Uncertain results in eco-friendly push

10:42 | 21/08/2019
While traditional markets are wallowing in an ocean of plastic bags, there is a  trend to turn to environmentally-friendly alternatives among local supermarkets and to say no to plastic bags and single use products at new stores but the results is still not up to the expectation. Kim Anh reports.
uncertain results in eco friendly push
Some supermarkets are slow to encourage non-plastic methods of packaging goods Photo: Shutterstock

Entering a Lai Day Refill Station, a zero-waste store in Ho Chi Minh City, VIR reporters were taken aback by the sheer amount of eco-friendly goodies lining the shelves, such as bamboo and stainless steel straws, organic soaps, reusable silicon bags to store food, tumblers, and much more.

The packaging used at the store is also eco-friendly, using paper to pack products instead of nylon or plastic packaging like other stores.

“This is our second store after eight months of opening the first one in District 2,” Nguyen Da Quyen, co-founder of Lai Day Refill Station, told VIR. “Our stores also allow customers to refill all kinds of liquid and wax products like shampoo and candles using their own containers. This way customers can avoid using plastic bottles or nylon packaging to preserve products.”

This is one of many such stores recently popping up across Vietnam like Go Eco Hanoi, Tap Hoa La Xanh organic grocery, the Cua Hang 3T online store in Ho Chi Minh City, and Tiem Tap Hoa Goi Ghem Packaging Grocery in the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau.

Zero-waste stores are a brand new trend in Southeast Asia and have begun to appear more in Vietnam in the past year. Such stores were mainly located in Singapore, Thai cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Indonesia’s Bali Island, and Manila in the Philippines. Before that, stores and refill stations have become a more regular occurrence in some European countries over the past three years.

Supermarkets join hands

In early April, some supermarkets in Vietnam have made news by opting to wrap food in environmentally-friendly materials like fresh banana leaves, beginning a new trend as people are becoming increasingly aware of the harmful effects of plastic bags and show growing support for environmental protection initiatives.

Accordingly, Saigon Co.op implemented the programme in its supermarket system, including Co.opmart, Co.opXtra, Co.op Food, and Co.op Smile.

“Limiting disposable plastic products is a strategy that Saigon Co.op will definitely implement by replacing plastic bags with environmentally-friendly alternatives,” Do Quoc Huy, marketing director of Saigon Co.op, told VIR.

Along with Saigon Co.op, Big C Hanoi supermarkets officially began wrapping vegetables in banana leaves in April.

Vingroup refuses to be left behind. Its 2,200 VinMart supermarkets and VinMart+ convenience stores will steadily replace single-use plastic materials with eco-friendly products like bio-degradable bags as well as paper straws and cups. Spongy boxes containing raw meats will be replaced by sugarcane boxes.

Notably, VinMart and VinMart+ will collect all kinds of used batteries and transfer them to companies specialised in treating harmful waste.

For companies manufacturing eco-friendly products, VinMart and VinMart+ offer preferential treatment like non-profit trading, displaying their products at good positions, advertising benefits, brand promotion in convenience stores and supermarkets, and others.

On August 7, VinMart also gifted more than 10,000 reusable bags for the first customers accompanying its programme of environmental protection in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Limited performance

Despite these campaigns being rolled out to reduce plastic waste across the country with massive incentive programmes, the resultant change in consumption habits and the use of environmentally-friendly packaging has been near imperceptible.

At Big C Thang Long and Big C The Garden supermarkets in Hanoi, only a few vegetables were wrapped in paper packaging and other environmentally-friendly products, while raw meat court still used plastic wrapping and single-use plastic trays. There were no signs that the initiative has penetrated the food court yet.

In the Lotte Mart on Hanoi’s Dao Tan street, only about half of the vegetables were wrapped by banana leaves. Besides that, the preponderance of single-use plastic in the food court was just as striking as in the Big C supermarkets.

When queried about customers’ use of plastic bags, a cashier in Big C The Garden told VIR, “Customers only pay for reusable bags when they buy a lot of goods. But only a few of them bring those bags for the next shoppings.”

Nguyen Thanh Huyen, a 35-year-old customer from Hanoi, said, “I go to Big C The Garden twice a week to do my groceries, and I think the communications campaign about plastic reduction is just not strong enough. Cashiers are quick to swamp customers in nylon packaging instead of adding up goods in a number of groups. I myself have refused many times the bags they throw at me, asking them to be more careful when packing up goods.”

So far, Saigon Co.op has been the leading supermarket in using environmentally-friendly packaging. However, according marketing director Huy, disposable plastic products cannot disappear in a single day. “It is not simply a question of whether we do business or not, it also directly affects businesses that provide goods to supermarkets and produce these items as well as consumers. Enterprises need enough time to find suitable alternatives,” Huy said.

Meanwhile, most zero-waste stores are suffering losses. “Lai Day Refill Station still faces numerous challenges after these eight months. It is hard to say how long it will take to stabilise our business,” said co-founder Quyen.

Clarifying the disadvantages, Quyen also said refilling activities are inconvenient for customers because not all people take their own bottles when they go shopping. “Suffering a little bit of inconvenience for a future of less garbage seems to be a step too far for some,” said Quyen.

Nguyen Thi Thien Thanh, a 26-year-old freelancer in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, told VIR, “I am well aware of green living, but the fast pace of the city means I often forget to take my own bottles or bags for shopping.”

Tran Phuong Thao, owner of Tiem Tap Hoa Goi Ghem also shared, “When the store was launched, my friends and colleagues were curious about the new business model, but this interest was hard to maintain for a long time. The important thing is to ride the waves of changing customer demand, which means helping customers familiarise themselves with eco-friendly products instead of the plastic products they currently use.”

Besides, the demand for reasonable prices is also an obstacle for zero-waste stores as greener alternatives usually come with a higher price tag. For instance, a package of a hundred plastic straws is offered at an average of VND30,000 ($1.50), while a single bamboo straw costs at least VND15,000 ($0.65). The majority of people still tend to select the more affordable of two products.

To overcome the challenges, many zero-waste stores are aiming to spread awareness of the green lifestyle.

“The most important thing is to keep faith in the future and carry on with small daily activities to gather more positive energy to move along the path we have chosen,” Quyen said.

As the move against plastic garbage is still in its infancy and the activities of zero-waste stores and supermarkets’ new programmes remain half-hearted at best, more difficulties in changing customer habits are expected.

However, the green lifestyle may become more popular if many more huge businesses share their interests to invest in such a green and zero-waste store model.

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