Tuan Phan investigates the use of plastics in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Romain Garrigue.

Walk into any major grocery store in Ho Chi Minh city and you’ll find individual bananas encased in plastic. Grab a take-away banh mi and coffee and you’ll end up with a plastic-sealed wet wipe, plastic cup with a plastic cap, plastic bag with handles for cup carrying, and the ubiquitous straw peeking out of the entire ensemble.

In popular cafes and bakery chains of Saigon, customers receive pastries, from croissants and biscuits, to tiny cookies, all individually wrapped in plastic, then deposited again inside a larger bag. Getting to a baked product can sometimes feel like peeling an onion of endless plastic layers; one passes through endless wrapping and discards all of it for a few bites.

For a country with one of the most beautiful, productive coastlines and a symbiotic past with the rivers that run through it, Vietnam’s unprecedented growth has led to it becoming one of the world’s worst plastic polluters of these same waterways. According to a 2015 study from the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment study, Vietnam is one of the five countries responsible for 60% of the plastic waste swimming in the world’s oceans. There is no indication that Vietnam’s surge in plastic use will decrease anytime soon.

In counteraction to this is a developing groundswell of awareness and effort to reduce and recycle plastics in the high end tourism community of the city. Mark Bowyer, owner of the Old Compass Cafe, was so alarmed by the plastic habits of cafes that he decided to survey restaurants and bars to gauge plastic use and compile a list of places that don’t use plastic straws, bottles, or plastic-encased hand towelettes. The reaction to his survey was supportive, even if not all places agreed to limit their use of plastic. Old Compass Cafe General Manager Duong Dang said she believes restaurants should be able to see how, on a practical level, there is an opportunity to brand themselves as environmentally conscious. “There was a large group that responded simply by saying ‘we don’t qualify’, without saying they are at least working on it.”

The list is only a partial compilation of a number of restaurants and bars in the city that take direct aim at their plastic use. On this recent Halloween eve, the proprietors and managers of Shri Restaurant and Lounge decided to forgo plastic straws. General Manager Richie Fawcett, who initiated the move, said straws are “the most unnecessary drinking utensil ever. We’ve been indoctrinated that it’s the acceptable norm.” Shri’s restaurant manager, Truong Thach, brings out a cup full of alternatives to demonstrate: straws of paper, bamboo, and metal, the latter cleaned and reused like any other utensil and embossed with the restaurant’s logo. The cost is higher for all the alternative straws, of course, but negligibly so (a metal reusable straw runs below 50 cents), and customers often ask for them as a souvenir.

Other restaurants and bars to be commended are The Organik House, a vegetarian restaurant which runs a zero waste system and are actively promoting recycling, Marou Maison, the chocolatier, Lubu, Quan Bui, and Cuch Gach Quan, for its inventive straws made from morning glory stems. Others are eager to join and are currently working hard on how they might reduce their plastic footprint, most notably Pizza 4Ps. Bowyer excitedly explains how he thinks a groundswell could change the culture, if the coolest, hippest spots in the city could lead these efforts: “What we’d love is a contest in which all the restaurants are fighting harder and harder to be plastic free. If Marou, 4Ps, Quan Bui, and so on join up, there could be a real move.” Ultimately, for Bowyer, the real test of substantive impact would happen “if we can move this conversation into 100% Vietnamese businesses with 100% Vietnamese customers.”

Indeed, for this awareness to make a tangible difference, it needs to extend beyond the more expat establishments. Sacha Bourdeau of Precious Plastics, an organisation that equips communities with a buildable blueprint for plastic recycling stations, notes how there’s not yet enough of “an economic incentive to recycle plastics,” in Ho Chi Minh City. However, he believes that Precious Plastics’ project can make a noticeable difference in raising awareness, inspiring others through high quality products made from recycled plastics, so future iterations can provide a solution. Schools are initiating contact and eager to collaborate and learn how to turn otherwise trashed plastics back into use.

Peter Cornish of Clean Up Vietnam, suggests that an educational movement could be the first step to a wider awareness within the country. “We want educational programmes to get traction, to see the way that we expose kids to how these efforts work,” he said. “The International schools here have this environmental awareness. They’re well resourced and connected with each other.” He adds, “Our goal is to get government intervention… I believe the government will catch on.”

Indeed, how plastic is used or reused in Vietnam might ultimately rest in the hands of the young. Celine Pham, a junior at Saigon South International School, is a part of a growing trend of awareness that includes university students too. Low key and modest, Celine built her school’s first composting machine without much fanfare, and currently operates it with help from the student green group at SSIS.

When asked about plastic consumption awareness, she relates one particular experience she recently had with bubble tea (boba) outlets. “I went to different boba shops [in District 7] and took a picture every time I ordered, with the hashtag “bringyourownbottle”, to let people know the particular shops that lets you bring your own reusable container.” She then posted her findings on Facebook. The reaction to her project was both positive and encouraging. She noted the ease with which most staff just nonchalantly made the tea for her container. “People directly messaged me on Facebook” she said, smiling. “I think if this were an actual coordinated campaign, if a lot of people did it all at once, it could make a real difference.”

Here’s to hoping entrepreneurs and restaurateurs in the city connect with similar like-minded students, and vice versa, before our oceans contain more plastic than sea life.