EU-Vietnam cooperation to take on plastic and marine pollution

December 09, 2021 | 10:38
Vietnam, together with Ecuador, Germany, and Ghana, co-chaired the Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution at the World Trade Organization in Geneva in September 2021, where the nation committed to continue paying special attention to urgent issues such as marine litter, plastic consumption, and pollution. Meanwhile, several initiatives in Vietnam are already tackling the issue – among them a cooperation project between Vietnam and the European Union.
EU-Vietnam cooperation to take on plastic and marine pollution
EU-Vietnam cooperation to take on plastic and marine pollution

At the opening session of the conference, Nguyen Que Lam, deputy director general of the Vietnam Administration of Seas and Islands under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment emphasised that plastic pollution and marine litter are becoming urgent global issues, threatening ecosystems, the environment, and habitats of humans and other species alike. In that regard, the world would need to work together and find urgent solutions to tackle this serious challenge before it is too late.

Human activities and rapid economic development, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, entailed not only global warming but also air, water, and land pollution on a massive scale, with some specific types of pollutants, such as noise, toxic chemicals, and plastics becoming ever-increasing issues.

Production and consumption patterns have mostly developed in a linear way, in which natural resources are extracted and transformed into products that sooner or later end up as waste. A switch towards a more circular economy is, therefore, necessary to reduce pollution and mitigate climate change. In a circular economy, resources are used more sustainably and as long as possible. Products, for example, are designed to last longer, to be easier to repair, remanufactured or upgraded, and to be recycled and reused.

A world full of plastics

To reduce plastic pollution, the circular economy has become an essential approach. A study by Geyer et al. from 2017 estimated that annual global plastic production between 1950 and 2015 grew from around two to about 380 million tonnes. They further estimated that of all plastic waste produced until 2015, about 79 per cent ended up on landfills or in the natural environment while only 9 per cent were recycled and 12 per cent incinerated.

According to United Nations’ estimates, about 60-90 per cent of marine litter consists of plastics. Marine littering is a growing global threat to marine ecosystems and the tourism and fisheries sectors. Plastics are especially harmful to the environment because they do not break down easily, and sea life can ingest, choke upon, or become trapped in plastic waste.

In recent years, the UN Environment Assembly has become a major global forum for the fight against plastic pollution. It adopted several resolutions on marine plastic pollution – the last in 2019. Since then, several countries have committed to support a negotiation mandate for a global plastics agreement to be discussed at the next UN Environment Assembly session in February 2022.

Vietnam has been at the forefront. At the Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, the participating countries called for a global agreement to enhance coordinated action, provide financial resources, and act along the whole life cycle of plastics. With Decision No.1407/QD-TTg issued on August 16, 2021, Vietnam’s commitment to preparing a global agreement on marine plastic pollution was endorsed by the prime minister. It includes building negotiating capacity, necessary databases, and stakeholder coordination mechanisms.

Such a global agreement would add to already existing national and regional action plans on marine litter in East and Southeast Asia. In May, ASEAN published its Regional Action Plan for Combatting Marine Debris, which followed the Bangkok Declaration on Marine Debris of 2019.

Stepping up efforts against plastic pollution

Recognising the need in addressing the global plastic waste crisis, the Vietnamese government aims to reduce plastic pollution within the country, too. Last year, the prime minister issued Directive No.33/CT-TTg on strengthening the reduction, classification, collection, recycling, and treatment of plastic waste. In the same year, Vietnam stated its ambition of “preventing, controlling and significantly mitigating marine environmental pollution” and “being a regional pioneer in reducing ocean plastic waste” in its development strategy for the maritime economy.

A new National Action Plan on Marine Plastic Management of 2020 sets the ambitious targets to reduce marine plastic waste by 50 per cent in 2025 and 75 per cent in 2030. Meanwhile, the National Action Plan for Solid Waste Management targets a full replacement of plastic packaging by eco-friendly alternatives. In July 2021, the government issued Decision No.1316/QD-TTg approving the scheme for strengthening the management of plastic waste in Vietnam, which shows determination in reducing single-use plastic bags and improving the reuse and recycling of plastic waste. It targets fully eco-friendly bags and packaging at shopping centres and supermarkets, as well as the collection, reuse, recycling, and treatment of 85 per cent of plastic waste by 2025.

EU-Vietnam cooperation

On the other side of the globe, the EU has also taken significant steps to reduce plastic pollution. The EU’s Plastics Strategy of 2018 envisages making all plastic packaging reusable and recyclable by 2030. In June 2019, the EU adopted far-reaching regulations, including a ban on certain single-use plastic products such as cutlery, plates, straws, and Styrofoam food and beverage containers, which are often found at European beaches. It also bans oxo-degradable plastics, which break down into microplastics, thereby still harming organisms. As part of its European Green Deal and new Action Plan on Circular Economy, the EU currently investigates minimum recycled content quotas in new products to boost plastic recycling and restricting microplastics in products.

With these initiatives on the agenda, Vietnam and the EU can learn from each other and strive towards a circular economy for plastics.

“Overall, reducing plastics in the environment needs to be a joint effort. This is why we need to engage with a variety of international and national stakeholders ranging from policy, the academia, and research community to businesses and other organisations,” stated Rui Ludovino, first counsellor of Climate Action, Environment, Employment, and Social Policies at the Delegation of the EU to Vietnam.

The international cooperation project “Rethinking Plastics – Circular Economy Solutions to Marine Litter”, funded by the EU and the German government and implemented by German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) and Expertise France, seeks to enhance this exchange between East and Southeast Asia and Europe. In Vietnam, it cooperates with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE), the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Ministry of Transport, as well as local authorities and other partners.

Together with the Institute of Strategy and Policy on Natural Resources and Environment, the Rethinking Plastics project created for example a Plastic Alliance among supermarkets in Hanoi to reduce single-use plastic bags. With other partner organisations, Rethinking Plastics also contributes to developing a scheme for the voluntary collection of marine litter by the fishing community and improving ship waste management in Vietnamese ports, such as the one in Cat Lai, part of Saigon New Port.

“The fight against plastic pollution is a global challenge, where each ministry, each city and province, and each actor in society has a role to play. The dialogue with our partners at the ministerial level is essential, allowing us to identify needs and next steps. But public authorities cannot meet these challenges alone, and exchange and expertise from other stakeholders prove very valuable to jointly work on solutions,” explained Fanny Quertamp, senior adviser for Vietnam at Expertise France.

Holding companies accountable

An area, in which this approach is especially important, is the development of a legal framework on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Last November, the Vietnamese government and parliament enacted the amended Law on Environmental Protection, which includes the ambition towards EPR, thus aiming to make companies responsible for managing waste associated with packaging and other types of products such as electronics, tires, and vehicles they put on the market.

The MoNRE is finalising a decree outlining the detailed roles and responsibilities of private companies and public agencies. Based on international experience, EPR could enhance separate collection and recycling of packaging waste, including plastics.

The Rethinking Plastics project has been contributing to this process through sharing international experience and knowledge, such as through a policy brief, on EPR for packaging waste and prepared a localised version of the EPR Toolbox developed by the PREVENT Waste Alliance. Together with the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, pilot activities in Ho Chi Minh City aim to increase the collection, sorting, and recycling of plastic packaging and reduce its leakage into the environment. With the data and experience collected, the pilot activities can contribute knowledge about suitable options for the development of EPR for packaging.

During the next months, the project and the MoNRE will organise training sessions in Hanoi, Danang, and Ho Chi Minh City to promote knowledge exchange about EPR. A study on the role of different stakeholders along the packaging value chain with recommendations for the integration of informal and formal actors in the future EPR scheme and a handbook for recyclers to support Vietnamese small- and medium-enterprises with guidance on mechanical recycling will also be published shortly.

“Much progress has already been achieved, but there is still a lot of work on which we are looking forward to cooperating,” said Quertamp. “While the new Law on Environmental Protection and the EPR decree include regulations on plastics recycling, specific standards are yet to be developed. We will also share EU experience on ecolabels and standards for products containing recycled plastics. This will support the development of relevant green standards under Vietnam’s general policy framework on sustainable production and consumption.”

By Etienne Mahler

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