Zero-waste startups: From good cause to circular economy

There is growing awareness among people that businesses have responsibilities towards society and the environment, beyond just voluntary acts of kindness, said a UNDP representative.
Zero-waste startups: From good cause to circular economy ảnh 1Bagasse tableware and disposable cutlery produced by Greeny Bee Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Greeny Bee Vietnam)

Hanoi (VNA) – Vietnam generates large amounts of waste every day – food waste, construction waste, old clothes and furniture, batteries, plastic bags and much more.

The total volume of waste each year in the country comes to about 25.5 million tonnes, of which 75 percent goes into landfills. Vietnam is among the top four generators of plastic waste, at 280,000 tonnes per year, and over 70 percent is buried, according to a World Bank report. 

A group of specialists from the Vietnam Environment Administration estimated that municipal solid waste increases by 10 – 16 percent each year. Several landfill sites in major cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang are already overloaded, affecting local lives.

Waste also represents an economic loss and burden on society. Hanoi and HCM City have to spend around 1.2 – 1.5 trillion VND (52 – 65 million USD) a year, or 3.5 percent of their budgets, on collecting and treating waste.

Zero-waste startups: From good cause to circular economy ảnh 2Trash floods a road in the outskirts of Hanoi. (Photo: VietnamPlus)

Growing awareness breeds entrepreneurship in zero-waste business

Vietnamese people, particularly youngsters, are becoming more aware of the environmental issues facing the country. 

They have lately thrown the spotlight on the detrimental impact plastic waste has on Vietnam’s image and engaged in various social trends to help reduce the damage done to the environment, from boycotting single use containers to switching to bamboo straws. Many of them have started to weigh the environmental impacts of a product rather than just purchasing it for convenience.

“There is growing awareness among people that businesses have responsibilities towards society and the environment, beyond just voluntary acts of kindness,” said UNDP Deputy Resident Representative Sitara Syed at the Blue Swallows 2019 Forum, which recognised business initiatives aimed at tackling social and environmental issues, in Hanoi in October 25.

She cited a study by Nielsen as saying that Vietnamese consumers are the most socially-conscious in Southeast Asia, with 86 percent of respondents from Vietnam willing to pay extra to companies who are committed to positive social and environmental impacts.

Zero-waste startups: From good cause to circular economy ảnh 3Pham Kieu Oanh, Founder and CEO of the Center for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP). (Photo: VNA)

“This year, we have received an unprecedented number of initiatives related to the environment and environmental protection,” said Pham Kieu Oanh, Founder and CEO of the Center for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) that organised Blue Swallows 2019.

For example, some chains of stores have raised public awareness of sustainable consumption and waste reduction, and promote behavioural changes among young people and consumers, she said.

An increasing number of Vietnamese start-ups have taken on the task of developing sustainable alternatives to curb the mounting trash problem. A number of them offer products and services that allow consumers to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, while the others make goods out of garbage, like shoes from coffee grounds, bags from industrial waste, cutlery from bagasse and dishwashing liquid from organic waste, to name but a few.

“By now, we know that if we don’t take any action, it will be too late. And businesses are now more aware of this,” Oanh said.

Not an easy path

“I began thinking about turning trash into something useful in 2011 when garbage trucks in my area were out of order for four days in a row, making the odour of the accumulating garbage very unpleasant,” Trinh Thi Hong said as she was explaining how she had come up with the idea of creating shampoo, shower gel, dish-washing and floor cleaning liquid from food waste such as fruit peels and vegetable scraps.

Hong, who lost her family in the war when she was just a child, tried hundreds of times before she succeeded. Though she knew nothing about biotechnology, it was not her biggest challenge.

To her, navigating the suspicions of people who didn’t believe she could really make something out of waste was the biggest difficulty.

“My husband told me it was a crazy idea while my son said I was just a daydreamer and being unrealistic,” Hong said. “Not to mention other people, nobody believed such a good and affordable product could be made from unwanted waste.”

Zero-waste startups: From good cause to circular economy ảnh 4Trinh Thi Hong, who found Minh Hong Biotech, and a dishwashing product made from food waste. (Photo: VNA)

But at present, her company - Minh Hong Biotech - processes about 109 tonnes of waste to produce 50,000 – 51,000 litres of products a month, which are sold by a network of four distribution firms and 106 dealers across the country.

Greeny Bee Vietnam, a producer of bagasse tableware and disposable cutlery, faced different obstacles. “Like many small businesses, Greeny Bee faces three main issues,” said Founder and CEO Tran Quoc Trung.

“First is the lack of personnel as I have done it all by myself since the beginning,” Trung said.

“The second is insufficient funding,” he continued. “Personally, I think most zero-waste startups like mine are small- and medium-size enterprises so they always lack capital.”

“And third, the lack of necessary legal and policy support for new entrepreneurs. In Vietnam, it is quite difficult and complicated to get support, like in taxation,” he added.

He wants the government to relax credit standards, provide training for startups and help connect small companies with larger ones. 

“The government can provide tax incentives and help connect businesses. Via representative offices, it can help local startups connect with potential partners from developed countries,” he said.

“The government and advisory bodies need to help startups develop their ideas and business models,” said Nguyen Dinh Cung, Director of the Central Institute for Economic Management (CIEM). “It can then provide financial assistance, since those who have ideas normally have limited capital.”

“They are also affected by environmental issues every day so they want to make a change and contribute to the community,” he said.

Moving towards a circular economy

Consciously or unconsciously, zero-waste startups are playing a relevant role in developing a circular economy, which is a rather new concept in Vietnam. This approach seeks to consume less plastic and channel waste back into production, thus significantly easing pressure on the environment.

A circular economy is the best way for Vietnam to achieve sustainable development and ensure all resources are used and reused efficiently and economically, said Pham Hoang Hai, Head of the Secretariat at the Vietnam Business Council for Sustainable Development (VBCSD).

“Sustainable development means we can maintain a balance among economic, social and environmental factors,” he said. “With climate change, a growing population and scarce resources, how can we expect to have enough if we keep using and then disposing of resources?” 

A circular economy could unlock up to 4.5 trillion USD in value and create millions of jobs in the global economy by 2030, according to an Accenture Strategy study. In addition, it holds particular promise for achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as in the areas of sustainable consumption and production, climate change, and oceans.

Vietnam is making efforts to transform towards a green and circular economic model. In 2017, the government approved a project to form an environment industry that can meet the contents of a circular economy by 2025.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade is currently crafting a National Action Programme on Sustainable Production and Consumption, which will be carried out from 2021 – 2030.

The government is also being supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to include a circular economy in its Socio-economic Development Plan/Strategy from 2021 – 2030, said Ida Uusikylä, Innovation Consultant at UNDP.

The UNDP is also working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to include the circular economy in the revised law on environmental protection as well as supporting Vietnam to develop the National Action Plan on Marine Plastic, she said./.
Phạm Lê Khánh Ly

See more