Living Zero Waste in Saigon

last updated January 10, 2019

Ever since pitching a plastics-alternative marketplace at the YSEALI Summit 2018, I can’t stop seeing our copious waste of single use plastic. It’s estimated that 1 billion straws are used everyday worldwide, enough to cover the earth’s circumference 5 times. And that’s just straws.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where I live, 9 million plastic bags are used every day – double the amount that was used 4 years ago. And Vietnam is a growth market for plastics. The country’s per capita consumption of plastic products (40-45kg/capita) is half that of Thailand’s and one-fourth that of Japan.

Plastic is difficult to separate, clean and recycle, and has a limited number of recycling life cycles compared to glass and metal. About 6 billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown away every year worldwide, and only about 30% is recycled. Of that 30%, just one-fifth is processed to create fresh plastic bottles. So only 6% of recycled plastic bottles become new plastic bottles.

Plastic is not biodegradable, so plastics clog landfills and seep into groundwater. In Ho Cho Minh, 20% of plastics ends up in landfills, and given the city’s shortage of recycling systems and facilities, we can assume most of the remaining 80% ends up in the rivers and ocean where it takes hundreds of years to decompose, leeching toxins into the food chain.  

This problem is deeply personal to me because I love Vietnam, its people and its amazing food, much of which comes from the water. Just in this little corner of the world, growing plastic use could harm the livelihood of millions and threaten the country’s food security. Vietnam is already the fourth worst ocean polluter of plastics in the world.

Highlands Coffee, the most ubiquitous coffee chain in Ho Chi Minh, uses one plastic cup, lid and straw for each serving of coffee. And you know how much Vietnamese love their ca phê sũa đá. The current rage is bubble tea, which all popular chains serve in single use plastic. All this plastic, used for 5 minutes and then discarded, where it will take hundreds of years to degrade.

I find it maddening that there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 – all this less than 100 years after we began mass consuming plastics. 

Reducing waste will require government policies, innovation in packaging and recycling industries and most importantly, consumer behavior change. In this post, I’m focused on the latter. It might be a small difference, but if enough of us can change our habits, we can show an alternative way forward that wastes less.

The 5R’s of Zero Waste Living

The first step is to become aware of our habits of consumption.

I got this 5R model from Zero Waste Home:

  • 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

The key insight of this framework is that awareness of consumption – not recycling – is the key to sustainable living. We should question each purchase and the entire life cycle of the products we use. Do you need it? Can it be reused? And then if necessary, recycled or rotted?

Identify Your Use Patterns

Each person’s situation is different. Most critical is to identify your common single-use patterns and find replacements or work arounds.

My Living Situation:

  • Live alone
  • Eat mostly plants
  • Carry a backpack for work
  • Ride a motorbike for transportation
  • Travel a lot so want to minimize stuff

My Most Common Single-Use Plastic Scenarios and Workarounds:

Late night convenient store runs

  • Carry extra bag in backpack and motorbike  
  • Have healthy snacks like fruit and nuts at home  
  • Shop less at convenient stores, their goods are generally unhealthy, expensive, and full of packaging waste

Grocery shopping

  • Buy groceries on set schedule, bring backpack w/ bags
  • Find vendors that sell in bulk and use less plastic

In kitchen using plastics to store food

  • Buy glass containers and re-usable microwave covers

Food delivery

  • Eat at restaurants, order less delivery and takeout
  • Bring thermos for takeaway drinks
  • Carry extra bag in motorbike and backpack

Get Started

I have found the following items to be indispensable for daily living:

Starter Pack

  1. Bags with bags
  2. Thermos – less single use drink containers
  3. Handkerchief – less single use tissues

I don’t use straws and never pack food to eat at work, so I don’t need to carry reusable utensils or a lunch pack.

I’ve saved countless plastic bottles (and money!) by carrying my thermos. And bringing along a few mesh produce bags while grocery shopping is easy.

Living Zero Waste in Saigon

So back to the 5Rs. In Ho Chi Minh, this could mean:

Refuse what you do not need

  • Don’t support chains like Highlands Coffee, that use single use plastics. Or bring your thermos.
  • Learn these Vietnamese sayings
    • không cần ống hút, cảm ơn (don’t need a straw, thank you)
    • không cần túi, cảm ơn (don’t need a bag, thank you)
    • không lấy bao ni lông, cảm ơn (don’t need a plastic bag, thank you)
    • không với đồ nhụa, cảm ơn (no plastics, thank you)

Reduce what you do need (please see our list of vendors below)

Reuse + repair reusable goods (please see our list of vendors below)

  • Reuse what you already have
  • Buy reusable, recyclable containers practical to your living situation
  • Buy in bulk
  • Get your clothes repaired by local tailor
  • Wash your shoes

Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse

  • Studying Ho Chi Minh’s recycling system to get a better understanding – stay tuned!

Rot the rest

  • Practicing this to get a better understanding – stay tuned!

“With every purchase, the entire life cycle of a product should be evaluated, including recyclability. When buying new, we should choose products that not only support reuse but also are made of materials that have a high postconsumer content, are compatible with our community’s recycling program, and are likely to get recycled over and over (e.g., steel, aluminum, glass, or paper) versus downcycled (e.g., plastics).”

Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Home


Mindset + Tips

Saigon – Zero Waste Communities

Saigon – Zero Waste Vendors

Moving towards zero waste in Saigon will forever be a work in progress, so please let me know your suggestions, resources and additions in the comments below. I will keep this guide as up to date as possible!

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