“Wow! It’s amazing. The straws are made from rice flour and are completely edible. They produce zero waste - we don’t need to throw them away anymore, Mom!”
The six-year-old girl could barely contain her excitement as she explained the straws to her mother on an autumn Sunday morning in a Hanoi coffee shop.
Phan Huyen, the girls' mother, is a familiar face at the three-year-old coffee shop in Ha Dong District. The main reason is the coffee shop use rice straws, not plastic or paper ones. Huyen is keen to teach her child about environmental responsibility.
“We are aware of eco-friendly consumption habits, but few can practice this in certain cases,” she told The Hanoi Times. “Straws are one of my child's favorite items to use, so I spent quite a lot of time finding green, safe products for us to use.”
The coffee shop in question, Tropical T Coffee, is owned by Nguyen Van Quynh. Quynh is one of a few who is voluntarily contributing to Hanoi’s goal to “say NO with plastic usage”, to meet the sustainable development goals of Vietnam.
Quynh said that one of the most used products at food & beverage shops is single-plastic straws. Used plastic straws are thrown into the environment, causing a surge in pollution in the city.
To reduce the pollution level, this coffee shop has taken action by serving drinks in glass cups with edible rice straws. The owner estimated a hundred kilograms of edible straws, equivalent to tens of thousands of plastic units, were used every month before the pandemic period.
After being used and disposed of, the rice straws become a source of food for organisms or nutrients for the soil. Quynh happily told The Hanoi Times: “I decided to choose rice straws for my customers and it has proven to be the right choice. Customers are satisfied with the products and services we are providing.”
Quynh’s coffee shop is just one of a few that are willing to pay for eco-friendly items at a higher price, such as rice straws. In the face of these existing challenges, companies manufacturing eco-friendly products in Hanoi are rare, even in the fast-growing country.
However, Eco Straws Vietnam Export, a Vietnamese rice straw maker, is hoping to break into the market. The company has two manufacturing factories in the northern provinces of Hai Duong and Nam Dinh.
Four years ago, 41-year-old Nguyen Huu Dai, CEO of Eco Straws Vietnam Export JSC, decided to pursue his desire for sustainability and left his job with a competitive income at a US company in Vietnam. His dream is to change the habits of plastic straw usage in Vietnam and other countries, so Dai decided to create edible straws from Vietnamese rice.
Plastic waste, including plastic straws, has been his concern for many years. “Plastic straws are a nightmare that destroys the marine environment, according to a CNN article. Statistics show that about 500 million straws are used every day in the US. Most of them are not recycled but thrown away, causing water pollution and killing marine life," he said.
He spent much time learning about technology and equipment, how to mix rice flour and even failing many times in the research and development process. He also lost more than VND700 million (US$30,750) in machinery investment due to his failures.
Dai’s great efforts paid off when the first rice straws were completed in 2019. The straws can withstand up to six hours of immersion in water. The color of the product is completely natural, thanks to materials such as turmeric, sticky leaves, beetroot, and butterfly pea.
However, a question that he has often had to ask himself is: how to quickly spread his environmentally-friendly products to the green consumer community? The domestic market is part of his business plan and exporting also important.
Since the establishment of the company, Dai has been fully prepared, in terms of infrastructure and legal procedures, to bring his products to the international market. He invested in building modern factories with an area of 3,500 m2 and a design capacity of up to 20 million units per month.
Before the pandemic, in December 2019, he successfully exported the first shipment of three tons of rice straws to Canada and received good feedback from his partners.
Now his rice straws are available in tough markets such as the US, Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan and Australia. Thanks to this, revenue and net profit this year are estimated to have increased by 15% compared to the previous year.
Germany, where the European government banned the consumption of single-use plastic products from July, is a potential, but highly demanding, market for the Vietnamese maker.
By the time of the fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company was exporting a 40-foot-container to Germany for the first time. In September when social distancing rules in Hanoi and other localities were eased, the company exported more containers to France, Switzerland, and Japan.
Nguyen Van Duc, CEO of the newly-established Na!Goodies GmbH, is Dai's key partner in Germany. Duc graduated from a German university with a major in sustainable development from Bochum City.
He shared that rice straws are very new in the German market, so the demand is high. “These straws last long in water and have no taste, which is very important for European customers when they chose how to enjoy their drinks,” Duc told The Hanoi Times.
In addition, the German market pays attention to energy sources used in the production process and the working conditions and wages of workers at the facility.
“The requirements are met by the Vietnamese maker, such as the factory using solar energy and ensuring the safety for workers,” Duc added.
“Once consumers in Germany are fully aware of the origin of the products and the working conditions of the workers, they are willing to become loyal customers,” he emphasized.
He expected the made-in-Vietnam rice straws will be widely distributed through restaurants, hotels or bars in the coming time. Na!Goodies GmbH will bring these products to wholesale supermarkets such as Metro and other large supermarkets.
The CEO of the German company hopes that the rice products will be designed with variety, to help consumers have more options to replace plastic items and reduce the amount of waste produced.
Currently, products such as cups, knives, forks, spoons, stir sticks and bowls are in the process of research and testing, and the Vietnamese maker hopes they will be available from next year, depending on the pandemic situation.
“The global economy and supply chain may be stabilized by the end of 2022 or the second half of 2023. Consumption demand will increase and export orders are expected to increase too,” Dai shared.
“Thus, we will have the opportunity to help many farmers in Vietnam sell more rice and other agricultural products, ensuring a stable and better income for them. I want to bring Vietnamese agricultural products to new heights,” he happily said.
Although production still faces many obstacles, the company’s priority is still to target young Vietnamese people with the expectation that they will become a green consumer generation. Before the pandemic, the company even donated around 3-5 tons of rice straws products to students at schools in Hanoi.
In Dai's view, young people are the primary target audience for his rice products to help replace the use of single-use plastic items around the world.
Recognizing the cost of his products is 15-20% higher than plastic ones, the rice straw maker said the company is on a journey to change awareness around the use of plastic.
He added: “We have provided free straws to restaurants and hotels in Hanoi and some localities over the past years, and many of them decided to replace plastic straws in their entire system.”
Recently, he also saw a surge in the number of local individuals and organizations who have put in orders. “Sales are 10% higher than previous years, it is a good result towards achieving zero waste,” he said.
According to Dai’s survey, nearly 35,000 coffee shops and many restaurants, hotels and supermarkets across the Southeast Asian country will be a target for him to approach in the near future.
“I continue to look for partners with the hope of bringing environmentally-friendly products to consumers and reducing plastic waste on the planet,” he said.
His edible products are a zero-waste solution. People must be urged to limit their use of plastic, though there is not yet a roadmap for banning single-use plastic items in Vietnam.
The Global Plastics Action Partnership (GPAP) estimated that around 3.7 million tons of plastic waste are generated in Vietnam each year, a figure that is projected to increase by 36% between 2018 and 2030. Only around 10-15% of Vietnam’s plastic waste is collected for recycling.
To change the issue, the country’s National Assembly on December 4, 2020, revised and approved the Law on Environment Protection, with specific provisions on solid waste management and plastic waste management in particular.
Under Prime Minister’s Decision No.1746, the country has pledged to meet three major targets by 2030, namely reducing the flow of plastics into the ocean by 75%, completely eliminating single-use plastics and non-biodegradable plastic bags from coastal destinations, and ensuring that marine protected areas are free of plastic waste.
According to Vietnam Zero Waste Alliance (VZWA), Vietnam is currently labelled as among the top five countries that are leaking plastic pollution into oceans. “We cannot solve plastic problems by focusing solely on waste treatment solutions. It is time to look at the waste sources and lock the plastic valve to prevent pollution,” Dr. Quach Thi Xuan, Country Coordinator of VZWA underlined.
Recently, VZWA proposed a roadmap for banning single-use plastic products, based on several criteria of the Vietnam National Plastics Action Partnership - a collaboration platform for many World Economic Forum’s members to fulfill commitments to reduce plastic pollution and develop a circular economy.