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.

Plastic pollution: cropped out of sight, but not out of mind

Tourists and travellers don’t talk about – and certainly never take pictures of – the heartbreaking pollution that exists in the developing world. But we need to.

The one thing that absolutely no tourist or traveller talks about – and certainly never takes pictures of – is the heartbreaking level of pollution that exists in the developing world. So keen are we to boast to our friends and family of the exponential, life changing experiences we are having that we crop out – both consciously and unconsciously – the tragic filth we see around us every day.

For six months in 2017 I lived on Bui Huu Nghia in an area called Binh Thanh in Ho Chi Minh city, a riverside area largely populated by older local people and young, white expats like me looking for the ‘authentic’ Vietnamese life. In this area authenticity looks like this: great food that costs nothing but that is guaranteed to give you gastroenteritis roughly every three weeks; many, many rats, cockroaches and – if you’re lucky – huntsman spiders the size of your father’s outstretched hand that will keep you safe from both, at least inside of your house. And the arse-end of the Saigon River.

“Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes, it all finds it way into Saigon River”

Those that have only ever stayed in district 1 – the central business and tourist district of HCMC – will know the Saigon River as a fairly benign feature of the city – generally lazy and abundantly populated by water chestnuts floating up from the Mekong. Anyone in Binh Thanh, however, will know it as a stinking, belching, tar pit of refuse that gives off the most appalling stench that even a two minute crossing is a life changing experience. And why the difference? The authorities – in their wisdom – put nets up at either end of the part that flows through district 1 to keep the pollution in the poorer districts.

The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown
The Saigon River, as seen from Chinatown

In Binh Thanh, the whole waterway is now almost entirely artificial. So obsessive are the Vietnamese about plastic bags, cups and straws that new river banks are created by the hour. Plastic bags inside plastic bags, bubble tea straws the size of copper pipes that funnel 20g of sugar a pop that is fast making children obese and diabetic – it all finds it way into Saigon River. It is heartbreaking to see an old woman rowing through carrier bags, straws, sewage and used nappies to reach her riverside house – now less than a rubbish tip.

On a visit to Cat Ba island in the north of the country I visited a number of beaches – every single one was awash with plastic rubbish. It comes from both holidaymakers and the distant floating villages, where fisherman thoughtlessly toss plastic wrappers into the ocean – ultimately poisoning the fish that are their livelihood, as well as those that eat them. On one beach I met a group of young local boys and a Sicilian backpacker that were swimming out to fill bags with rubbish. The latter told me he had been collecting for just an hour and had filled four large white straw sacks around a metre high and half a metre wide.

“In Delhi and Mumbai you truly cannot see the sky for the greasy smog”

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh and the south especially – is blessed by a geographical position that means the air pollution that comes from the astonishing number of motorbikes on the road (in both HCMC and Hanoi there are two motorbikes for every citizen) doesn’t linger. This is not so in Delhi and Mumbai where you – quite literally – cannot see the sky for the heavy, grey smog that makes an already oppressive heat quite unbearable – particularly in the latter city. This inescapable evidence of environmental degradation makes it all the more frustrating to see the arsenal of plastic rubbish that carpets India’s most ancient monuments, such as Elephanta Island – a UNESCO world heritage site covered in empty water bottles.

Elephanta Island, Mumbai
Elephanta Island, Mumbai. A UNESCO world heritage site.

As a privileged white European, my experience in the developing world was the first time I have been faced by pollution of any meaningful quantity. Over the last 40 years Europe and the West has outsourced its manufacturing and by extension, our pollution and industrial waste to these regions. Many also labour under corrupt governments that do not build the infrastructure that can solve waste challenges as long as they are being incentivised by Western companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola not to do so. If Vietnamese and Indians could drink their tap water, their plastic waste problem would be halved overnight.

Since returning home it seems that we in Europe are waking up – excellent campaigns by Sky News and latterly Blue Planet are highlighting the irreversible damage we are doing to our oceans through our addiction to plastic. I have seen how disturbingly easy it is for us to sit back in our – truly – green and pleasant European lands and simply not see. And tourists that choose to crop out pollution from their holiday snaps do not help. During my whole year travelling and living in the developing world I took less than five photos of the terrible pollution I saw. I have published them here. And I call on all travellers to do the same.

“It’s time to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it”

Meanwhile, I have made a firm pledge to change my own behaviour: I will not buy a single disposable water bottle or coffee cup again. I carry both a water bottle and travel mug with me at all times. I am also reducing waste – and saving money – by taking my own lunches to work and I will not use a plastic bag unless there is absolutely no choice. It’s time to open our eyes – to see and to acknowledge the rubbish – and to do something about it.

Mumbai weather forecast
Mumbai weather forecast