.
Millions of Vietnamese households and wet markets across the country are using non-biodegradable nylon bags and plastic products without a thought for the damage they are causing to their own health and the environment. This is one of the most imperative issues facing not only Vietnam but the whole world today.
|Nylon bags are among those plastic products required to be replaced with environmental-friendly items|
Mounting waste and pollution
Its unique properties have earned plastics an important role in society, however, its production, consumption, and disposal pose significant negative impacts on society, the environment, and the economy which are not accounted for in the current price of virgin plastic.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the environmental and social cost of plastic is at least 10 times higher than its market price paid by primary plastic producers, and the difference is shouldered by the general market. The failure of governments to better understand the real costs of plastic has led to the poor management of this material, along with growing ecological, social, and economic costs.
In the past 50 years, the global use of plastics has gas grown 20-fold, and it has been estimated to at least double in the following 20 years, said the WWF.
While an increasing share of plastics is made from bio-based materials, the World Economic Forum has estimated that by 2050, the plastics industry will account for one-fifth of the world’s oil production, posing problems without easy solutions such as marine litter.
Strawless Ocean, an environmental organisation that discourages the use of plastic straws, estimated that more than one million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish are killed by plastic pollution each year. Illustrating the extent of pollution, 71 per cent of seabirds and 30 per cent of turtles have been found with plastics in their stomachs.
According to a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature headquartered in Switzerland, more than 80 per cent of marine waste originates from the mainland. Plastics account for 50-80 per cent of marine waste, a proportion that is only expected to increase and become an even more prominent cause of environmental pollution and harm marine ecosystems, as plastics can remain in the environment for over 2,000 years before fully degrading.
Meanwhile, the average Vietnamese produces around 1.2kg of waste each day, 16 per cent of which is plastic. With this, each day Vietnam generates nearly 18,000 tonnes of plastic waste.
Additionally, according to a WWF report titled “Plastics: The costs to society, the environment and the economy”, in 2019, the US sent 83,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling to Vietnam alone, equivalent to the plastic waste of approximately 300,000 US households.
“Many of the destination countries have limited waste management systems, for example in Vietnam, 72 per cent of plastic waste is mismanaged and becomes plastic pollution. Such plastic pollution imposes countless detrimental impacts on destination countries, including contaminated water supplies, crop death, and respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic,” read the report.
As Vietnam is setting out to combat plastics pollution, an International Finance Corporation (IFC) study published in 2021 titled “Market Study for Vietnam – Plastics Circularity Opportunities and Barriers” suggests that used plastic could be a valuable resource, making it sound business for Vietnam to scale up recycling and plastic circularity efforts – and incidentally promoting sustainable development.
The report found that only 33 per cent of the 3.9 million tonnes of commonly used plastics disposed of each year in Vietnam are recovered and recycled. The study estimates that 75 per cent of the material value of plastics, or $2.2-2.9 billion a year, is lost to the economy.
“Rapid urbanisation and a rising middle class have significantly increased the consumption of plastic products and packaging, making regional emerging markets including Vietnam a hot spot for plastics pollution,” said Carolyn Turk, World Bank country director for Vietnam. “However, investments in waste management infrastructure have not kept pace. The public and private sector need to work together to address this complex environmental, social, and economic problem and drive policies and investments that help unlock material value.”
Globally, up to 50 per cent of marine plastic debris is contributed by single-use or short-use consumer packaging, according to the World Bank. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation by increasing the consumption of masks, sanitiser bottles, and packaging for online delivery. Environmental leakage and marine pollution are especially acute in Vietnam, given its long coastline. To address this, the National Action Plan for Management of Marine Plastic Litter by 2030 aims to reduce 75 per cent of Vietnam’s marine plastic debris over the next 10 years.
“A circular economy is critical for Vietnam to meet low-carbon growth targets. Recycling plastics not only combats plastics pollution it also avoids greenhouse gas emissions and saves valuable material resources,” said Kyle Kelhofer, IFC country manager for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao PDR. “Improving the business case for plastic recycling will mobilise increased private sector investment to help address the scourge of plastics pollution while supporting key sectors including tourism, shipping, and fisheries, which have been particularly impacted.”
The study proposes both short and long-term solutions to enhance local demand for recycled plastics and scale up the domestic recycling industry by enabling private-sector investment. Specifically, it recommends improving waste management capacity, setting “recycled content targets” across major end-use applications, and mandating “design for recycling” standards for plastics, especially for packaging.
A long-term plan
At the end of last July, the government in Decision No.1316/QD-TTg approved the scheme to strengthen the management of plastic wastes in Vietnam, aiming at improving mechanisms, policies, and regulations.
Under the project, Vietnam targets to fully switch to environmentally friendly plastic bags and packaging at shopping malls and supermarkets by 2025 while all tourism complexes, hotels, and other lodging facilities will stop using non-biodegradable plastic bags and single-use plastic products.
The country also aims to collect, reuse, recycle, and treat 85 per cent of plastic waste as well as reduce the volume of plastic waste dumped into the ocean by half.
Additionally, the project will gradually cut the production and consumption of non-biodegradable plastic bags and single-use plastic products for daily use while raising awareness of the harmful effects of single-use plastics and encouraging consumers to shift to eco-friendly alternatives.
It will campaign for producers and distributors of non-biodegradable plastic products to shift to eco-friendly alternatives and promote the development and application of advanced technology in plastic waste management and the manufacturing of environmentally friendly products.
Under the project, in 2021-2026, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment will assess the plastic collection situation, as well as issue regulations and strengthen communications in plastic waste management and environmentally friendly production.
Currently, the ministry and relevant authorities are building plans with specific tasks for particular agencies under their management.
However, for project implementation to be effective, specific programmes are in urgent need for hamlets and residential areas, so that people can understand and gradually shed their long-time habits of using non-biodegradable products.
Housewife Nguyen Thi Ha said, “Currently, nylon bags are free and very convenient. I do believe education programmes about the harms of plastic waste are important, but they will not be effective as long as we have to pay for biodegradable products while plastics are free,” Ha said.
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