Making “Zero Waste” Cool in Vietnam

Nicole Portley
Date: December 13, 2020

Professor Nhan Nguyen brings his passion for reducing plastic waste into the classroom at RMIT University in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Climate change and plastic pollution are the environmental issues of our time,” Nhan says. “Vietnam doesn’t contribute much to climate change, but we are a major contributor to plastic pollution. I want my students to know about these problems, and to understand how they can be part of the solution.”

In addition to his day job as a professor of management, Nhan Nguyen runs waste-focused NGO Vietnam Clean and Green and raises awareness of plastic pollution by taking tourists fishing for trash on the Saigon River. He also developed a refillables-by-scooter business concept called “Refill Day” to bring products like hand soap and cooking oil to consumers without wasteful plastic packaging. With this idea he is currently a finalist in the United Nations plastic pollution innovation challenge.

Let’s keep building a strong global movement to fight plastic pollution. Will you make a generous year-end gift today to support creative local leaders like Professor Nhan Nguyen?

Young people under 35 comprise about 50% of the population in Vietnam, and getting their attention is critical to fighting plastic pollution. To get them involved, Professor Nhan is trying to show his students that environmental action can be a good career choice.

Last summer, Professor Nhan offered his students a unique challenge: Instead of promoting the products of some of the world’s worst polluters, he asked his students to come up with ideas to make zero waste cool among their peers.

Tasked to design and implement a communications campaign with a budget of under $500, two groups of students tried to identify what motivates their peers to get them to act.

Pacific Environment is partnering with RMIT University to develop a nationwide campus campaign that makes it cool among students to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle. We are planning to scale up this campaign and implement it on campuses across Vietnam in 2021. Click here to watch a video of one of the students’ campaign concepts.

“Recent research shows that our generation is motivated by fear,” said Huan Truong, one of the students. “We are apprehensive of the future and want to do the right thing. So we came up with the idea of an animated video that would tap into that fear—like fear of the toxic effects of plastic on our health, for example—to motivate change.”

Other ideas included a short “What’s in your bag?” challenge, asking students to reveal the contents of their bags and awarding a price to those who carry reusable and refillable items; and a paint-by-numbers style mural in the campus canteen that students would construct themselves with single-use plastic waste to focus their attention on all the items that they are throwing out each day. Each group also prepared concepts for zero waste campus campaign videos that would be posted on university social media and run on campus television screens.

Combining the best elements of both, the students launched their campaign on the RMIT campus in October.

“The Wall of Plastic mural is the centerpiece,” Truong says. “When people pin their bottle caps onto the wall, we engage them and invite them over to our booth to learn more. We think that over the course of the semester we can reach a majority of the 7,000 students with our campaign videos and activities, and engage 200–300 students on a deeper level.”

The idea of “zero waste” is to prevent waste and ensure that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to end up in landfills, incinerators or the ocean.

Professor Nhan agrees that this campaign has the potential to inspire meaningful change.

“We have had students come through our program that are now well-known social media celebrities. They can help us with this campaign by appearing in our videos and promotions to expand our reach,” he says. “Packing your bag with refillable and reusable containers might seem unfamiliar now, but when celebrities model these behaviors, they can quickly become mainstream.”