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Zero-waste startups: From good cause to circular economy

Vietnam generates large amounts of waste every day – food waste, construction waste, old clothes and furniture, batteries, plastic bags and much more.

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Bagasse tableware and disposable cutlery produced by Greeny Bee Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Greeny Bee Vietnam)




The total volume ofwaste each year in the country comes to about 25.5 million tonnes, of which 75percent goes into landfills. Vietnam is among the top four generators of plasticwaste, at 280,000 tonnes per year, and over 70 percent is buried, according toa World Bank report. 

A group of specialistsfrom the Vietnam Environment Administration estimated that municipal solidwaste increases by 10 – 16 percent each year. Several landfill sites in majorcities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang are already overloaded,affecting local lives.

Waste also represents aneconomic loss and burden on society. Hanoi and HCM City have to spend around1.2 – 1.5 trillion VND (52 – 65 million USD) a year, or3.5 percent of their budgets, on collecting and treating waste.

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Trash floods a road in the outskirts of Hanoi. 



Growing awareness breedsentrepreneurship in zero-waste business

Vietnamese people,particularly youngsters, are becoming more aware of the environmental issuesfacing the country. 

They have lately thrown thespotlight on the detrimental impact plastic waste has on Vietnam’s image andengaged in various social trends to help reduce the damage done to theenvironment, from boycotting single use containers to switching to bamboostraws. Many of them have started to weigh the environmental impacts of aproduct rather than just purchasing it for convenience.

“There is growingawareness among people that businesses have responsibilities towards societyand the environment, beyond just voluntary acts of kindness,” said UNDP DeputyResident Representative Sitara Syed at the Blue Swallows 2019 Forum, whichrecognised business initiatives aimed at tackling social and environmentalissues, in Hanoi in October.

She cited a study byNielsen as saying that Vietnamese consumers are the most socially-conscious inSoutheast Asia, with 86 percent of respondents from Vietnam willing to payextra to companies who are committed to positive social and environmentalimpacts.

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Pham Kieu Oanh, Founder and CEO of the Center for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP). 


“This year, we havereceived an unprecedented number of initiatives related to the environment andenvironmental protection,” said Pham Kieu Oanh, Founder and CEO of the Centerfor Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) that organised Blue Swallows 2019.

For example, some chainsof stores have raised public awareness of sustainable consumption and wastereduction, and promote behavioural changes among young people and consumers,she said.

An increasing number ofVietnamese start-ups have taken on the task of developing sustainablealternatives to curb the mounting trash problem. A number of them offerproducts and services that allow consumers to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle

,while the others make goods out of garbage, like shoes from coffee grounds,bags from industrial waste, cutlery from bagasse and dishwashing liquid fromorganic waste, to name but a few.

“By now, we know that ifwe don’t take any action, it will be too late. And businesses are now moreaware of this,” Oanh said.

Not an easy path

“I began thinking aboutturning trash into something useful in 2011 when garbage trucks in my area wereout of order for four days in a row, making the odour of the accumulatinggarbage very unpleasant,” Trinh Thi Hong said as she was explaining how shehad come up with the idea of creating shampoo, shower gel, dish-washing andfloor cleaning liquid from food waste such as fruit peels and vegetable scraps.

Hong, who lost herfamily in the war when she was just a child, tried hundreds of times before shesucceeded. Though she knew nothing about biotechnology, it was not her biggestchallenge.

To her, navigating thesuspicions of people who didn’t believe she could really make something out ofwaste was the biggest difficulty.

“My husband told me itwas a crazy idea while my son said I was just a daydreamer and beingunrealistic,” Hong said. “Not to mention other people, nobody believed such agood and affordable product could be made from unwanted waste.”

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Trinh Thi Hong, who found Minh Hong Biotech, and a dishwashing product made from food waste. 


But at present, hercompany - Minh Hong Biotech - processes about 109 tonnes of waste to produce50,000 – 51,000 litres of products a month, which are sold by anetwork of four distribution firms and 106 dealers across the country.

Greeny Bee Vietnam, aproducer of bagasse tableware and disposable cutlery, faced different obstacles.“Like many small businesses, Greeny Bee faces three main issues,” said Founderand CEO Tran Quoc Trung.

“First is the lack ofpersonnel as I have done it all by myself since the beginning,” Trung said.

“The second isinsufficient funding,” he continued. “Personally, I think most zero-wastestartups like mine are small- and medium-size enterprises so they always lackcapital.” 

“It was difficult to gainaccess to any soft loan,” he said. 

“And third, the lack ofnecessary legal and policy support for new entrepreneurs. In Vietnam, it isquite difficult and complicated to get support, like in taxation,” he added.

He wants the government torelax credit standards, provide training for startups and help connect smallcompanies with larger ones. 

“The government canprovide tax incentives and help connect businesses. Via representative offices,it can help local startups connect with potential partners from developedcountries,” he said.

“The government andadvisory bodies need to help startups develop their ideas and business models,”said Nguyen Dinh Cung, Director of the Central Institute for EconomicManagement (CIEM). “It can then provide financial assistance, since those whohave ideas normally have limited capital.”

“They are also affectedby environmental issues every day so they want to make a change and contributeto the community,” he said.

Moving towards acircular economy

Consciously orunconsciously, zero-waste startup s are playing a relevant role in developing acircular economy, which is a rather new concept in Vietnam. This approach seeksto consume less plastic and channel waste back into production, thussignificantly easing pressure on the environment.

A circular economy isthe best way for Vietnam to achieve sustainable development and ensure allresources are used and reused efficiently and economically, said Pham HoangHai, Head of the Secretariat at the Vietnam Business Council for SustainableDevelopment (VBCSD).

“Sustainable developmentmeans we can maintain a balance among economic, social and environmentalfactors,” he said. “With climate change, a growing population and scarceresources, how can we expect to have enough if we keep using and then disposingof resources?” 

A circular economy couldunlock up to 4.5 trillion USD in value and create millions of jobs in theglobal economy by 2030, according to an Accenture Strategy study. In addition,it holds particular promise for achieving multiple Sustainable DevelopmentGoals (SDGs), such as in the areas of sustainable consumption and production,climate change, and oceans.

Vietnam is makingefforts to transform towards a green and circular economic model. In 2017, thegovernment approved a project to form an environment industry that can meet thecontents of a circular economy by 2025.

The Ministry of Industryand Trade is currently crafting a National Action Programme on SustainableProduction and Consumption, which will be carried out from 2021 – 2030.

The government is alsobeing supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to include a circulareconomy in its Socio-economic Development Plan/Strategy from 2021 – 2030, saidIda Uusikylä, Innovation Consultant at UNDP.

The UNDP is also workingwith the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to include the circulareconomy in the revised law on environmental protection as well as supportingVietnam to develop the National Action Plan on Marine Plastic, she said./. VNA

Pham Le Khanh Ly

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