Reducing packaging an impossible mission

14:15 | 04/09/2019
Reducing packaging waste is being considered “mission impossible” for companies in consumer goods and in the packaging industry across Vietnam. Kim Oanh reports.  
reducing packaging an impossible mission
Mooncake packaging is often complex and harms the environment

According to a report ­published by the ­Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, the speedy increase of fast-moving ­consumer goods will lead to the growth of food and beverage packaging industry. In the five-year period ending in 2020, the increase will be 38-40 per cent, from 3.92 ­million tonnes to approximately 5.4 million tonnes. It is 2.5 times higher than the global growth rate of 13 per cent.

The expansion of the consumer goods industry has caused an increase in the amount of plastics and nylon packaging discharged into the ­environment, exacerbating the plastic waste issue in general in Vietnam.

An average of 10-15 billion milk cartons and 15 billion pieces of plastic packaging from five billion instant noodle packets are disposed of in Vietnam every year. However, the numbers come from only a tiny number of consumer goods manufacturers, meaning in reality, the amount of packaging waste will likely be hundreds of times higher than figures cited, especially in peak seasons such as Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn festival.

The mood is prevailing not only in Vietnam. In other Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, and Singapore, mooncake packages come with more and more innovative and elaborate boxes and more plastic and paper used for the inner packaging. They keep each mooncake in place to prevent spoilage, contamination, and damage during transportation, which puts heavy pressure on the environment.

Liow Chean Siang, head of Environmental Certifications at the Singapore Environment Council said, “About 40 per cent of packaging is unnecessary and wasteful. The more beautiful and glossy the mooncake box is, the more difficult it is to recycle them. We generally do not accept them. There is not much we can do but to send them for incineration due to the laminate that makes the boxes glossy.”

He also emphasised that with the growth of green consumerism, customers have the power to say no to elaborate packaging, and send a clear message to manufacturers to reduce packaging to a minimum and cut down on unnecessary wastage.

Although Vietnam is currently one of the five-largest global contributors of plastic waste in the ocean, discarding 280,000 tonnes of plastic a year, a majority of consumer goods manufacturers have yet to show signs of switching all to eco-friendly packaging. However, a select few have come together to establish an alliance with the mission of lessening the impact of plastic waste in Vietnam, as nine companies joined hands to launch Packaging Recycling Organization Vietnam (PRO Vietnam) in Ho Chi Minh City in June. It plans to work with its members to ensure that all of the packaging material they sell is then collected to be recycled by 2030. The nine founding members include Coca-Cola Vietnam, FrieslandCampina, La Vie, Nestlé Vietnam, NutiFood, Suntory PepsiCo Vietnam, Tetra Pak Vietnam, TH Group, and URC Vietnam.

The members are outstanding names in the beverage packaging industry, but there is a lack of food manufacturers, especially instant noodle and confectionary companies, which are the main culprits when it comes to causing plastic waste pollution in Vietnam. Brands such as Kido Group, Orion Vina Food Co., Ltd., Bibica Corporation, Acecook Vietnam JSC, and Uni-President Vietnam Co., Ltd, are among those honoured in the top 10 Food & Beverage Companies in Vietnam, as announced by Vietnam Report. In addition, New Toyo and Tin Thanh (Batico), the brands with the largest market share in the Vietnamese packaging industry, have yet to appear in the alliance.

Responding to VIR about the difficulties PRO Vietnam faces in expanding membership, Ta Bao Long, communications manager of Tetra Pak Vietnam said, “PRO Vietnam always welcomes new members. However, the alliance has just been established for two months, thus enterprises need more time to study its operation.”

Once enterprises decide to join the alliance, they have to contribute fees to maintain the group’s general activities and commit to comply with PRO Vietnam’s programmes to decrease plastic waste. These extra corporate social responsibility activities can mean not all companies are willing to prioritise the sustainable development targets in their long-term plan.

VIR contacted PRO Vietnam to clarify the latest membership and specific strategies but there was no response. PRO Vietnam marks the first time that competing businesses have ­collaborated in the country to ­work on improving the ­environment. However, in general, consumer goods manufacturers pay ­attention to recycling their plastic waste instead of looking for alternative packaging for existing nylon and ­plastics. The high costs of such a change to environmentally-friendly packaging are a huge factor, as well as the added forced sustainable development ­targets.

Community condemnation

Large consumer goods companies globally have been condemned for causing massive packaging waste. Audits led by Break Free From Plastic member organisations found that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Danone, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars, and Colgate-Palmolive were the most frequent multinational brands collected in cleanups. The ranking of multinational companies included only brands that were found in at least 10 of the 42 participating countries. Overall, polystyrene, which is not recyclable in most locations, was the most common type of plastic found, followed closely by polyester, a material used in bottles, containers, and other packaging.

The top polluters in Asia, ­according to the analysis, were Coca-Cola, Perfetti van Melle, and Mondelez International. These brands accounted for 30 per cent of all branded plastic pollution counted by volunteers across the continent. The harsh criticism from the community has contributed to making multinational consumer goods manufacturers issue specific strategies to reduce plastic waste and create a recycling plan.

Besides this, food and drink manufacturers and retailers around the world are under pressure to act on plastic waste given growing concerns from the public and lawmakers about its damaging impact on environment.

In Vietnam, there are not yet ­specific publications on consumer goods producers found to be the worst plastic polluters, but due to global pressures and government strategies, a number of companies are aware of the importance of reducing waste and have formulated policies accordingly.

Japanese food and biotech corporation Ajinomoto Group set a goal of completely eliminating the discharge of plastic before fiscal year 2030 and implementing many initiatives to complete the task. Since 2000, ­Ajinomoto has transformed small bag packaging of some of their products to paper packaging, reducing about 11 tonnes of plastic annually. In addition, the resizing and compact packaging design for its Blendy and Masako product lines has reduced over 2,000 tonnes of plastic consumed each year.

NutiFood Company, meanwhile, plans to reduce plastic waste for the long-term. “We will also research products that use environmentally-friendly packaging so that the waste disposal process will be shortened,” said Tran Thanh Hai, chairman of NutiFood.

“Furthermore, the company will also invest in production lines that can use recycled materials to minimise the plastic waste discharged into the ocean, which causes environmental pollution. With products that use packaging, NutiFood will assist dealers to organise such packaging so that it can be recycled and reused,” Hai added.

Ajinomoto, NutiFood and a ­number of large consumer goods manufacturers are just some of those contributing towards reducing plastic waste. In order to make non-plastic programmes realise their ambitions, they will need the help of all businesses, including small- and medium-sized ones, as well as an ­increase in awareness from the ­community as a whole.

Tran Hong Ha - Minister of Natural Resources and Environment

Plastic waste is a big problem not only in Vietnam but also in the world, affecting ecosystems and people’s health. In recent years, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment launched a campaign calling for people to participate in anti-plastic waste, and we supported the establishment of the Anti-plastic Waste Coalition and Vietnam Packaging Recycle Organisation last year.

Besides that, we have also co-operated with other ministries, branches, and localities. Many legal documents related to the management and treatment of plastic waste have been issued; and activities of managing and treating plastic such as the Law on Natural Resources and participating in international agreements on these matters have been guided. However, an important tool to deal with plastic waste is the tax policy and fees applied to plastics. In the future, the ministry will co-ordinate with relevant counterparts to provide mechanisms to encourage investment, research, and application of new and modern technologies in the development of eco-friendly products and materials. We will also strengthen international co-operation with other countries and international organisations to combat plastic waste for the common prosperity of mankind.

Vu Kim Hanh - Chairman, Business Association of High Quality Vietnamese Products

In the trend of green consumption of food and beverages, businesses have been actively turning to developing sustainable products and packaging with a range of initiatives, which include reducing waste through recycling and post-consumed recycling. Many multinational companies and large corporations have constantly improved their biodegradability and applied new technologies in their production and business activities.

Currently the prominence of two new technologies in food processing – fermentation and cold drying – instead of the old processing forms, are creating a new wave in the market. Trading and manufacturing activities of enterprises in the industry tend to be oriented on natural and environmental protection. The food startup ecosystem has also been a bridge to help small- and medium-sized enterprises develop their products to conquer global consumers with packaging and food safety standards.

Phan Xuan Dung - Chairman, National Assembly Committee for Science, Technology and Environment

Sustainable development is a new vision of governments and businesses. On the path of this sustainable development, plastic waste is one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges. Vietnam is facing up to the recycling of waste, especially plastic packaging waste.

For milk cartons, it is estimated that about 10 to 15 billion cartons are discharged per year. Such a rapid increase without synchronous measures will lead to serious and devastating consequences for the global environment. In that context, in order to build a circular economy, it requires the hands of the whole society and efforts from each of us. It is also time to join hands in treating packaging waste so that future generations of Vietnam can live in a safe, green, and sustainable environment. I highly appreciate businesses that are aiming towards 100 per cent recycling of their packaging waste by 2030.

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