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The Face of Plastic in Viet Nam (Part 1 of 2)

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During the summer of 2010, I spent two and half months in Viet Nam, where I conducted field research for my Master’s thesis. I looked at people’s perceptions of water and the ways in which the waters of the Mekong Delta get polluted. As a developing country that is trying, like many others, to expand economically, the environment often times gets abused. With the growth of commerce and consumerism, materialism is at a high, at the expense of the natural resources found in Viet Nam and elsewhere. I will update this slideshow with my research findings when that time comes.

For now, this slideshow features my observations about plastic usage in Viet Nam, starting with the post below.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The other day, when I was sitting at a vegetarian food stall in a bustling market in Chau Doc, Viet Nam, I started thinking about the "face of plastic" in this developing country. I’ve been based in Viet Nam for almost three weeks now, talking to people about water, agriculture, education, and environmental pollution. I hadn't thought that deeply about plastic, aside from minimizing my use of it while I was here (which has proven to be problematic, since people find it strange when I refuse a bag, and so, usually, they just ignore my request). I had the following conversation once:

Me (in Vietnamese): Don't need bag; no worries.
Vendor: It'll make things look cleaner, for sanitary reasons.
Me: Save it, you can save the money. ::Smiles::
Vendor: It's my bag to give away, my money. You don't worry.
Me: ::Walking away, with my goods, bagged up::

Back to me at the market. As I was surveying the happenings of this market, I became overwhelmed by the ubiquitous presence of plastic, in its various forms, that surrounded me. Practically everyone was interacting with plastic.

Every vendor (from those selling fruits to vegetables to meat to noodles to household goods) had bags of plastic, ready to use for their customers. Every shopper had bags of plastic in their hands. Even the food vendor in front of me was slushing hot noodle soup into a plastic bag, and then putting that plastic bag into another plastic bag.

This scene of my time in the market also features me sitting on a plastic chair, eating at a plastic table, slurping my tea from a plastic straw, while a pile of cheap plastic toys lay in a heap, waiting to get sold at the stall next to me.

The only people who didn't seem to be interacting directly with plastic were those trying to make ends meet by selling lottery tickets.

This slideshow features images and commentary about the face of plastic in Viet Nam. Despite some of the snarkier comments that sound as if they’re unique to Vietnamese society, please note that plastic is a major environmental issue around the globe -- in both developed countries like the United States and developing countries like Viet Nam.

Part 2 of the slideshow, about plastic waste is also available.

Large lotus and banana leaves were commonly used to hold food goods. Even though fresh noodles are still wrapped in a big lotus leaf, they then go into a plastic bag. People here have gotten used relying on plastic, since they feel it is sanitary and convenient.
Hot and cold food and drinks, in solid or liquid form, are commonly use small, clear plastic bags as containers. Vendors have perfected making sure that hot things don’t completely melt the plastic bags. These are the most common form of the “to-go” container.
When little plastic bags aren’t used, really thin, cheap plastic cups can be found.
Of course, there are plenty of bottled drinks. The lemon iced tea drink (on the right) is very popular with adults and kids alike.
Going shopping? Similar to stores in the United States, people don’t bring their own bags…since they can count on every vendor at the market to have plastic bags.
Looking to buy clothes? There are plenty that are individually wrapped in plastic.
Need to buy shampoo, conditioner, or body wash? There are plenty of stalls that hang lines and lines of individually wrapped, plastic, disposable sachets of those soapy goods.

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