From Refill to Re-imagine Vietnam: A future without waste

Ngoc Anh Hoang, Program Associate of the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation
23/06/22

Summary In this article, you will hear Nhan Nguyen, a Vietnamese educator and entrepreneur for change talks about:

  • The light bulb moment that shifted his focus from climate change to anti-littering
  • A simple explanation of how a refill business work & its common misconceptions
  • The level of awareness on sustainability issues among Vietnamese youth
  • Why circularity is still a hindrance to profit
  • How to empower younger generations to embark on social ventures
  • His expectations for a more circular Vietnam

To halt the ever-increasing packaging pollution, businesses and startups all over the world are incorporating the principles of a circular economy into their strategies. And Vietnam is not lagging behind.

According to the newly published white paper “Transitioning Towards Plastic Circularity: Vietnam's New Upstream Future”, the upstream solutions landscape in Vietnam is diverse and rapidly emerging. Over 50% of the circular business strategies currently applied focuses on substitution to plastic, with 18% of solutions observed falling into the reuse/refill category.

In this article, we are interviewing Nhan Nguyen, Lecturer at RMIT Vietnam and Founder of Refill (previously known as Refill Day) to uncover the light-bulb moment that prompted him to bring in such a new concept of “Refill” to the Vietnamese localities. 

Talking about your time back in the US, you usually describe yourself as a “hippie”. So, what exactly is it? What was your so-called hippie life like?

The hippie lifestyle started in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. There was a sort of a youth revolution that started in San Francisco, California and a lot of the youth just thought, “Hey, we wanna live a peaceful, loving, compassionate life”. They really tried to live their lives believing in peace, love, happiness. And they were also very attuned to nature. Bohemian, naturalist, tree hugger are different terms that in the US refer to people that are hippies.

I was born later than that in the US and I grew up there. Back in the States, I was sort of a hippie. When I was in university, we were really into hiking, and just anything nature. 

What drove you to come back to Vietnam and start a circular business?

I came back to Vietnam in 2003 and started working at RMIT. We were a brand new university, and I helped start one of the early clubs there, called the Business Club. But then a few years later, I figured that they really needed to learn more about environmental issues. So in 2005, I was the founding advisor for the environment club at the university. And ever since then, I initiated a lot of projects on campus and I just kept doing all these little projects until something happened in 2013 that fundamentally shifted my focus from climate change to solely anti-littering.

I was outside of a convenience store.I bought a pack of cigarettes and was getting on my motorbike. There was a mom and her son next to me. The little boy, probably 6 or 7 years old, had just finished a box of milk. He was asking his mom, “what do I do with this?” And she said, “just throw it over there”.

At that very moment, I realized I was talking about all this high-level stuff of climate change, when really the most basic thing is, we got to stop littering.

Let's put it this way: if the mother can't understand, or if a lot of people don't understand that throwing stuff on the street is bad, how can we ask them to understand something as complicated as “if I use too much electricity, that's going to burn a lot of coal”? So in 2013, I switched focus. Or in other words, I got more focused.

Tell us a bit about your current refill business. How is it circular? 

Our business is really simple. We basically refill bottles. For example, when someone runs out of a particular product, we take either their bottle and we refill it for them, or we find other bottles that we can clean, refill and then we trade those bottles with the customers.

Usually what people do when they finish using a product is that they throw the packaging out. So our business is circular because we keep the bottle in circulation. We're using it again, again, and again. Right now, we've set our goal to reuse bottles 10 times, and then we're gonna see how the bottle is still doing after 10 uses. 

How are the customers reacting to it?

There is definitely a segment of people who like what we're doing. We've gotten a lot of really good feedback on Facebook during our pilot. We have customers who've come back and bought from us a second and third time, given that we've only really been operating since December last year. We're now in our 6th month of operation and we're getting some very positive feedback.

People say that sustainability, or circularity in particular is a hindrance to profit. As a circular entrepreneur per se, do you agree with this?

I do agree with that. Apparently for now, it's cheaper to make a plastic bottle, fill it up, sell it and then have people throw it out. Whereas financially, there’s definitely a cost to refilling. If you just think about what a refill has to do: we have to collect containers and clean them. We have to make sure that they are sanitary, and then refill them.

However, we can't charge more than what people are already paying to buy that product at the conventional store. In fact, a lot of our customers don't understand how we do the business, so they actually think we should be selling cheaper. You know, “if I bring my own bottle then you don't have to spend money on the packaging for a new bottle, so you should be selling it cheaper”. That even cuts into the profit margin too.

Convenience is also a major issue. People are used to having convenience. They can walk into a Circle K, pick something up, use it, and then they are done. They just throw it out. They don't have to save it. So yes, there is a hindrance to profit as of right now. At this point in time, it is definitely cheaper to do it the old way.

But having said that, it is still very early days of this circularity movement. I'm hoping that in the future, we can start making a little bit more money to be more financially sustainable. There are a lot of laws coming out, for example, the EPR laws. We'll see if that will change the market. Maybe they'll have to start increasing the prices on brand new plastic or virgin plastic, maybe refill businesses like mine can get a tax break from the government. We'll see how it goes.

As an educator, how do you perceive the attitude of the younger generation when it comes to sustainability or circularity movements? What are some lessons learned in educating younger generations?

When we talk about the level of awareness in Vietnam among young people about things like climate change, it's nowhere near as good as the West. But it is getting better.

For example, a common question that I asked in pretty much every class probably for the last 10 years is: Can anybody in class explain to me what causes climate change? And very rarely do I get a student that's confident enough to raise their hand and say they can explain it. Not many students can answer that question and climate change is a serious issue. 

So I think there is a gap there. The level of awareness in Vietnam is not that great when it comes to sustainability. For circularity, I think that's even lower. I don't think that a lot of the students, or even professionals understand what a circular economy is. So I think that there is a long way to go to raise awareness.

Having said that, I'd say over the past three years, there's definitely been a lot of awareness raised about the negative impact of single-use plastic. We see a lot of coffee shops now offering alternatives to plastic. So I think that's gonna happen very quickly. And again, with the government behind it with the laws coming out, I think that circularity and at least the plastic pollution issue is going to get much better very quickly.

Closing in, how do you think we can empower the next generation to start social ventures like yours?

Vietnam is a pretty entrepreneurially minded country as a whole. So I think for empowering young people, it's mainly giving them opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship. It’s about giving them access to information and courses to learn how to build a value proposition canvas, teaching them the tools and best practices for starting a business.

I know there are quite a few access to hackathons, accelerators and experts. One of the things that I remember when I was in university was that they had small business development centers which were funded by the US government all around the country, so people who wanted to start a business could go. Here at RMIT, they have an RMIT Activator which fulfills the same function. And I think the more opportunities there are for young people to learn about entrepreneurship, that's gonna empower them with the knowledge that they need. And maybe it'll light their passion for starting a business.

Last question, what are some projects you look forward to executing in 2022? How can our audience support it?

I'm only looking at doing 1 project: Refill. We're gonna be expanding and growing this year. So please support us and refill your goods.

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Click here to read our previous interviews with other Circular Heroes and stay tuned for more interviews coming up monthly!

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About Refill: Refill is an innovation-seeking to minimize the amount of virgin plastic going into the environment by refilling to reuse. Their business model synthesizes two existing ideas that no one else has tried before: motorbike delivery and refill stores. Refill provides a convenient alternative to single-use plastic by refilling reusable containers with trusted products at our customers’ homes, offices, restaurants or hotels using the "refill" or "milkman" model.

Learn more and support their work at: Refill | Facebook & Refill

About the ICM Falk Foundation: The ICM 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 to the Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of waste production and pollution within Asia.