Peter Cornish takes a look at the growing zero waste movement in Ho Chi Minh City, and some of the people and organisations doing their part to make the city a cleaner and greener place to live. Photos by Romain Garrigue.

As Earth Day approaches we see a flurry of activity by environmental groups around the country, preparing for annual clean ups. Groups like Vietnam Clean and Green and Clean Up Vietnam help organise and support multiple clean up events nationwide, encouraging volunteers to put their gloves on and put trash away in what at times seems like a futile attempt in tackling the country’s litter problem.

There are those who argue that there is little point in these clean ups as what’s collected today is replaced by new mounds of trash tomorrow. And in many cases, they are right. It can seem like an endless battle against the never-ending tide of litter, and one that will never be won. But the clean up groups have had an impact, and change is happening.

A new movement is slowing gaining momentum, one that looks beyond cleaning up the mess we make to examining ways we can reduce what we throw away in the first place. The zero waste movement is taking hold, slowly but surely, as more and more individuals and businesses are looking at the waste they produce, and actively taking steps to minimise it.

Zero Waste Saigon Facebook page (facebook.com/zerowastesaigon) appeared just a few short months ago. Within weeks it had reached 1,000 members, and at time of writing was close to double that. We caught up with Julia Mesner Burdge and her husband Michael Burdge to ask their motivations for starting the group, and what they hope to achieve.

Julia explained her seminal moment came during a visit to a temple during a trip to Ho Tram. She was struck by the amount of trash surrounding the holy place, and worse still, that baby monkeys were eating plastic bags and other trash. As the mother of a young child, Julia explained felt compelled to act on what she had seen so created her Facebook page, hoping to connect similarly minded people.

Snowballing Interest

The uptake was fast, and was quickly followed by weekly meetings, looking at the waste issues that concerned people and sharing what they were doing about them. High on the agenda was single use plastic, especially plastic straws, the impact they have on the environment and what alternatives were available. Believing that the priority is to act rather than talk, Julia has given away hundreds of bamboo straws already popular with Ho Chi Minh City bars such as The Old Compass and LuBu, and encouraged plenty more to ditch plastic and look for sustainable alternatives.

Other restaurants around Ho Chi Minh City are taking further steps to reduce their waste, both in their outlets and for delivery items. Popular vegan restaurant, Organik House (facebook.com/theorganikhousegoeco), has taken the leap and started importing biodegradable food packaging and accessories. Their product range includes items made from sugar cane, bamboo and palm for use in restaurants or for food delivery.

Although perhaps not a viable business opportunity yet, due to high prices and low margins compared to other less eco-friendly options, taking this initiative has further spurred restaurant owners to look at waste reduction and minimising use of plastics.

It’s not only the food and beverage sector that’s starting to look at waste reduction more earnestly. The hospitality and tourism industry has been instrumental in pushing the clean up movement, appreciating the importance of maintaining a clean, litter free environment for their guests. Groups like Keep Mui Ne Nice have been active in the clean up community since its inception and are actively working with local authorities to improve their regions for both locals and visitors.

Sustainable Tourism

Locally based Destination Management Companies Khiri Travel and Exo Travel are the first to become Travel Life certified in Vietnam. Travel Life, a Dutch accreditation scheme, works within the travel industry to develop sustainability policies and waste reduction programmes through their supply chain, products and packages and inhouse initiatives for the locations they operate in.

Zero waste movement in Ho Chi Minh CityTo increase adoption of the scheme’s aims, Khiri and Exo Travel have founded IMPACT Vietnam (facebook.com/groups/IMPACTVietnam), a resource and network sharing group for the country’s tourism sector.

We met with Nick Wade of Khiri Travel who told us the group is working towards several of their own goals, in particular the establishment of industry standards and best practices in relation to waste management and sustainability. Nick explained that by standardising requirements of both partners and supplies, they hope to simplify processes and establish industry benchmarks.

The group is also hoping to impact real change through two direct action initiatives, both of which tackle plastic waste. The first looks at opportunities to reduce single use plastic in the tourism sector through the introduction of bottle refill stations at partner bars, restaurants and hotels nationwide.

Similar to the Refill My Bottle programme in Bali, the initiative would use a geo-app showing nearby locations where water bottles could be refilled. With more than 50 locations already committed, the project is well on its way.

Upcycling

The second initiative focuses on reuse or upcycling of plastic waste from package tours and excursions. Partnering with groups such as Precious Plastic and local universities, IMPACT Vietnam hope to place recycling machines in under-developed yet tourist heavy locations around the country and encourage local communities to see plastic waste as a valuable commodity that can be turned into products for resale.

Like the Go Eco initiative from Organik House, other companies are also introducing products that offer an alternative to traditional plastic. One such company is WAVE (facebook.com/wave.ecosolutions), founded by Roberto Guzman and Malou Claessens, who produce a cassava-based plastic bag alternative which contain zero actual plastic and are made from cassava starch using a proprietary process.

Roberto explained that the motivation for his business came from time spent snorkelling in different locations around the world, and constantly seeing plastic bags in the waters where he swam. Spurred to action, he assembled a team of scientists and researchers and produced a bio-polymer that had similar properties to plastic.

Together with his partner Malou, Roberto worked with factories to modify their manufacturing processes and now produces his eco-friendly bags in Mexico and Indonesia, distributing throughout Asia, Australia and the Americas.

Looking and feeling like plastic, the bags are strong and durable and can be used in many different shapes and forms, making them ideal for F&B, retail or personal use. Fully customisable, they are ready for personal branding for companies wanting to show their green credentials.

Being 100% bio-based, the cassava bags compost naturally in soil or landfills within three to six months, without leaving harmful traces, and produce a non-toxic ash when burnt. The zero plastic bags also dissolve in water in about three months, leaving a 100% natural liquid, and the natural material can be safely consumed (although we don’t recommend it!) by animals, fish and humans.

Changing The Mindset

One of the greatest challenges facing the zero waste, no plastic movement is changing consumer behaviour. In a country known for its excessive over use of packaging, encouraging people to turn their backs on single use plastics is a daunting and arduous task.

Stepping up to the challenge is local NGO ChangeVN (facebook.com/CHANGEvn), the Centre of Hands-On Action and Networking for Growth and Environment (CHANGE).

Working to promote and encourage the care and preservation of the environment through education and innovative communications that change habits and inspire community action, Change recently ran a successful campaign tackling the use of rhino horn in Vietnam. They are now turning their attention to reduction of plastic use with a 21 Day No Plastic Challenge.

Thu Nguyen, Development Manager at Change, explained that as part of a continuing iCHANGE campaign dedicated to changing anti-social behaviours, they will launch their initiative on Earth Day, April 22. The campaign will run a series of programmes designed to encourage behavioural change in areas that impact negatively on the environment, such as use of transportation, energy and plastic.

On June 15, Change will launch their first programme that challenges people to reduce their use of plastic over a 21-day period. It is believed that this three-week period is the time needed to break a habit or form a new one. Aimed at a widespread audience, they will work with schools, businesses and individuals through a series of daily challenges to showcase how they are reducing their plastic use.

Participants in the 21-day challenge are invited to buy an iChange kit to help them. Included in the kit are items such as a bamboo straw, a glass water bottle, a canvas bag, non-plastic food container and eco-friendly cutlery.

Other kits will be donated to disadvantaged groups around the country. Throughout the challenge, people who have completed a series of tasks, such as posting photos or videos on the Change Facebook page, will be eligible to win prizes.

Clean Up

While new groups are working hard to reduce the amount of litter we produce, others are increasing activity to clean up the waste we discard. We met with Tue Phan, General Manager of Viet Nam Sach Va Xanh (facebook.com/vnsvx), one of the largest anti-litter groups in the country, to find out more about their work.

Tue explained that while their ultimate goal is to keep Vietnam clean and green, the clean up movement is a first step in working towards plastic reduction, and then towards zero waste. He also believes it’s better to reduce rather than re-use, and while bamboo straws are a step in the right direction, do we really need a straw at all?

Viet Nam Sach Va Xanh launched in 2013 with a green ribbon campaign at RMIT University. The ribbons showed people’s commitment to a cleaner environment and were tied to backpacks or motorbike mirrors by students. The simple, cost effective idea spread rapidly and they distributed more than 66,000 ribbons to 15 universities throughout the country.

Recognition of the campaign came when they won the Asia Development Bank International Youth 4 Asia award in 2015, something that founder Nhan Nguyen is very proud of.

Working closely with other clean up groups such as Clean Up Vietnam, Tue’s group has been holding regular community clean ups since 2015. Partnering with Clean Up Vietnam again this year, they will be organising multiple community clean ups around HCMC and Vietnam on Earth Day. Visit their Facebook page if you would like to play a part in keeping your community clean.

More recent campaigns include an education-based initiative called the Green Turtle Army, or more accurately biet doi rua xanh, the green turtle special forces. Inspired by Woodsy Owl, an anti-litter mascot from America in the 1970s, the character is based on the turtle dragon of Vietnamese mythology.

Again, working with students from RMIT, they have developed a gaming app that targets young children to complete a series of anti-litter tasks. Piloted in international schools in HCMC, kids learn about the importance of keeping their environment clean and trying to reduce their waste.

Want to work towards zero waste?
Practical tips to get you started

1. When ordering drinks, say “no plastic straw”.

2. Trade plastic bags for a reusable shopping tote and take reusable bags shopping for fruit and veggies.

3. Swap single-use water bottles for reusable ones.

4. Pick up a set of reusable utensils to take with when you’re on the go.

5. Buy compostable, sustainable toothbrushes instead of plastic ones.

6. Wash clothes when they are actually dirty, instead of after only one wear.

7. Buy food without packaging or with minimal packaging.

8. Use bar soap instead of liquid soap, it tends to come with less packaging.

9. Avoid ordering delivery from restaurants unless they use biodegradable packaging.

10. Follow the advice of zero waste blogger Bea Johnson: 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.