Vietnam’s long and winding road to plastic waste reduction

A booming economy has given rise to fast-tracked consumption in Vietnam, and with it mounting waste. The country's leaders have introduced legislation to curb its plastic habit, but some observers warn it still has the potential to become the world's garbage dump

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October 16, 2020
Vietnam’s long and winding road to plastic waste reduction
A woman scours through a pile of waste on the side of a road in Bac Ninh, east of Hanoi in December 2019. Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP

Throw-away plastic is bountiful in Vietnam. It’s in the rainbow of plastic bags used in the nation’s markets. It’s in the carts of waste pickers and the craft villages set up for recycling. And even when it’s going unseen, it’s being carelessly discarded in lakes, waterways, roads, everywhere and anywhere it can be thrown.

Vietnam produces about 13 million tonnes of waste each year, roughly the equivalent of the Great Pyramid of Giza – twice-over. Vietnam is also one of the five Southeast Asian countries that together are responsible for more marine plastic waste leakage than the rest of the world combined. 

To combat this growing problem, late last month Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc issued a new directive for tighter plastic waste management, acknowledging the severity of the problem, and providing more practical measures to reduce plastic waste, as well as specific requirements for national and local agencies.

While the prime minister’s new directive may not be a cure-all for plastic pollution in Vietnam, there is some good news to be found in the country’s plastic waste management. This new directive calls for increased tax rates on plastic bags, packaging and other plastic products. 

But, when it comes to waste management, Vietnam has a history of unkept promises. Local authorities don’t always tow the party line, and rarely are directive dreams realised, no matter how many of them are issued. To critics, a new directive amounts to lip service without serious investment.

This year, the country is expected to have the fastest growing economy of any nation globally, having quickly wrestled the pandemic into submission, avoiding many of its worst economic effects. But as with any economy on the rise, Vietnam’s waste is increasing with little sign of slowing down. The plastic cost of growth generates 10-16% more municipal solid waste each year, linked to a soaring increase in per capita plastic consumption. Since 1999, that annual usage has increased from 3.8 kg to 63 kg per person.

Cao Vinh Thinh, a reporter-turned-environmental activist, and owner of Zero Waste Hanoi, points to this excessive consumption.

“The overuse of non-biodegradable plastic bags and plastic products, especially disposable plastic products has had immeasurable consequences for the environment,” Cao said. “I believe that plastic waste is a huge challenge. One that is becoming increasingly difficult. The government of Vietnam is putting itself at the most difficult level.”

The country has a shaky history when following its waste management ambitions. 

In early 2018, as China curbed the importation of 24 types of solid waste previously imported en masse from the West, this garbage began piling up in recycling operations in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam

In the aftermath of the Chinese ban, plastic waste imports to Vietnam increased 200% in the first six months of 2018 compared to 2017. In response, the prime minister issued Directive No. 27/CT-TTg in October 2018 to strengthen management of import activities, use imported scrap as raw materials for production, minimise the risk of environmental pollution through prohibiting the issuing of new, or renewed certificates, effectively preventing both legal and incorrect importation of waste into the country.

Plastic waste was meant to be moved further down the line, to countries with fewer regulations like Cambodia, Ghana or Ethiopia. But there are limitations on the power of the regulation, and if local officials choose not to follow the rules, waste imports can continue into the country unchecked.

Moreover, according to a September 2019 report by Ipsos, the prime minister’s directive leaves gaping loopholes in the classification of waste. These are exploited by foreign companies to export plastic into Vietnam, with the global market research firm concluding that Vietnam was “at risk of becoming a garbage dump of the world”. 

A boy walks past a street art installation made from plastic bottles in Hanoi on February 18. Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP

But in Vietnam, ineffective directives and flawed policies are nothing new. The country has been trying to tackle its plastic habits for more than a decade, and while some cities and provinces have taken action, the overall result has fallen short. 

Back in 2009, a prime minister’s directive outlined a few enterprising plans, including goals of recycling, reusing and recovering energy from 85% of daily solid waste in urban centres. It also aimed to treat 80% of construction solid waste in urban areas. 

These, along with a litany of other hopes for waste management, were supposed to be achieved by 2020. 

While evidence to suggest that any of these goals have been met is hard to come by, there is some evidence that suggests they haven’t. One study published in August found that about 85% of the waste generated in Vietnam is being buried without treatment in landfill sites, of which 80% is unsanitary and pollutes the environment.

WWF-Viet Nam declined comment when asked how many, if any, of the measures had been achieved. But the organisation, which has been working to implement multiple plastic reduction projects in Phu Quoc, Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City and Long An province, still found signs to hope the prime minister’s latest directive from September will have a greater impact.

This directive is like guidance. It requires ministering agencies, government agencies, and people’s committees to ‘walk the walk’

Pham Manh Hoai, Plastic Policy and EPR Coordinator at WWF-Viet Nam told the Globe that he appreciated the recent efforts from the government to combat plastic pollution. 

“The [latest directive] shows that plastic pollution is seen as one of the biggest environmental challenges, and Vietnam needs to take action to tackle this pollution issue,” Pham said.

While recent efforts focus on legal framework interventions aimed at tackling plastic pollution, this new directive looks at more practical measures at reducing plastic waste according to WWF-Viet Nam.

“This directive is like guidance. It requires ministering agencies, government agencies, and people’s committees to ‘walk the walk’,” Pham said.

Pham pointed to WWF-Viet Nam’s joint effort with embassies and international organisations last year to combat plastic pollution in Vietnam through reducing single-use plastic items in offices. But, while a reduction in plastic items in offices is a step forward, the greater issue is plastic waste among non-office workers and people in their everyday lives.

One 2019 survey conducted by WWF-Viet Nam in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City found that only 31% of families sort waste at the source, and 55% of waste collectors classify waste. Meanwhile, 77% of people had limited knowledge, or absolutely no information, about the nature and origin of plastics as a material. 

The survey did offer some cause for optimism, however, as it found almost 80% of people cared about the impact of plastic waste on the environment and human health, and felt responsible for reducing plastics. In this case, Pham said he remained optimistic. He believes people will change their habits, not only for themselves, but for a better environment in the future.

The prime minister, too, said Vietnam should “strive” for zero disposable plastic use in urban stores, markets and supermarkets by 2021, adding: “Let’s try to ensure … by 2025, the whole country will not use disposable plastic products”. 

However, the prime minister’s optimistic – if uninspiring – tone on plastic reduction is not shared by everyone.  

Environmental activist Cao believes the government is not taking drastic measures to tackle plastic waste at its roots. She sees infrastructure that isn’t synchronised, policies that are too loose, unsanitary waste treatment systems that pollute the environment and garbage collection where waste isn’t correctly separated. 

“When I try to persuade people to recycle, so many of them say to me ‘What is the classification for? When the sanitation company came to collect the garbage, they dumped them all together and the garbage truck’,” Cao said.

She explained that, to improve the plastic problem going forward, there needs to be an understanding and knowledge from individuals, classifying plastic waste at its source and limiting plastic consumption. 

“Support business models to limit plastic packaging waste and support and promote civil society organisations to amend or reform the policy system of environmental protection law,” Cao said.

Outside of the country’s major sweeping metropolises like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, in cities and provinces like Phu Quoc, Da Nang, and Hue, local authorities are issuing new regulations to meet the call of the prime minister.

In these areas, under their own steam, you’ll find local authorities building waste treatment facilities, implementing regulations to reduce plastic waste in government offices, organising cleanups and calling on citizens for a reduction in waste.

However, only time will tell whether these new initiatives, or the prime minister’s new directive, will make a significant enough difference. 

For Cao, success isn’t real until she can see it. “I do not dare predict the future of waste in Vietnam.”

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