Vietnam strives to break plastic bag habit

The government is taking one step at a time to reduce disposable plastic bags, but a full-fledged ban is still a long way off.

As his wife waited in line to pay, Hoan took a cardboard box to pack the goods they had purchased.

It was a Sunday morning in late May, and the couple in their 50s were shopping at an MM Mega Market store in Thu Duc City.

“We brought our own bag, but we bought more goods than we expected and so now I have to buy a box,” Hoan says as he rummages through piles of boxes to find one of a suitable size.

MM Mega Market does not provide single-use plastic bags, but empty cartons are free for customers.

“A customer who wants a bag will have to buy one,” says a cashier named Le Thi Thanh Vi.

Made from biodegradable materials, the bags she refers to are placed near checkouts and cost 15,000 VND (64 cents) or 21,000 VND depending on the size.

Calling herself a frequent customer of MM Mega Market, Nguyen Dang Thanh Tam, 30, says she “doesn’t care at all” about having to bring her own bag or buy a reusable bag from the supermarket for shopping.

Only a few stores and supermarkets have a policy of not using plastic bags, including Aeon Mall and Annam Gourmet, but the government is set to change that.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced in April that supermarkets and stores inside shopping malls should no longer use single-use plastic bags from 2026.

“Any retailer that continues to give customers single-use plastic bags will be punished,” said Nguyen Trung Thang, deputy director of the Institute of Strategy and Policy on Natural Resources and Environment (ISPONRE) of the ministry, during a conference in Hanoi.

According to ISPONRE, supermarkets consume an average of 104,000 single-use plastic bags per day, or 38 million bags per year.

Data released last year by the ministry showed that plastic waste accounted for 7% of solid waste discharged every day, or nearly 2,500 tons. Vietnam dumps between 0.28 and 0.73 million tons of plastic waste into the ocean every year, he said.

Nguyen Thi Dieu Thuy, director of a plastic waste reduction program at the World Wild Fund (WWF) Vietnam, says: “If Vietnam drastically implements all the strategies and plans it has set, then the goal of banning single-use plastic bags in supermarkets and shopping centers by 2026 is entirely possible.”

In 2019, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc released a national action plan for managing plastic waste in the ocean until 2030, which aims to reduce the dumping and also collect all the fishing gear lost and thrown into the ocean.

The plan aimed to eliminate the use of disposable plastic in city stores, markets and supermarkets nationwide by 2025.

In January, the government issued Executive Order 08 to guide the implementation of the Environment Act 2020 which states that single-use plastic production will stop after 2030.

“Supermarkets and retailers have had enough time to prepare to go ‘no to plastic bags,'” Thuy said.

Cao Van Anh, senior brand and communication manager at LOTTE Mart Vietnam, said his supermarket “has been ready for the policy of stopping the supply of single-use plastic bags since 2019.”

LOTTE Mart stores have also placed reusable bags near checkouts to encourage customers to use them, and in April the supermarket began offering bags made from lotus leaves.

In January, he joined 16 other retailers to form an alliance that pledged to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags.

The alliance is an initiative of ISPONRE which was carried out on a pilot project from January to April in Hanoi in collaboration with the city’s Department of Industry and Commerce.

A customer chooses a reusable lotus leaf bag at a LOTTE Mart store in HCMC, District 7, May 2022. The bag is priced at 129,000 VND ($5.5). Photo by VnExpress/Minh Nga

As a member of the alliance, LOTTE Mart has tried not to give customers plastic bags and have them buy reusable bags and provide them with free cartons and tape at several outlets in Hanoi.

Anh says, “Many customers responded positively to the program, but some were uncomfortable with not receiving plastic bags.

“That’s because customers have become too accustomed to receiving free single-use plastic bags every time they shop.”

The Vietnam Plastics Association said in June last year that each household consumes one kilogram of plastic bags every month, and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City alone dump 80 tons of plastic waste every day, including plastic bags.

“I can’t imagine a scenario of selling goods without using plastic bags,” said a vendor named Thu, who sells fish paste at a wet market in HCMC’s District 4. “In most cases, I have to use two bags for one client.”

She uses one to wrap the fish paste and weigh it, then puts it in a second bag to wrap it neatly.

Those selling fresh pork and chicken do the same, using two bags for each customer, she says.

“So that our customers don’t get their hands dirty. Customers are God, you know!”

She says if people bring their own bags or boxes to buy, she’s happy not to use a plastic bag, but as far as she can remember, “no one has done that.”

A fruit vendor hands guava wrapped in a plastic bag to a customer at a wet market in District 8, May 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Nga

Thai, who sells fruit and vegetables in HCMC District 8, said if the government wanted to ban vendors from using plastic bags, “it should first find a solution to continue selling goods without using the bags”.

The eco-bags cost a lot more than the plastic bags widely used in all traditional markets and grocery stores, he says.

Who to hold responsible?

“Do you need a bag?” a cashier at an Annam Gourmet store in downtown HCMC asks all customers to check out.

Those who want one receive a paper bag, for a small fee.

“I totally agree with that,” said a customer named Dong Nghi, 31.

“In order to limit the amount of waste in the environment, I am ready to receive no bags, whether plastic or paper.”

She believes customers and businesses need to do their part to limit the use of plastic bags and says she herself is willing to bring a bag to buy goods whenever she can.

But WWF’s Thuy says growers and retailers play a “crucial role” in phasing out plastic bags.

For the goal of zero single-use plastic bags in supermarkets and shopping malls to be achieved by 2026, she says, officials must “ensure the effective implementation of all the policies that have been developed”. .

The Ministry of Environment should quickly develop detailed guidelines to stop the use of plastic bags as stipulated in the Environment Act 2020 and Executive Order 08, she said.

It is also expected to work on launching the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system, “a policy approach under which producers are given significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products,” as defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, she says.

All parts of the EPR system must develop their own plans and models, including product designs and technological solutions, to achieve the goal of limiting the use of plastics, she adds.

Vegetables, wrapped in plastic bags, are offered for sale in a supermarket in HCMC, July 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dat

LOTTE Mart’s Anh praises the retailer alliance model, which she says is “the first of its kind to bring retailers together and create an opportunity for them to find a common voice to reduce plastic consumption.”

Through such initiatives, “more retailers will participate in reducing the use of single-use plastic products, especially bags, so that customers do not compare one store to another or only visit those where they don’t have to bring their bags.”

Packing their wares into boxes after checking out MM Mega Market, Hoan says he and his wife are just “ordinary people playing by the rules of a supermarket”.

“It just takes strict rules to be enforced. My wife still gets plastic bags from grocery stores in our neighborhood.”

A saleswoman with her campaign against the burning of plastic bags

A saleswoman with her campaign against the burning of plastic bags. Video of Hoang Huy, Chau Dong

Minh Nga