Plastic waste will outnumber the world’s entire fish population by 2050 unless we do something to address the problem now. (World Economic Forum, 2016) . Today, half of all plastic waste comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, all of which are growing faster than the United States, Japan, and most of Europe. (UN Environment, 2019). As a result, nearly 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced globally every year (UN Environment, 2018).
With its current GDP at USD 2.7 trillion, ASEAN is expected to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030 (Deutsche Bank, 2019) . While this marks a significant opportunity for ASEAN nations to elevate the economic wellbeing of their citizens, the same opportunity will fuel a parallel adverse impact on the environment if progress is left unchecked and unmanaged.
If current business-as-usual practices continue and plastic waste is left unmanaged, the plastic industry will soon account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption, while plastic waste flowing into our seas will nearly triple to 29 million tonnes by 2040 (National Geographic, 2020). Since current plastics are not biodegradable, nearly 80% of current plastic waste accumulates in landfills and dumps, posing major risks to the environment. Fishing and shipping industries just within the Asia-Pacific region stand to lose $1.3 billion every year due to plastic pollution in our oceans (World Economic Forum, 2016).
Enter Vietnam & The New Plastics Economy
As of 2018, only about 20% of global plastic waste has been recycled (Our World In Data, 2018). While Vietnam sits above this average, recycling 27% of its plastic waste, 1.8 million tons of plastic waste continue to be produced by the country annually - the third highest in ASEAN on a per-capita basis (VnExpress.net, 2019). Of course, changing these figures will not be an easy feat if changes don’t come at a systemic scale. Without drastic change, we are expected to live with 29 million metric tonnes of plastic waste leaking into the ocean every year. In the System Change Scenario, Vietnam along with other middle/low-income countries will be able to reduce waste by 80% in 2040, at an investment of $600 billion over the course of 2 decades (Breaking The Wave, 2020).
As the problem becomes more visible and tactile both on land and in our oceans, governments around the world, including Vietnam, have begun taking action. Taking a leadership and systemic-change based approach, Vietnam introduced in December 2019 its National Action Plan (NAP) for Management of Marine Plastic Litter with ambitions for:
● 50% reduction of marine plastic waste by 2025; 75% by 2030
● 80% of marine protected areas cleared of plastic waste by 2025; 100% by 2030
● 80% reduction of disposable plastic products at coastal restaurants and hotels by 2025
● 100% ban on fishermen throwing tools into the ocean by 2030
Making these objectives more tangible have been efforts by Vietnam to impose new tax levies on single-use plastics, its revised Environmental Protection Law with the clear objective of guiding the Vietnamese ecosystem towards a more circular model and, eventually leading to a potential ban on single use plastics by 2025.
The government has also mobilized the private sector to address the plastic packaging waste problem through the creation of the Packaging Recycling Organization Vietnam, which includes Fortune 500 companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsico and local corporations such as NutiFood and TH Group (cafef.vn, 2019). Born in 2018, with goals to scale up waste collection and to recycle the entirety of their packaging waste by 2030, PRO Vietnam is looking at downstream solutions holistically. At the grassroots level, actions have also been embraced by smaller businesses to curb plastic consumption by adopting re-use models and alternatives to plastics such as reusable grass straws, ceramic household objects and other biodegradable materials. Many of these efforts have been bolstered by ongoing public awareness and behavior change campaigns to drive positive consumer activity.
How can a little organization take on a giant problem?
The Circular Economy model explained by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides a viable and cost effective path for all stakeholders, whether small or large, to help nations such as Vietnam traverse a national plan into tangible and long-lasting solutions on the ground (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020).
In Vietnam, as in any other country, solutions that reduce and reuse plastic waste must also drive overall economic growth. Implementing a circular plastic economy is projected to lead to global savings of $200 billion per year, reduction of greenhouse emissions by 25%, and the creation of 700,000 new jobs by 2040, compared to the current business-as-usual scenario (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020).
As the Circular Economy model and Vietnam’s plastic waste reduction efforts continue to develop through the aforementioned downstream focused efforts and beyond, the ICM Falk Foundation will be working to compliment these outcomes by shining the light on Upstream Innovations - specifically, those associated with Interventions 1-3 (Reduce, Substitute & Design) noted within the seminal Breaking the Wave report. The Foundation will support ideas that will effectively participate in Eliminating unnecessary plastics, Reusing produced plastics and Circulating existing plastics (Upstream Innovation, 2020). By bolstering Vietnam’s capacity to ideate and launch upstream innovations while de-risking the scaling of successful business models, Vietnam’s private sector, research and startup communities shall also have the opportunity to contribute to the issue and develop out-of-the-box products and services, including those associated with packaging materials development and re-use models.
As a small non-profit organization, we believe that we can do a lot with a little by taking on the role of a funder, facilitator and advocate. Through hyperlocal, locally-developed solutions and a keen understanding of the strategic gaps within the market, we seek to coalesce all organizations, whether small or large, interested in the upstream innovation space within Vietnam.