Greening the Covid-19 Recovery in Vietnam (Part II)

How can Vietnam green its way out of the pandemic
for a more resilient, circular recovery?

While Vietnam has indeed demonstrated willingness to strive for transformative resilience with circularity, the question of how Vietnam can green its way out of this crisis for a more resilient recovery remains unresolved.

Like most developing countries, Vietnam lags behind the wealthy nations that were able to secure the majority of early vaccine supplies. As a result, strict lockdowns have been imposed to contain the surge of infections for 3 consecutive months and counting in Vietnam’s major cities. Needless to say, the nation’s economy has been hit the hardest.

Yet, the opportunity to emerge out of this crisis stronger and better cannot be wasted in the name of urgency. The ICM Falk Foundation believes that a green recovery is a formidable yet achievable challenge for the world, and for Vietnam. 

This article is the second piece in our series of "Greening the Covid-19 recovery in Vietnam" blog posts, where we explore the term "green recovery" and its implications in the context of Vietnam. In the previous post, we outlined a definition of "green recovery", and the key challenges that Vietnam faces to realize this one-in-a-generation opportunity.

Key instruments that drive our recovery path towards circularity and resilience
From rescue to recovery...

Initially, in the rescue phase, governmental efforts are the weightiest. The public sector holds the ultimate power to allocate fiscal expenditures and stimulus packages to cushion the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic while instigating a circular transition for longer-term green recovery. In order to achieve that, these recovery packages must be well-designed with a clear sense of direction to incentivize green practices while making fossil-based industries commit to decarbonize. This will enable Vietnam to build back its socio-economic fabric in a way that ensures sustainability and circularity to address the enduring climate and environmental crises.

For that to happen, Vietnam needs to tailor a comprehensive green recovery roadmap.

Source: Elliot Andrews on Unsplash

...to transformation and resilience

A transformative time requires transformative approaches. History has witnessed human’s creativity and resilience in creating solutions and building back from disruptions. Now is the time to overhaul and transform our fragile linear economy.

Let science and innovation lead the way

Tapping into the power of science and innovation will allow Vietnam to unleash the further potential of circularity in dealing with the current crisis and building blocks for future sustainability. “Prioritizing innovation today is the key to unlocking post-crisis growth”, as noted by McKinsey in a report.

Innovative solutions in production and consumption are needed to scale up circularity for the post-pandemic recovery. Science and creativity need to be at the forefront of our response, combined with solid support for entrepreneurial ventures, such as funding or capacity building. Uniting entrepreneurial spark and spirit is instrumental to solve tough problems in support of a cause we all agree upon - a better and circular future. At this stage, Vietnam’s public sector must partner up with private actors to incorporate circularity into the needed system-level transformation.

Identifying the opportunities for Vietnam to embark on a sustainability-led recovery

Despite hindrances, opportunities are available for Vietnam to fuel a circular transition and materialize the much-needed bounce-back where people and nature can thrive together. 

Global synergies 

Vietnam and its government alone can not make this recovery possible. This is the time to reinforce the value of multilateralism and public/private collaboration. Transformative resilience requires coordinated efforts from all actors in the global economy.

International communities and financial institutions have explicitly affirmed their support for Vietnam’s green recovery efforts. Most recently and notably, the World Bank has affirmed two development policy operations totaling $321.5 million designed to finance the central government and Vietnam's largest economic hub, Ho Chi Minh City, in their green efforts.

Other fragments of the economy, including non-governmental organizations, are also combining forces to drive forward sustainable changes that contribute to a low-carbon recovery in Vietnam. Partnerships with different actors and at different levels are considered vital to promote a green recovery with harmonized coordination and proper leverage of external support - all efforts bound to accelerate the circular transition. As a non-profit family foundation, the ICM Falk Foundation has also been working with local stakeholders to accelerate green innovation by bridging the support gap in the regional ecosystem for new ideas and concepts to reduce waste.

Domestic advantages

Looking at the country’s status quo, we can spot numerous highlights that can ultimately contribute to an inclusive, low-carbon economic reset. Particularly, Vietnam’s existing regulatory framework, along with its cross-ministerial collaboration can serve as the cornerstone to roll out a green recovery roadmap as it already covers many of the core principles that constitute a circular economy.

Moreover, Vietnam has also witnessed momentum in the digital transformation amid this looming crisis as businesses quickly adapt to the new normalcy. While digitalization holds the potential for the development of innovative business models that are sustainability-oriented, it is also the driving force for the transformation towards a post-pandemic circular economy.  Vietnam needs to build up this digital impetus into a concrete enabler for the desirable green recovery.

Being a latecomer to the green and circular transformation also provides Vietnam with certain advantages as the country can learn from the world’s experiences.

Bottom-up initiatives

While top-down objectives are yet in place, momentum for a green, resilient recovery is also being built from the bottom up by the local Vietnamese businesses and communities. Even in these trying times, Vietnam and its region exhibit a growing dynamism in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship, and start-up creation that have a fundamental role to play in shaping the recovery.

As bottom-up circular and innovative initiatives are instrumental to systematic change and long-term resilient growth, Vietnam needs to keep up this spark in order to materialize green recovery promises. The time is ripe for the public sector, private investors and donors to harness the full potential of the local innovation capacity and support green entrepreneurship in Vietnam.

The ICM Falk Foundation is actively engaging in supporting local initiatives by generating and sharing knowledge, piloting innovations, developing programs, and co-investing in Vietnam and its region. We want to expand our network of mission-driven stakeholders and bolster an enabling environment for local youth to initiate green innovation that guarantees resilience over the long term. As the IKEA Foundation noted, “the path to a green recovery and a brighter future lies in this willingness to innovate and take collaborative action.” 

With country-specific strengths and unwavering support from stakeholders at all levels, Vietnam has a good premise to recover from the Covid-19 crisis with environmentally sane efforts and innovative solutions - the sooner, the better. And now is the ripe time for Vietnam to embark on its green recovery journey.

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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 Vietnam.

Tracing down the rabbit hole of plastic containers in Malaysia

We need sustainable and effective waste management to protect our environment and in order to develop a working circular economy. In a circular economy, recycling can play a pivotal role in waste conversion into usable resources.

However, recycling is not always possible. Most materials that are recycled today are degraded and cause pollution in the recycling process and, for some materials, recycling is even more energy-intensive than new production. Instead, recycling must be regarded as one component of a circular economy, which has to be complemented by reduction and substitution. 

The limitations of recycling as a solution to our plastic overconsumption are particularly striking in Southeast Asia. The need to complement the recycling of plastics with upstream solutions that reduce its use is more essential now than ever. 

Tracing down the rabbit hole of plastic containers in Malaysia

Since curbside recycling programs were introduced in the 1980s, recycling has morphed into an industry worth billions of dollars. Indeed, recycling plastics is a costly operation (disposing of 1 ton of plastic bottles in China costs only US$200 compared to US$500 in Europe), which, in a globalized economy, means that many countries choose to outsource their plastic waste elsewhere. 

For decades, high-income countries such as France, USA and Japan sold much of their own plastic waste to China in order for it to be recycled there. But, in December 2017, China closed its borders to foreign plastic recycling. It is at this moment that we begin our story on plastic waste in Malaysia. 

Malaysia’s plastics recycling under global pressure 

Since China retreated from its role as the world’s recycling facility, countries turned elsewhere, more precisely, they turned to ASEAN. The amount of imported plastic waste doubled in Vietnam and increased by 1,000% in Thailand. Southeast Asia and the country of Malaysia in particular quickly became the epicenter for international plastics recycling. In 2018, Malaysia imported over 400 million pounds of plastic waste coming from the US alone.

On the surface level, a global economy for the recycling of plastics might seem like a good option. After all, if there could be an increase in the market for recycled plastics and if the recycling process is done properly, it could reduce high rates of plastic pollution while putting less pressure on virgin materials to produce brand new plastic products. Unfortunately, this is far away from today’s reality.

In Malaysia, recycling is lagging far behind other countries and the country does not have the facilities necessary to recycle much of its own plastics, even less so the plastics of others. As Malaysia’s Waste Management Association’s chairman Ho De Leong explained to the Star, “plastic can be highly contaminated with other undesirable waste, which local facilities are ill-equipped to handle. Of course, since recycling or proper disposal in landfills is expensive, importers of plastics for recycling often dump the waste illegally”.

Indeed, Investigations by Greenpeace Malaysia have revealed that shredded plastic disposed at several dumpsites in Malaysia contain a range of toxic pollutants, which have been contaminating the surrounding environments during their storage or recycling processes.

A clear need to go Upstream 

While the imported waste exacerbates the problem, Malaysia itself already produces more plastic waste than it can recycle.

Research shows that plastic waste generation in Malaysia has more than doubled in a span of fewer than 15 years due to a so-called “throwaway culture” that has evolved as the country’s income increases. For example, recent studies show that 11% of the 38,000 tonnes of waste generated in Malaysia daily comprises diapers alone. 

Given the enormous stream of plastic waste both from abroad and within the country itself, the need to re-think the use of plastics literally grows bigger day by day. Greenpeace Malaysia has called for a plastic pollution reduction plan to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic in phases within Malaysia itself, to set up clear reduction targets of single-use plastic in accordance with an action plan that focused on developing alternatives based on systems of refill and reuse, while simultaneously increasing the recycling rate. 

It is clear that a circular approach, based on a so-called “Upstream innovation” in which plastic waste is never produced, to begin with, is needed in Malaysia. As a middle-income country, Malaysia has to decrease overall plastic consumption and must simultaneously invest in sorting and recycling infrastructure.

Looking forward to circular solutions beyond recycling

Momentum is growing to combat this issue. Circular economy in Malaysia is still an unofficial long-term goal, with a lack of adequate legal framework. Malaysia has prepared circular economy roadmaps to prioritize plastics-related policies and investments in target sectors and locations. Leading global brands and retailers have made voluntary commitments to make their plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Early 2019, in an attempt at regulating the waste issue, Malaysia returned a total of 150 containers of plastic waste to countries around the world, such as the United Kingdom, France and Spain. This move is a great first step to put pressure on these high-income countries to take steps to rethink their plastic consumption and make systemic changes.

Yet, the potential for positive action against plastic waste remains untapped within Malaysia itself. For example, in Malaysia, a huge portion of plastic waste comes from the food and beverage industry. Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) make up about 42% of plastic waste in Malaysia. 

The World Bank Group studies show models such as reuse and refill are at a nascent stage and currently aren't scalable enough to match the magnitude of the growing plastic waste problem. Alternative materials based on renewables rather than fossil fuel-based feedstocks are still a niche market not yet supported by local standards or infrastructure. Many circular, upstream solutions already exist and are just waiting to be launched.

In order to understand Malaysia's Circular transition, ICM Falk will explore an upstream solution to CPG plastic containers in the second part of this series. To stay updated, follow us on Linkedin and Facebook.

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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 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.

Greening the Covid-19 Recovery in Vietnam (Part I)

The world is experiencing accumulated repercussions at unprecedented levels of the three global catastrophes, namely the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and natural resources depletion.[...] The green recovery, green economy, and circular economy must be simultaneously pursued at the national, regional and global levels to address the situation.” This is what Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said in the keynote speech at the P4G Summit in late May 2021.

Together with governments around the world, Vietnam has played an active role in advocating for a more sustainable post-covid recovery plan. The call for integrated efforts in promoting a so-called “green recovery” has been well received and echoed all around the world. However, green recovery promises can only materialize if nations “walk the talk” and demonstrate tangible systemic-level results towards a green and circular economy transition.

What is a “green recovery” and how can it be achieved through a circular economy?

The pandemic has offered us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink our status quo. Now more than ever, the world recognizes the need for resilience in the face of future problems. Thought-leaders, economists, and policymakers worldwide have agreed that a return to "business-as-usual" and environmentally damaging investment patterns would be reckless. Now is the time for us to do better. Yet, the question remains: How?

A green recovery is a widely accepted term to describe a package of policies and stimulus measures to recover prosperity with low-carbon development, resource efficiency, and social inclusion. As a first step, in recognizing natural capital as a key economic asset, the recovery path aims to create long-term benefits for both humans and the environment. Through environmentally sustainable spending and pricing mechanisms, governments will be able to unleash innovation and fundamentally restructure critical sectors.

Redesigning the economy will be fundamental to achieving such a recovery. Evidently, there is more than one approach to achieve a greener post-covid economy. However, the OECD has suggested some universal principles that should be at the core of all national recovery plans, including a transition toward a circular economy

By decoupling economic growth from resource use and environmental impact, a circular transition represents a systemic shift that strives for resource efficiency and ecosystem restoration, generates business and economic opportunities whilst providing societal benefits. Integrating incentives that promote circularity into the recovery packages will offer opportunities to stimulate collaboration, foster innovation, and build economic resilience for a post-Covid-19 future.

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation believes that a green recovery, boosted by a circular transition will make change happen by design.

Vietnam’s policies that support a low-carbon and resilient recovery

Ensuring green and sustainable growth has long been a pillar of the Vietnamese policy framework. The introduction of green stimulus measures in Vietnam can date back to 1997 with Article 36, focusing on clean technology that generates less waste and requires less fuel and energy consumption. Thus, it is no surprise that in responding to the pandemic threats, the Vietnamese government has a strong ambition to ensure a green path for the recovery plan.

At the national level, many long-term strategies have been adopted to foster a green bounce-back and a sustainable future. Most recently, the Government has ratified the Socio-economic Development Plan for the period 2021-30 with a focus on efficient use of existing resources and innovative businesses. In late 2020, the Vietnamese government also assigned the Ministry of Trade and Industry to prepare a development plan for the circular economy, which is expected to be submitted by the end of 2021. For the immediate term, stimulus packages which amounted to US$12 billion were also launched in 2020 to support vulnerable households, businesses, and industries.

The spirit and determination of Vietnamese leaders extend to their engagement in many international platforms as well, including the P4G Summit and the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate. On the regional front, the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework has also been established to pave the way for an environmentally sustainable recovery process for its country members.

Challenges to pave a green path forward

Despite being highly responsive to trends that shape the global economy, Vietnam has empirically struggled to translate public policy aspirations into concrete actions with tangible results. For this green recovery, more decisive reforms need to take place to make sure that the same pattern of policy-implementation gap does not repeat itself. A more resilient economy depends on a shift to sustainable practices, as the OECD has emphasized. 

Yet, Vietnam is also struggling to remedy the economic vulnerabilities posed by the pandemic at the moment, which hinders the proper implementation of green investments. Most of its expenditures are currently allocated to curbing the continuous spread of the deadly virus and managing the current health crisis. Despite the high-level commitment, measurable progress for a green recovery remains elusive.

Not only had the COVID-19 fiscal spending in Vietnam not included green measures, but many of the immediate socio-economic strategies have also inadvertently exacerbated the environmental damage. This approach may in the long term undermine national efforts to decarbonize. In most quarantine centers, Vietnam is still providing thousands of plastic-packaged meals, which adds up to the ever-increasing burden of plastic waste on the environment.

To build a foundation for long-term resilience, Vietnam needs to adopt a more sustainable approach to deal with the immediate crisis. Environmentally sane efforts through eco-design and innovative, circular solutions should be embedded into the current recovery strategies. Or else, another tidal wave of pollution is awaiting us at the other end of the pandemic.

Taking on the second bigger “how”

To make this ‘green recovery’ a reality, we need to step up and tackle a more difficult ‘how’. How can Vietnam green its way out of this crisis and for a more resilient, circular recovery?

While policymakers hold the key to realize the transformative changes we need at the macro level, the green recovery can begin with each of us. Private and non-governmental organizations must work together to move the needle towards systems-level change.

As a private family foundation, the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is playing an active role to support Vietnam in its circular transition. In addition to our efforts in building post-Covid resilience using circularity in plastics through innovative, locally driven, and upstream solutions, ICM is also working hard to bring together relevant knowledge and intelligence to co-build the powerful force of changemakers in the country.

As our journey towards resilience continues, ICM Falk will explore the path towards a green recovery in a follow-up blog. To stay updated, please follow us on Linkedin and Facebook.


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 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.

The Surprising Truth About Food Waste

This article is part of our “Circular Products and Services” content series in which we want to showcase the entrepreneurial and innovative potential of a circular economy transition.

The idea is to provide a realistic picture of both the upside potential and the challenges faced by these types of entrepreneurs. By showcasing, we hope that other, like-minded partners would join us in assisting circular entrepreneurs in their growth and development.

The Surprising Truth About Food Waste

"8 of the top 20 solutions to Climate Change relate to your food systems"

In 2018, a leading climate “solutionist” Chad Frischmann gave a Ted talk called 100 solutions to reverse global warming. This hypothetical scenario, known as "Project Drawdown," refers to the point in time when the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases begins to decline on a year-to-year basis. Interestingly, according to Frischmann’s research, 8 of the top 20 solutions to climate change are related to our food systems. And, the most significant among these 8 refers to the reduction of food waste

Each year, 1/3 of food produced in the world goes to waste, and it is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. If we were to redesign our food systems into a closed-loop, circular one, more than 70 gigatons of CO2 emissions would be removed or avoided from entering the atmosphere. 

Changing how we produce and consume food to reduce waste is vital in order to reach our global climate goals. The question is: How can we do it? 

Fighting food waste through an entrepreneurial mindset - Too Good To Go 

Alix Trébaol, Business Developer at Too Good To Go

To answer this question, we interviewed Alix Trébaol, business developer at Too Good To Go, a certified B social impact company on a mission to fight food waste worldwide by tapping into the innovative and entrepreneurial opportunities found in food waste itself.

Devised in Copenhagen in 2016, Too Good To Go is an app that offers users across Europe, the United States, and Canada access to unsold, safe-to-eat food from participating suppliers. The food is heavily discounted at a third of the regular price. Users can see which restaurants,  food markets, or cafés in their neighborhood have surplus food available that day, which they can then pick up right before closing time. 

The app seems like a simple idea, but it has had a tangible impact on the number of meals that food providers throw away. For instance, since it launched its app in the United States last September it has ​​saved 572,460 meals. Globally the app has helped save 85.2 million meals since its creation.

Alix notes that at its core, the Too Good To Go’s mindset is to find a balance between the company’s Environmental, Social and Economic priorities. “Of course, there is a huge untapped market value for what we call “surplus food” as around US$1.2 trillion worth of food gets thrown away, which is equivalent to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway’s GDP combined. But, we want to do more than just earn a profit”, Trébaol says. 

Too Good To Go wants to start a movement at home, at the workplace, and at the governmental level, so that food as a resource is used effectively and distributed equally. “Yes, we are for-profit, but primarily because it gives us the resources to make a difference. For example, the $31 million fundraised last November helped us grow our movement to North America, the region with the most food waste on Earth".  

Creating a sustainable business model that works and makes a difference

The key success of Too Good To Go’s business model is that it makes sense financially for both the consumers and the food providers, while at the same time leveraging the environmental benefit that comes with avoiding food waste. It is a win-win-win situation, as food providers can access a new customer base and customers can buy high-quality food for a lower price. Too Good To Go only charges a small fee for each meal they “save” in order to pay for their own operations.

Yet, in order to create a business model that is sustainable and scalable, Too Good To Go has had to spend a significant amount of resources to truly understand the market for each country in which they operate. “Too Good To Go quickly realized that even though food waste is a global problem, how and where the food is wasted really depends on the country”.

For instance, in most low-income countries food waste primarily occurs due to packaging and transportation deficiencies. In high-income countries, on the other hand, most food is wasted at the market and consumption level, meaning that it is often a customer’s choice. “It will be interesting to see how we can adapt our business model to achieve change globally in those countries where food waste isn't a customer's choice”, Trébaol notes.

Making the food system circular

How, then, does Too Good To Go combine their for-profit business with their social and environmental ambitions? And is it really a circular concept? 

One of the main reasons why I joined Too Good To Go is because the company recognizes that real change has to be systemic and has to occur at all stages of the supply chain”, Alix says. In addition to their app, the company works in several ways to “close the loop on food waste” together with their partners. 

For example, Too Good To Go works with local food banks and food providers in order to also donate surplus food at a local level in most of the countries where they operate. In countries like Germany and France, Too Good To Go works together with governments and policymakers to change regulations that currently cause food waste, such as changing expiration labels. The company also wants to create a general awareness about food waste and does so through an online knowledge hub as well as partnerships with schools

ICM is inspired by this success story and we believe, just as Too Good To Go has shown, that an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset can allow for sustainable change. However, Too Good To Go primarily works in a high-income country where food waste can be targeted through behavioral change. In a low-income country context, such as most of the ASEAN region, food waste is a technological problem. Farmers are often unable to insulate or refrigerate fresh produce after it is harvested – and on the journey between the farm and the consumer, the food is spoiled. 

The start-up potential for addressing this area of food waste is significant, as the existing start-ups worldwide are exclusively focused on a high-income context. We will dig deeper into food waste in low-income countries in an upcoming blog post.

How would you go about addressing food waste in your home, at work, or in your country? Do you have a circular idea about how to redesign our food systems that you would like to launch? ICM might be the one to fund, foster or facilitate your solution.

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 Too Good To Go and Alix Trébaol

The purpose of Too Good To Go is to reduce food waste worldwide. It supports a free mobile application that connects restaurants and stores that have unsold, surplus food, with customers who can then buy whatever food the outlet considers surplus to requirements—without being able to choose—at a much lower price than normal. 

Alix Trébaol is in charge of Too Good To Go’s expansion in the American Northeast. Passionate about sustainability topics, she was part of the team launching the app in the US, while simultaneously finishing her studies at Columbia University in New York.

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 and a Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of plastics production, waste, and pollution within ASEAN.

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

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.

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: Ngày Mới Online
Source: Vietnam Net

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.


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.

Building Post COVID Resilience Using Circularity in Plastics

While the COVID pandemic has led to a welcome, positive, yet short-term reprieve for the environment – with reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and the like - evidence continues to mount for the considerable increases to the rate of plastics consumption occurring during the same period.  Driven by lowered petroleum demand, drops in oil prices, increased COVID-protocol related demand for single use plastics (SUP) and rising usage of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), the result has, in many ways, effectively offset or even reversed the impact of many of the global plastics waste directives initiated to date.  Nations have had to prioritize immediate-term, health concerns over environmental impact, further exacerbating what we need to be accomplished globally.

Given the confluence of these circumstances, economies have the opportunity to utilize the means and methods inherent within a circular economy to build the requisite resilience required to weather the economic shocks on our horizon.  More specific to the plastics pollution issue, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation proposes ten circularity related investment opportunities for policymakers and practitioners, big and small, to create systems-level change that can be both replicated and scaled globally.

How to take on a Goliath?

For our part in this effort, the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation (ICM Falk), is leveraging these circular, investment opportunities through innovative, locally driven and upstream solutions. Focusing on the early stages of the innovation lifecycle, ICM Falk seeks to ideate solutions that address plastics pollution (including the capacity building required for communities to ideate), test existing and new products and services firmly rooted in sustainable business models and build the networks necessary to scale successful solutions for greater impact.

As a private family foundation, ICM Falk’s contribution to building resilient economies in the post-COVID era, further build on the seminal, foundational work developed by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust by supporting innovative projects that leverage the below multiplying factors; :

●  Circular & Upstream

For ICM Falk, a great project is one that is tightly aligned with creating a circular and sustainable product/service in the upstream space of the plastics supply chain. Building a regenerative and closed-loop approach to packaging, textile, etc. is one of the most effective and sustainable methods to drastically reduce plastics production and in turn, plastics pollution.

●  Local-Centric

Building new business models solely answering to circular logic is not sufficient. If traditional business sectors were able to  catch onto the idea of  localization early in during their global expansion to Asia during the 1990’s, the plastics innovation ecosystem could and must do better to create adequate solutions within a hyperlocal context. During trying times such as the COVID pandemic, a local-centric approach is often even more relevant in addressing the common global problem. ICM Falk wants 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. 

●  Co-impactful & Cross-Sector Focused

To reach the scale and eventual tipping point required for systems level change, working unilaterally is futile.  To efficiently build innovative solutions, ICM Falk is approaching its partners collaboratively, across sectors, for co-impact.  We are convinced that we can do a lot with a little when we combine forces - not just financially, but technically and experientially.  

Further bolstering these circular, upstream, local and co-impactful solutions across various verticals -  whether tourism, fashion, F&B and the like - are the foundation horizontal efforts of public awareness building, consumer behavior change and connecting global solutions with local practitioners and policymakers all seeking to move the needle towards systems level change.

The path to resilience

The pandemic has highlighted our systemic inefficiencies - our level of continued reliance on single-use plastics packaging, our underdesigned waste management systems and an overall lack of sufficient movement for the systems level change.  We know that there is no silver bullet solution and working alone, no matter how many resources one may have, will not be enough.  But, we know that our journey as a private foundation towards resilience in tackling this issue begins by utilizing the above framework and bringing together our intelligence, with that of practitioners, global corporates and local changemakers.

We call upon potential partners to reach out to us to co-build and co-fund sustainable solutions for systems-level change. Based on frameworks set out by seminal research and institutions long engaged on this issue, all organizations, big or small, have a role to play in transforming our current world into a more resilient and sustainable one. We cannot do this alone - we all have a part to play in building resilience.

Follow us on LinkedIn for ongoing updates on our journey towards Plastics 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 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 Vietnam.

New Growth Opportunities by Fighting Plastic Pollution in Vietnam

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.

For more information regarding our work to promote Plastics Innovation and Circularity, send us an email at contact@icmfalkfoundation.org or a message on our LinkedIn page.