How to do a plastic free food shop in Saigon

Saving money, eating less crap and getting to know my local area better: so far, going plastic free for food is working out alright.

I’ve come to a few eco-realisations over the past couple of weeks. The main one, though, is that if we want to solve the plastic pollution crisis and save even a scrap of clean ocean for future generations, we really do have to stop using plastic.

Even for the harder wearing plastics, re-cycling really isn’t the thing that you thought it was – with only 9% of the world’s plastic having ever been recycled. As for the single use plastics – the type that surrounds so much of our food – we know these can’t be recycled. Yet we use a whole lot of them every single day.

Last week, after finally penning the post that has been haunting me for months, I took a long, hard look around my apartment. In my fridge, almost everything was wrapped in plastic – from the lettuce to eggs to tofu. Similarly in my cupboards – rice, pasta, noodles – all in plastic. And the same in my bathroom – shampoos, face washes, hand soap: plastic, plastic, plastic. And not knowing how to in Ho Chi Minh, I haven’t been recycling any of it (I’m working on this – more on that later). While I’m not sure where my rubbish goes, from the look of the local stretch of the Saigon River, I can guess.

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The Saigon river

And so, no longer able to pretend I don’t know what I know, I’ve set myself the challenge to go plastic free.

I don’t expect this to be easy. It is often excruciatingly hard work not to be given plastic with purchases, from bags to cutlery to straws to all manner of bizarre mini bags and flimsy films. Not known as one to shy away from a challenge, though, I’m game.

The first thing was to switch to buying my veg at the local market. Saigon is great for this – there are all manner of vegetables for sale on almost every street corner as well as eggs, meat, fish and tofu all without packaging. And so, armed with my reusable net bags (get yours from Coconam in Saigon) a sturdy canvas shopper and a plastic tub for tofu, I headed down to the street below my apartment and picked up my weekly shop. I was, without a shadow of a doubt, the strangest thing anybody had seen all day – very few foreigners brave the chaotic local markets for lack of language skills and fear of being overcharged. I can, however, report that all you need is the ability to point, smile and laugh – I think we all got a lot out of it. And if I was overcharged, I didn’t notice.

For dry goods I headed to Auchan, a French supermarket chain that has a few branches here in HCMC. At the Pham Van Dong branch I had heard that they have dispensers of nuts, beans, noodles and rice that you can fill your own containers with. My first purchase was almonds, which i filled a former (cleaned) peanut butter jar with. This prompted much hilarity at the till, as did my net bag full of noodles this weekend. Having seen me last week they were less surprised, however I suspect I am fast making a name for myself as the local crank.

 

Already the difference in my fridge is stark: it looks like a veritable vegetable market in there, which is very pleasing to the eye. My cupboards too are slowly shedding single use plastic thanks to Auchan, while I’m buying oils, vinegars, honey and spreads in glass bottles and jars. As for bread, I’m now heading to the bakery and transporting it home in either a paper bag from them or my own reusable bag.

I suspect there are some things I’m not going to be able to get without plastic packaging. This includes oats, which i eat almost every morning. If so I’ll be learning how to make rice porridge – which is delicious. Similarly, take aways are now out. I’ll be eating my own cooking at home or someone else’s in a restaurant or at a street food stall. Work lunches will no longer be taken from a carton over emails, while at home I’ll be getting to know my local eateries a little better while perhaps even improving my appalling Vietnamese. These are not unwelcome byproducts of going plastic free. (Indeed, one of my other eco realisations is that sustainably IS community. Again, more on that later).

Another unexpected benefit of ditching plastic is the way in which it has reduced choice. I’m sure I’m not alone in often being overwhelmed in supermarkets, my head spinning at the hundreds of different varieties of everything available. Now, though, I know exactly what I can get, where I can get it and at what time. This is oddly comforting. Plus, I’m not impulse buying snack food as I used to.

So: saving time and money, eating less crap and getting to know my local area and it inhabitants better: so far, going plastic free is working out alright.

Why I can’t go to the beach anymore

Living in Saigon, as I do, can get a little relentless and often requires a quick escape. Last weekend was mine, and I was booked to go to Phu Quoc: an island to the very south of Vietnam famed for its idyllic beaches and natural beauty.

As luck would have it, I came down with a fierce case of tonsilitis and couldn’t go. However – expecting to be bitterly disappointed – I was instead surprised to feel a quiet wave of relief wash over me. Through it, a small voice whispered: “Phew! Now you don’t have to see all the trash.”

As I was recently discussing with a French colleague, it is very difficult to convey to Europeans that have not been to Asia just how bad the global plastic pollution problem is.

At home, we are shielded from the realities of our packaging pandemic by efficient waste collection services. Here in the developing world though, these services are limited – if not entirely non-existent.

“It is difficult to convey to Europeans just how bad the plastic pollution problem is”

As such, with the exception of a few spots in Thailand, every single beach in every idyllic spot I have been to in Asia over the past two years has been littered with plastic trash – from bottles to food wrappers to take-away boxes to toothbrushes to car parts to fishing detritus to everything in between.

Sometimes it is lying on the shore, washed in on the tide from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating in between Asia and the US that is now reportedly three times the size of France. Other times, however, it is further back, sitting in half burned piles or floating in stinking, open sewage.

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March 2018: Varkala Beach in Kerala, India from above
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Open sewage drain strewn with trash below
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The smell is indescribable
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Half burned piles of plastic

This is particularly the case in India, where a complex web of caste expectations is combining with a complete dearth of waste management infrastructure to turn its beaches – and indeed, the entire country – into one, big rubbish dump. It is heartbreaking to witness.

And once pristine tourist destinations such as Bali are catching up. I recently spent a month on the Indonesian island and every beach I went to, without, exception, was littered with plastic trash; as were the roads, the forests and the gutters of the rice paddies.

Tourist trash has nowhere to go

My despair reached something of an epoch in September during a trip to Atuh Beach on Nusa Penida, an island to the east of Bali, where I came to a realisation about the nature of this pollution.

Atuh Beach is a sheltered cove, reached only via a steep climb down a cliff-face. Crystal clear, temperate waters that lap gently against powder soft, glaringly white sand await those that venture down to it, and accordingly it is a top spot for eager Instagram snappers.

What those photos won’t reveal, however, is the horror that sits behind the food huts that now line the beach serving the tourists that flock to Atuh regularly. Here, piled metres high, sit mountains of plastic waste.

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September 2018: Atuh Beach on Nusa Penida, Indonesia from the front
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And behind the huts
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Piles of permanent trash
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More burned plastic
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Heartbreaking

As I surveyed this mess, full of my usual despair, it occurred to me that – well of course –getting rubbish bins up from this beach might be an issue. Indeed, this was why (as in India) much of it had been burned, leaving small black mounds of toxic sludge scorched into the sand.

Poverty, inaction, thoughtlessness: a toxic trinity

My friend and I brooded on this for a few days.

“But why doesn’t this happen in Portugal?” she asked.

“The beaches there are spectacular – no food stalls or trash in sight.”

I thought about the UK, which is similar.

“It doesn’t happen,” I answered, “because Europeans wouldn’t sit out for ten hours a day in the blazing sun selling bottles of coke and hacking at coconuts.”

“Why not?”

I pondered. “Because they don’t need to. They’re not dirt poor. Plus there are laws against it – you can’t just throw up a stall and trash a beach in Europe.”

“This is happening because people are poor, governments allow it and tourists don’t think”

And then it dawned on me, a small lightbulb moment. This happens because people are poor and governments allow it rather than safeguarding both their citizens and their environments through laws that ease poverty and protect nature.

Add to this the thoughtlessness of tourists not used to having to face the consequences of their consumption in the developing world (a situation set to change as China stops accepting our plastic waste) and you have a Holy Trinity of Trash.

Ultimately, tourism in developing regions is creating devastating pollution through a toxic cycle of poverty, opportunism, government inaction and the ignorance and apathy of visitors. And every single tourist that buys a bottle of water on a beach is part of the problem – including me.