I was presented with the opportunity to spread a message.
Coming to Vietnam, like many other expats, I was set to lead a good life and make an earnest living teaching English. In the ~75 days I’ve been here I’ve come to experience some major differences between the Swedish and Vietnamese way of life.
The day I decided to take the leap from teaching English to engaging in environmental issues boils down to an encounter at the beach – I was pondering the fact that all life on earth comes from the sea. In a way, it’s our common ancestor or if you’d permit it, the mother of all life on earth.
As my daydream progressed I suddenly swallowed half a wave of ocean water and my thoughts took a different turn. I felt disgust as I imagined all possible chemicals and other dangerous things that I was now carrying in my body.
Then, reality struck me.
“If I feel this disturbed by one small involuntary gulf up of seawater, then maybe the time to act really is due?”
With this question, I think my aspiration to do something began. My first step was realizing that I did not know enough, or close to anything about the subject. So I started with contacting ‘Environment for Development in Vietnam’ and some of their staff was kind enough to sit down, have a meeting with me and fuel my curiosity.
Soon I came to realize that, aside from filthy streets and beaches, clogged rivers and destroyed habitats, there is a deeper issue. All the plastics that end up in the ocean form what could be referred to as giant floating islands in the middle of the sea. Here, the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces called micro-plastics. The main issue with micro-plastics is basically that the smaller they get the more places they can access. Specifically, deep into the food chain. Small creatures eat small pieces, then larger creatures eat the small ones, and the cycle repeats all the way to human consumption; disrupting Ecosystems – The network that supports the whole of life on earth.
According to Vietnam’s Association of Plastic, each Vietnamese consumed 3.8 kg of plastic per year by 1990. 25 years later, in 2015, the number increased to 41 kg!
Kara Lavender Law, An oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole states that “The very nature of micro-plastics makes cleanup impossible. They are so tiny and so widespread that there is no way to remove them from the seas. The best solution is to prevent more plastic from reaching the ocean.”
How does all this plastic end up in the ocean?
Most of the plastic in our oceans is not dumped there. It turns out that 90% of the plastics that end up in the ocean come from just 10 rivers . The Mekong River is ranked 10th largest plastic to ocean distributor in the world on that list, which is not surprising since Vietnam annually discards more than 30 billion plastic bags, ranking it the fourth largest plastic polluter in Asia .
How can we prevent all this plastic from reaching the ocean?
While Rwanda has ALREADY gone as far as putting a total ban on plastic bags and packaging, others such as France have announced a similar ban to take place by 2020. Most of the rest of the world still has a long way to go. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Vietnam aims to null the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags at supermarkets and shopping malls by 2026 and to reduce the use by 65 per cent by 2020. If anything it’s a step in the right direction. But even though political framework is necessary, there is nothing preventing us from making conscious decisions in our day-to-day life, right now.
Which are these decisions, and how do I make them?
1) Become aware of the problem.
The environmental issue is a consciousness issue. Finish reading this article and watch some documentaries to open your eyes. I’ve never been as heartbroken by anything as by seeing the negative effects of plastic pollution – especially on wild life. Open yourselves up to the possibility that “holy shit, this is actually happening” and embrace the feeling of despair and then transform that feeling into fuel for action.
2) Take responsibility!
I am personally coming to realize that the biggest threat to solving any problem is the idea that “someone else will do it”. Remember this the next time you finish your cà phê đá, and find a bin! Throwing something in a bin hopefully prevents it from reaching the ocean. If we keep our filth of the streets, we take a first step towards keeping it out of the ocean.
3) Be a beacon of change.
A practical way to reduce your plastic consumption is to reduce, reuse and recycle: Skip the straw when drinking your next smoothie, bring a reusable bag when shopping and always recycle what can be recycled. The use-and-toss culture is not sustainable. We only have one planet. If we use it we lose it.
In the end, only you can decide if you want to be the kind of person that in the next few decades will be able to look back with sincerity and say “I did my best”.
Richard Azar is currently a music producer at Azardaily.com and also an English Teacher at Cleverlearn in Vietnam
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