Linear mindset & the throw-away culture in Vietnam: How can we bend towards circularity?

Ngoc Anh Hoang, Program Associate of the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation
29/04/22

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the ICM Falk Foundation or its members.

“Waste not, want not”

Think about your latest favorite purchase. It could either be a few bars of chocolate, a new body care product, or a new piece of home furniture. All the packaging and the no-longer-wanted items - where do they go?

In most cases, they eventually get tossed in the landfill, one way or another, sooner or later. Sadly, that’s how our economy has been designed to work. It is not designed for reuse or lifetime use, but rather to send natural resources directly to the landfill. 

So, did you throw anything into the trash bin today?

If you are like most people, you probably did. An average Vietnamese produces around 0,45 - 1,08 kg of waste on a daily basis. This number is even estimated to increase by 10 to 16 percent every year.

With a population of nearly 99 million people, Vietnam generates about 25.5 million tons of waste every year, of which 75 percent ends up in landfills. The same pattern can also be witnessed in the global landscape. In 2021, the world generates 353 million tons of plastic waste alone, of which only 9% is recycled, 19% is destroyed and nearly 50% is buried in qualified landfills.

The linear mindset of a throw-away society, as a direct result of materialism(1) and consumerism (2), is a fundamental contributor to these frightening numbers.

How did the throw-away culture become so dominant in our daily lives?

“Material goods no longer serve just our basic needs for food, housing, health, education and vitality. Indeed, they shape our sense of belonging and identity. The idea of endless growth has been embedded in our emotional and cognitive lives since the Industrial Revolution.” (Harald Welzer)

Vietnam’s transition to a market-driven economy since Doi Moi has created many changes in social ideologies, prompting consumers to embrace new ideals. We can not deny the fact that such transition has brought about enormous socio-economic benefits for the Vietnamese. But the hard truth is, the linearity of the ongoing economic pathways is not anywhere near sustainable.

Vietnam, as a newly industrialized economy, has made its way to the top 20 countries with the largest amount of waste, higher than the world’s average. In the expanding economic hub of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, “consumers are confronted with a world of commodity goods, and rapidly becoming integral to the culture of pleasure-seeking” (Viet Dung Trinh)

Capitalism has imprinted on our minds that the more people spend, the better it is for everybody. Marketers and advertisers have perfected strategies to create new demands and convince consumers to buy things, even when not in need.

On a global scale, prosperity is coming at a “devastating cost” to the natural ecosystems.

We, governments, consumers and businesses, with the deep-rooted linear thinking process made default by ever-more consumerism, are all parts of this linear system that is exhausting the planet and violating the lives of natural ecosystems.

A scene from "Don't Look Up", a Netflix movie atirizing the global response to climate change

If the linear lifestyle is so detrimental, then how could we move away from it?
Simple enough: circulate it!

The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” (Albert Einstein)

Everything that surrounds us has been designed by someone, from tangible things like clothes or buildings, to intangible ones like the way we get our food (EMF). To move away from the throw-away mentality, we need to actively become better designers of our own lifestyles. In other words, we must re-design our thinking and consuming process. To do that, nature is the greatest designer that we can learn from.

Nature has found its way to be around for a few billion years. In fact, nature has already solved numerous challenges facing humans today, with the so-called “circular approach” where everything is interconnected, restorative and regenerative. 

By applying circularity to the economy, we can learn to be thriving and sustainable.

Now the ultimate question remains, what does it take to make a circular economy work?

Let’s start with a simpler question: Will replacing a plastic straw with a paper one help solve the environmental crisis?

The answer is yes, and no, simultaneously.

A few years ago, the idea of paper equivalents felt like we’ve half-way saved the Planet. Unfortunately, that has never been the case. The term “Plastic Straw Syndrome”(3) has since then come to the table to remind us that focusing solely on one sustainability challenge is not only inefficient, but also leads to the detriment of the bigger picture (Circular Online).

For a circular economy to work, we need systems-level change that starts with a fundamental shift away from the linear mindset. But, what eventually makes systems-level change happen? One smaller change upon another, with a holistic vision in line. Collaboration, innovation and transformation are now more important than ever to efficiently circulate materials and products within and between individuals, businesses and economies.

Even though “circular economy” might sound like a big, ‘alien’ terminology to most of us (because it is!), it is crucial to note that you do not have to be an economist to understand its fundamentals and applications. In fact, the term does a splendid job in capturing everyone, everything within that builds up the so-called “economy”.

Everyone has a role to play in building circularity, and so do you.

Towards building a circular, resilient future for Vietnam

In an effort to foster circularity understanding and inspire environmental stewardship for local youth, the ICM Falk Foundation launches a new series of blog posts where we interview individuals who have significantly contributed to a circular economy in Vietnam and the world, to whom we refer as “Circular Heroes”. The series aims to uncover the personal stories behind influential upstream, circular movements in Fashion, Consumer Packaged Goods and Food Systems to understand their drives, struggles as well as visions in working towards a circular Vietnam. The series is dedicated to help local youth feel resonated and empowered to find their own sweet spots to take actions for a circular economy.

Follow us on social media for timely updates on this series. Reach out to us if you are a Circular Hero wanting to share your stories to inspire the local community!

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(1) Materialism: The belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life. Cambridge Dictionary

(2) Consumerism: The idea that increasing the consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal and that a person's wellbeing and happiness depend fundamentally on obtaining consumer goods and material possessions. Investopedia

(3) Plastic Straw Syndrome: As succinctly put by Professor Peter Hopkinson in an SAP sustainability roundtable last year – often happens when governments, consumers or businesses fixate on one sustainability challenge to the detriment of the wider picture. Circular Online

*Source of the post's thumbnail photo: Xóm chài ven sông - Câu chuyện rác nhựa (undp.org.vn)

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About the Ida C. & Morris 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 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.