Innovative Program To Rescue Tons Of ‘Orphan Plastics’ Along Vietnam’s Coastline
It is sadly a common sight along the otherwise pristine beaches of Vietnam’s 2,000-plus miles of coastline: a seemingly endless stream of plastic refuse strewn across the shore and floating in the shallows.
Vietnam is one of the world’s largest sources of plastic waste, with an estimated 2,500 tons discharge daily across the country. What doesn’t end up in the ocean goes into landfills, or is simply burnt in open pits.
Much of what ends up on the beaches is sometimes known as “orphan plastics”, single-use plastic that is too lightweight and of too little value to be collected and recycled. And value matters, because nearly all of the recycling in Vietnam is done by individual pickers.
It is impossible to know how many tens of thousands of people derive all or part of their income from collecting recyclables, but it is a common sight in every village, town and city throughout the country.
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However, the pickers look for high-value items like cans, plastic bottle and cardboard. The process is driven by market value, so a new program that kicked off early in 2021 is developing a solution for orphan plastics in Vietnam.
The program is called TonToTon and is currently in action in two island communities off the coast of southern Vietnam. It essentially works by creating a market for orphan plastics by which it can be collected, processed and then used in the manufacturing of cement.
“With this solution, we are solving two big problems,” said TonToTon program founder and director Barak Ekshtein, “we are reducing CO2 emissions, and we are also removing previously non-recyclable waste from the environment.”
Another feature of the program involves helping corporate companies to achieve plastic neutrality, to take responsibility for their own plastic footprint.
Corporate supporters can purchase plastic credits, or offsets; and then the equivalent tonnage will be collected and recycled by TonToTon.
In this fashion, companies can offset the plastics that they use, and reduce or neutralize their plastic footprint. Their products will bear a ‘Plastic Neutralized’ symbol in return.
But how does the company supporting the program or their customers know the plastic has indeed been collected by TonToTon? A third-part auditing body is used to verify the amount of plastic collected on the ground, and then certificates for each amount are issued under the international Ocean Bound Plastic Neutrality Standard.
TonToTon is currently operating on Phu Quoc and Hon Son islands. The former is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, so keeping beaches clean will have potential flow-on economic benefits for the many thousands of people employed in the tourism and relevant industries.
The program relies on the individual pickers mentioned earlier, but works in the local community to contract them and provide training. Personal protective equipment (PPE), and even health insurance, are provided to the pickers too.
Their plan is to expand the program across Vietnam and also to other countries in Southeast Asia. And to do this, Ekshtein and his team are working toward building capability in these communities to be able to not just collect plastics that are bound to be abandoned at the sea, but also process them.
That will involve drying and shredding the materials before they can be used by local cement factories. In this way, it becomes a completely local undertaking that provides income to the community and reduces plastic waste for the world.
It is an elegant solution, at least in small part, to a vexing problem the world over. And Ekshtien admitted his initiative cannot be the only solution.
“Companies must also have a strategy to reduce the number of unnecessary plastics they use in the first place, and invest in looking for new reusable materials,” he said.