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Circular Economy: Global aspirations are only as good as local actions

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Mai Nguyen from Circular Design Vietnam and Fablab Saigon, Karolina Lagercrantz from the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation
|   May 17, 2021

At the global scale, the idea of shifting to a circular economy has emerged due to the urgent need to rethink our global economic model. According to the World Economic Forum, as the global population continues to grow, the world’s middle class is set to reach 5 billion by 2030, which is putting enormous stress on our environment and our resources. Our current linear economic model in which objects are briefly used and then discarded as waste, is incompatible with a sustainable future for 9 billion people in 2050. The concept of a circular economy has emerged as a theoretical alternative to our current system; an economic model in which products are designed and built so that they are part of a value network where reuse and refurbishment on a product, component and/or material level assures continuous (re)use of resources (World Economic Forum). The path to its adoption begins locally, at home…

Enter Mai Nguyen – A local practitioner’s evolving application of global circular economy concepts

Vietnam may appear to be a newcomer to the circular economy, but its circular journey actually began a long time ago. For instance, despite being a city girl, in my childhood, I often heard about the “vuon-ao-chuong” (VAC) permaculture model (literally translated as garden – pond – barn) mentioned on TV. Our forefathers may have aspired to close the loop, but sadly, Vietnam  seems to have forgotten its sustainable/circular roots in favour of rapid development. Ironically, it was by learning from the global circularity movement, that I was able to reconnect with Vietnam’s own landscape of circularity.   Having worked with the British Council and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and collaborated with various makers and designers in Europe and Southeast Asia in sustainable design and distributed production projects since 2018, I eventually became a circular designer. Inspired by examples of circularity in other countries, I started paying attention to local projects in Vietnam that align with the principles of circular economy. This interest further extended into developing new uses for abundant agri-wastes and bio-wastes in Vietnam. Slowly, I noticed that there were a growing number of circular economy practices that already existed within Vietnam, despite there being little to no knowledge of the concept of circularity among technical experts; much less amongst the general public.

Some examples from Vietnam

In 2017, my friend Tran Minh Tien from Long An had already made a name for himself by making green straws out of a type of native grass named cỏ bàng (Lepironia articulata) in his rural area. In early 2018, on a trip to his home in Duc Hue, Long An, I was walking with Tien around the grass fields, barefoot, where his local collaborators were harvesting the grass to make straws. Up until that point, I had never dared to set foot into such water-laden fields for fear of being bitten by snakes and leeches.

Source: Mai Nguyen

Tien, on the other hand, grew up seeing local craftswomen weave this type of grass into beautiful mats and carry bags, before he thought it could be used as straws. Here, through a simple, yet elegant solution, circularity is contextualized at the local level –  by paying attention to and repurposing a native low-value material,  an alternative to the single-use plastic straw was developed. Without Tien’s local knowledge, this grass would have likely never have been used in a circular business.

Source: Cua Hang 3T’s Facebook page

Source: Tuổi Trẻ News

In 2018, an article about female entrepreneurs got my attention when it mentioned the case of Ms. Trinh Thi Hong, a woman from Da Nang who makes and sells eco-detergents and disinfectants, made\ not out of the finest and trendiest organic herbs and essential oils, but from fruit and vegetable waste found at local wet markets. Da Nang happens to be my hometown, and on the next trip to visit my grandma, I made sure I visited her factory on the outskirts of the city. I was able to speak to her son who was busy filling up a mountain of bottles with their famous dish-washing liquid. With his permission, I was able to check out the mysterious vats at the back of the workshop and had a sneak-peak into the fermentation process that results in natural disinfectant liquids. Minh Hong Biotech, her business, helps divert massive quantities of organic waste from landfills every month and provides essential jobs for local women, especially those facing financial hardship, throughout the country.  

Source: Vietnam Net
Source: Ngày Mới Online

Thinking about these initiatives, I had a realization about the intersection between circularity at the global, theoretical scale and its local application. Starting local and at a small scale, these entrepreneurs may not have even known what a circular economy model was when they started their businesses. Yet, they were still able to put in place remarkable examples of circularity. Some of these initiatives remain only possible only on a small scale, while others, like Minh Hong’s business, are ripe for  large scale adoption. As the concept of circular economy becomes mainstream, providing recognition to the efforts underway by local actors (albeit unbeknowingly), will be the cornerstone to connect the dots within the larger global ecosystem for a sustained and greater level of impact.

In 2019, the Government of Vietnam formally discussed the role of the circular economy in the country’s path to a sustainable future. While the government figures out how to put the circular economy to practice on a large scale, it is up to grassroots actors like Tien and Ms. Hong to connect this new global economic model to local contexts and communities. This is where ICM Falk Foundation comes in.

Enter the ICM Falk Foundation – An international partner for local grassroots efforts

During trying times such as the COVID pandemic, a local-centric approach is often even more relevant in addressing the common global problem. It is through this premise that the ICM Falk Foundation works to support solutions that have been created by and for local communities, through equitable partnerships, in order to ensure that circular solutions are adapted sustainably and remain in place long after our work is done.

Simultaneously, ICM Falk works with local experts, such as Mai, in order to enhance knowledge sharing and optimize the implementation of a circular model in Vietnam. Realizing the importance of education for the youth communities, ICM Falk supported Mai’s “Design for a Circular Economy” workshop at the Hoa Sen University event, Wassup Ocean in January 2021. During the workshop, Mai initiated a group of over 20 students to circular strategies and engaged them with rethinking how a leftover cardboard could become a circular product. Encouraging the next generation of changemakers to think differently of waste and consumption is an efficient way to act local with a global aspiration to reach full circularity.

All big ideas have to start small and together with international partners such as ICM Falk Foundation, we can make tangible progress when it comes to making a circular economy a reality. We need to collaborate and co-fund local entrepreneurs in order to ensure that we make use of the existing circular ecosystem in Vietnam. If you are a small foundation, a private sponsor or an innovator that is interested in advancing the circular model in tangible and cohesive ways, join us in our work with local leaders within circularity in Vietnam. 

Follow us on LinkedIn for ongoing updates on our journey towards waste Innovation and Circularity, and to learn about inspiring local and global innovations. You can always reach us at contact@icmfalkfoundation.org or send us a message on LinkedIn.

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About Circular Design Vietnam

Since January 2019, Circular Design Vietnam aims to inspire Vietnamese designers and entrepreneurs to move towards a circular economy through design. We provide R&D, consulting and educational services in relation to circular materials, design methodologies and their applications to create products and services that respect nature and people. Circular Design Vietnam is an initiative by Meye Creative Co., Ltd. 

About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment for the New Plastics Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of plastics production, waste, and pollution within Asia.