Vietnam tests waters for plastic credits to fight marine pollution

Coastal plastic: Vietnam is among the top five countries that send litter to sea, along with China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, according to Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Washington. (Source photos by Reuters)

New approach takes page from carbon trading but fears remain of ‘greenwashing’.

HO CHI MINH CITY – It’s just a reusable bag, and few people will be as excited as Barak Ekshtein when he sees it produced in a Vietnamese factory for a French grocery store. Environmentalists were attracted by the design of the blue-and-orange ocean view and the message that it was made of recovered ocean plastic.

He later discovered that not all of the materials came from recycled sources, but the bag made him curious about marine plastic, which ultimately led to the question: What if businesses paid to offset their plastic waste, as they do for carbon pollution? To answer that question, he started the Tontoton company in 2019. Businesses pay a fee for every tonne of plastic they produce. Tontoton then used the money to employ scavengers, who collect plastic waste of the same weight in Vietnam – the No. 4 in the world and co-hosting United Nations negotiations to reach a global treaty on plastics.

Regarding the carbon credit scheme, the plastic credit brings Tontoton into the global debate about increasing pollution that has hit the planet. Is plastic recycling successful? How much can be replaced with compost material? Will society make a sacrifice, if these improvements are not enough, by consuming less? As plastic is found in more and more places – from mother’s wombs to floating piles of trash the size of Mongolia – companies are getting interested in ways to offset plastic waste, driven by customs or public pressure, or both.

Southeast Asia is a major contributor to land-based plastic waste leaking into the world’s oceans, with more than half of it coming from four nations – Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand – along with China, the top single polluter.

Coca-Cola and BASF, the world’s largest chemical producers, told Nikkei Asia that they would wait to see how the offsets program progressed. Tontoton said such programs only exist in Vietnam, while Plastic Bank runs similar programs in Indonesia and the Philippines, and the Plastic Collective covers Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. But the concept is so new that most companies have yet to take a position, focusing their efforts on other approaches.

Starbucks says it is reducing its use of plastic straws by up to one billion per year, for example, while Vietnamese plastics maker An Phat Holdings says its priority is to produce biodegradable plastic. Groups like Tontoton have to prove plastic credits reduce waste or their program will backfire, letting companies pay the fees to “claim they are taking action without making substantial changes to their business,” the World Wildlife Fund said.

“Plastic credit, it’s a very new market,” Ekshtein said in a recent interview in his office, tucked away in an alley flanked by cannonball trees and sunlit houses. “It’s like a startup, we’re still bootstrapping.” His new company is targeting the worst litter in the ocean, which is called plastic orphaned because it cannot be recycled. Scavengers found single-use plastics along the cyan waters that circle Vietnam’s Phu Quoc and Hon Son islands. Their goal is to collect 5,000 tonnes a year and send it to INSEE, part of Semen Siam City, to be burned for energy.

This cleaning program has sprung up globally because of doubts about recycling, which once seemed like a win-win idea because consumers could continue to consume and the environment could be preserved. But instead, for decades, the public believed its plastics were recycled, only to find that 91% of them were not, according to a study in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, which assessed all plastics from 1950-2015. Vietnam is the focus of the cleanup campaign because it is among the top five countries sending waste to the sea, along with China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, according to Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based non-profit organization. The main caveat, however, is that these Asian countries are getting this marker because they import so much waste for processing from around the world.

Ekshtein predicts Vietnam will drop out of the top five, partly through the work of organizations like Tontoton, which hopes to turn a profit by the end of 2021. He declined to name clients, but acknowledged the risks of “greenwashing,” where companies mask their brands with environmentally friendly marketing and other. WWF has remained on the fence about plastic offsets, warning in a January report that companies could pay credit “while still polluting their own supply chains.” Ironically, people can feel less guilty about plastic waste by buying offsets, and thus continue to consume, the international environmental group said.

To avoid this trap, Tontoton said the client signed a letter committing to several strategies beyond offsets, including plastic replacement and reduction. Companies help them offset or “neutralize” used plastic, but these are not “vacation cars” to avoid wider responsibilities, Ekshtein said. Plastic neutralization cannot solve the problem by itself, he said. Elsewhere, plastic credit programs are also starting to attract business. Adidas and Allbirds use marine plastic in their shoes, while tableware company Green Chef buys credit for plastics collected in Southeast Asia.

“While we are not currently buying plastic credits, we are committed to exploring well-designed initiatives that will help reduce and eliminate plastic waste,” said Coca-Cola Asia. “We engage with partners such as the World Wildlife Fund and others as they explore best practices for plastic crediting.”

Other companies say they are taking alternative steps.

“Starbucks is committed to being a positive resource, providing more than is needed from the planet,” the coffee chain said in a statement, pointing to straw-free lids and paper straws. When asked whether to consider plastics credits, the company said, “We are continuing to explore all solutions around reuse and recycling” with partners across Asia.

The biggest solution will likely come from the UN Environment Assembly, which aims to reach an international agreement on plastics, in the spirit of the Paris Climate Agreement. Before the assembly meeting in February, four countries from four continents were selected to co-host this year’s preliminary talks: Ecuador, Germany, Ghana and Vietnam. While Hanoi urges other countries for a consensus on fighting plastic, companies in home countries disagree on the way forward.

One Phat, who exports biodegradable plastic from Vietnam to 70 countries, said single-use plastics are sometimes unavoidable, such as for medical or food safety. In that case, acting deputy CEO Nguyen Le Thang Long said it was helpful to have polymers that “can be broken down by microorganisms into water, carbon dioxide and biomass.” This is especially true in places with weak recycling rates or high leakage rates into the environment, but efforts are needed, he said. “We strongly agree that a strong national reduction in use and waste management is the best solution to the plastic pollution crisis,” Long told Nikkei Asia.

BASF Germany’s local office has expressed interest in plastic offsets, but prefers to have plastics recycled, not burned. “It is important for us to ensure that there are generally accepted standards for recycling credits, which ensure that plastic waste is recycled into a high quality product and not recycled,” said a spokesperson.

Time will tell whether credit has a big impact or, like the shopping bag Ekshtein found, it turns out to be less than promised.