Blog Upstartist Diaries

Living Zero Waste in Saigon

Your guide to refusing, reducing, reusing, recycling and rotting in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Find zero waste communities and zero waste vendors here.

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 4 Most Common Single-Use Plastic Scenarios (and Workarounds)

  • Late night convenient store runs (carry extra bag in backpack and motorbike)
  • Grocery shopping (bring reusable mesh produce bags, find wet markets that sell in bulk)
  • Using plastics to store food (buy glass and silicone containers, beeswax wraps, and re-usable silicone microwave covers)
  • Food delivery (eat AT restaurants, order less delivery and takeout, carry extra bag in backpack and motorbike)

So What if You’re Not Perfect? Just Get Started

I have found the following items to be indispensable wasting less on a daily basis:

Starter Pack

  1. Bag with reusable bags (less single use bags)
  2. Drink Thermos (less single use drink containers)
  3. Handkerchief (less single use tissues)
  4. Mesh bags (less single use produce bags when grocery shopping)

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.

Here you can find a list of my essentials.

Living Zero Waste in Saigon

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

Refuse what you do not need

  • 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 với đồ nhụa, cảm ơn (no plastics, thank you)
  • Join Zero Waste Communities in Ho Chi Minh for support and inspiration

Reduce what you do need 

Reuse + repair goods 

  • Reuse what you have
  • Buy reusable, recyclable containers practical to your living situation
  • Get stuff fixed and support local craftsmen
    • Get your bags fixed at Thành Tâm, 784 Nguyễn Định Chiểu, Quận 3 (8am-12:30pm, 2:30-6pm)
    • Clean your shoes with Mr. Laundry for 60,000 VND. 42 Đường 54, Thảo Điện

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

“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


Zero Waste Mindset + Tips

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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11 replies on “Living Zero Waste in Saigon”

Hello Darren

I would like to introduce trash recycling at our company but don’t know where we can bring the garbage. Do you know anything about it?



Hi Thomas, what type of garbage are you looking to discard (i.e. paper, cans, batteries)? I can then try to help.

Yes I’ve been trying to find a cardboard recycling company for weeks, but the phone numbers listed don’t work and email never replies. Do you have any information on where to recycle cardboard? Like big packing boxes.

Dan, have you seen those ladies or men riding motorbikes/bicycles with piles of cardboard? There’s an informal recycling system and those people can make money recycling your cardboard. Have you tried asking your apt manager where you can leave your extra boxes? Or just leave them near the trash and I’m confident they will get picked up…

I will take your cardboard. I am an educator who produces decorations out of cardboard so that its never wasted. You can contact me on I am in District 2 Ho Chi Minh City. My contact number is 0833872246. I would love to hear from you.

hello Darren I am from Peru, latinoamerica and I am environmental engineer. I would like to fid some GNOs or Companies are interesting in solid waste management or conservation in Ho Chi Minh City for try to do something can you give me some ideas for start please? my email is

Hi Diana, thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, I don’t know any companies doing solid waste management here – I believe the government largely provides these services. I think your best best is to try the FB groups listed above to see if anyone in those communities has leads. I’ll also keep your email public in case other audience members have thoughts. Good luck!

Hi Mr.Darren,
We are a group of students in year 6 that would absolutely love your help.
We are doing a huge project and we want to make our school more sustainable by making our food waste compost.
We really need your best thoughts from you to tell us how we can do it.

Kind regards,
Nhan, Filip, Gabriel, Elias.

Nhan, Filip, Gabriel, Elias,

What a wonderful project to undertake and I wish I had done this for my school at your age! I am reaching out to a few friends who have worked on similar projects for other schools, and I will keep you posted here. In the meantime, what is your current situation and initial plan?

Hi Nhan, Filip, Gabriel and Elias,

I hope you’ve started the project! Once you gather enough data about AIS’ food waste, I would suggest getting in touch with Alex Hoang from Gagaco Vietnam. He works with a number of international schools on their food waste, and can help guide you on your way. You can also visit his composting garden to get ideas! You can get in touch with him here:

Hi Darren,
I am new to Ho Chi Minh City. I currently work as a teacher and want to teach my students about recycling paper and plastic. I am going to have bins in the class for them to do that. Do you know where I can take the paper and plastic to get it recycled? I am having a tough time finding a place to do it. Thank you in advance.

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