Written by Cindy Lu (Carnegie Mellon University), CET Vietnam Summer 2019
Walking on the street in the first district in Ho Chi Minh City, coffee shops are only minutes walk away from one another. In the scorching summer, it is also not rare to see delivery people riding around the city with milk teas in their food cabins. Although these drinks are the “vital life support” for people to survive the summer, the straws and bottles coming along with them create tons of plastic waste every day.
A recent research shows that since human beings have been dumping plastic waste in the ocean for a long time, the microplastics have already returned to our digestive system through marine animals consumption. Although nowadays many people talk about environmental protection, very limited actions have been taken to save the planet. As part of our field trip in development studies class, we went to visit a slum area in the Binh Thanh district in Ho Chi Minh City. If I was not led to the alley specifically, I would have never found this place by walking around the city. Although people waved at us with smiles on their faces, it feels like that they are completely cut off from the rapid development in the outside world. Although they live next to the famous Saigon River, they have to live and sleep with the smell of the trash floating on the water. (picture of the slum)
Apparently, I am not the only one who was concerned with the environmental problems here. As I was exploring different coffee shops around the city, I found some surprisingly genius substitutes for the plastic straws and brilliant campaigns that could potentially incentivize the public to shift away from using plastic products.
First, some of the coffee shops started to look for eco friendly alternatives to replace plastic straws. For instance, the bang grass straws used by L’Usine coffee shop look very similar to the green plastic straws provided in Starbucks. They, however, are totally biodegradable. If you don’t have a habit to bite your straw (which I do), you will not even be able to tell that it was made of grass. Apart from coffee shops, some milk tea shops are also putting efforts in eliminating plastic straws. For example, Gong Cha is substituting their plastic straws with those that could be decomposed in six months. These straws are made from reusable sugarcane fibers and PLA (polylactic acid) which made it entirely decomposable and environmental friendly.
Apart from the cold drink shops in Ho Chi Minh City, when I traveled to Hoi An last weekend, I also found that a local shop is using bamboo straws for their drinks. As Hoi An was just honored as the most charming city in the world by Google Doodles, more and more tourists will come to the city to have a peek of its beauty. When I was in the ancient town, there was a long line waiting outside the Mót coffee shop and it is hard to imagine how much more waste it could have produced if they were using plastic straws instead of the bamboo ones. (picture of Bamboo straw Hoi An)
Some bars in Ho Chi Minh City would also choose to use rice straw which is both eco friendly and interesting since they are also eatable. In addition, in order to incentivize customers from using plastic bottles, some coffee shops even have the policy that if you bring your own bottle, you could receive a discount on the drink that you purchase. Such policies give customers, especially the young generation a huge motivation to abandon using plastic bottles. And if they could cultivate such habit, they could also influence their friends and family. In the end, it is also becoming a trend for young people to have a stylish bottle as a sign of fashion. (picture of water bottle)
Apart from the coffee shops, I was also impressed by the efforts of my coworkers in a local NGO to minimize plastic life waste. Two of my coworkers made an announcement in the office to abandon using plastic bags. At first, I thought that they would only do it when it is convenient for them; however, they took it very seriously. They started to refuse to order delivery food with us because of the plastic containers, and they would bring their own bottles to buy smoothies across the street during the lunch break. I have learned so much from them on how to take actions to protect the environment but not just repeating slogans in vain.
Living in Ho Chi Minh City, I was genuinely amazed by the actions taken by coffee shops and the citizens to protect the environment. I believe that these responsible enterprises and individuals would help Vietnam become more and more resilient to cope with the climate change.