Plastic Waste in Vietnam: We Throw Away a Shitload of Plastic

I’m never going to Highlands Coffee ever again. And I’m writing at least 1000 words to explain why. But before we continue, here’s an oldie but goodie:

If you haven’t seen this yet, you’re welcome

Vietnam has got awesome beaches, vast swathes of jungle, awesome national parks, and a bunch of hills and mountains to explore. And with 100 million people, it’s definitely not a small country. It’s quite unfortunate then that Vietnam has also been increasing it’s use of plastics – with some estimating per capita plastic waste increasing more than 10 fold in the last 30 years.

As of 2021, the average person in Vietnam would have used about 42KG of plastic in a year (that’s the equivalent of about 8000 plastic bags, per person per year!). Of this about 7KG goes into the ocean. Per person. Per year.

Just for comparison the average normal weight of a Vietnamese female hovers just under 50KG, and 7KG is just about the average normal weight of a baby.

Now to be fair, Vietnam is not as bad a producer of plastic waste as some other countries in South East Asia. This spot belongs to Indonesia (highly recommend this article from the Nikkei).

Credits: Nikkei Asia

And to be even more fair, 42KG is not what you personally use as an individual. It’s the per capita use, including all the plastic used in your office chair, your laptop, as well as the plastic they used all along the supply chain from the greenhouse tarp in Dalat, to the heavy duty bags on the delivery truck, to the containers they used at the wholesale shop that supplies the restaurant where you just ordered your dinner. Or perhaps where you bought your groceries.

To be thoroughly fair: we’re all guilty of plastic waste, whether we try to live clean or not.

The Mekong

The Mighty Mekong – Looks idyllic doesn’t it?

If you’ve read this blog before, you might have come across my recent visit to the Mekong, for a tour of a local chocolate factory. While Alluvia was nice, the surrounding areas along the Mekong unfortunately were not.

Plastic waste was everywhere. You didn’t have to look far, it’s an everyday occurrence. People don’t even think about it. On one of the ferries crossing the Mekong, saw lady buy some ice cream for her and her kids. They proceeded to tear open the wrappers. As the lady collected them, I initially thought for proper disposal. But no, she took all that waste and just chucked it into the Mekong, just over my shoulder. Out of sight out of mind.

What’s worse, she then used one of her gloves to clean up a small accident on one of the kids. And then threw away that glove. Into the Mekong.

I can only imagine a few kilos of plastic trash flowing down from Laos and Cambodia, to mix with the empty shampoo sachets, plastic cups for nuoc mia, and all the single use bags for take away com tam. Think of all the nappies being thrown out every day. Little coprolitic gifts that our descendants will be shaking their heads at.

We are all guilty. Even little kids.

Highlands Coffee

Also the Mighty Mekong. Less idyllic.

I like coffee. I enjoy it black, with no sugar. Just the way god intended. And a good thing too, because by now my body has developed a dependence to caffeine that I’m altogether unable to function unless I’ve had at least 2 cups first thing in the morning, and a few more during the course of the day.

I also like consistency. I like knowing what I’m paying for, and I’ll buy something that’s not mind-blowing as long as I know what I’ll be getting. Consistency is one thing that chains and franchises do best. Which leads us to Highlands Coffee.

While waiting for the aforementioned ferry, I was reminded of an interaction I had with a barista at a Highlands Coffee branch. Saw that they were preparing my order in a plastic cup, so I asked the barista to use a regular ceramic cup. He said that Highlands doesn’t have any regular ceramic cups for cold drinks. Everything is single use plastic only. Wow.

Highlands is owned by Jollibee after all – a Filipino conglomerate specialising in providing the most calories for the last cost. Plastic waste management is probably the least of their worries especially when waste management already isn’t a priority back in HQ.

Why did I think of Highlands Coffee? Well, because I spotted an empty cup with their logo, on the roadside, by the pier where I was waiting for the ferry. Should have taken a picture. How it got there is anyone’s guess. Probably another tourist just chucked it away. Out of sight, out of mind. Might have even been the one that I used a few years back; plastic never goes away.

One takeaway cup from Highlands Coffee has 5 pieces of plastic waste that will be with us forever. Cup, cup cover, straw, straw wrapping, plastic tote carrier. Use one time. Throw away. Turtles be damned.

If the average office worker ordered 2 drinks for delivery every day (milk tea, coffee, or whatnot), then that’s at least 10 pieces of single use plastic.

So yeah, I’m never going back to Highlands Coffee again – and I certainly hope somebody in their management team reads this post, and recognizes the problem. And fixes it.

We’re all guilty. Individuals and companies.

The Experiment

So much plastic. And I really didn’t need that ice cream.

So you might be asking, why was I giving extra attention to plastic? Well, I had previously visited a refill station (if anyone knows the owner of Lai Day Refill Station, I’d appreciate an introduction). You know, one of those places where you bring your empty containers, and buy stuff by the liter. Stuff that would otherwise come in even more single use, plastic containers.

There are also a couple of Refillables Dong Day locations/shops in Hoi An, and Hanoi (though I haven’t personally been able to visit the Refillables Shop just yet).

Shampoo, dish soap, clothes detergent, that sort of thing. Instead of buying something off the shelf at a supermarket, you just go to the refill station and hope that it’s enough to help save the environment.

Spoiler: it’s not.

Having gone to that store, of course, the algos at Google and Facebook started suggesting articles, some of which led me to start an experiment in order to answer the question: How much plastic do I actually use?

Spoiler: a lot.

Got the largest bag I could find, and planned to spend a week, collecting all non-organic trash I would use. It took about 4 days and the bag was already full! And I was actively trying not to get plastic bags from the supermarket. At least 40 discrete pieces of plastic waste, ranging from takeaway tubs, to bags for frozen food, to ice cream packets. It wasn’t even very good ice cream.

And those were just the plastics. Here are the other bits of detritus.

And like the calories from that bar of mediocre ice cream, the plastic will be here forever.

We’re all guilty. Myself included.


Dalat Cabin in the Woods Coffee Shop - Espresso with a View
Reusable cup with a view

The idea of this makes me sad and frustrated, that we now live in a world that’s so dependent on plastic that there’ just no way of escaping it. It’s everywhere now. It’s in fish, and in supposedly clean filtered water. It’s inside you. There’s so much plastic inside humans that there are now studies on how it’s started to negatively impact male fertility.

What do we do about it? I don’t know. Using less plastic would be a good start, and those refill stations aren’t too bad an idea, maybe even do bit of plogging. But (not to be a downer) reversing things is pretty much impossible now. Or at least not in our lifetime. There’s too much money to lose for entrenched interests. Best we can do is start supporting businesses that actively care of the environment.

Having said that, I for one will say no to Highlands Coffee, until and unless they sort out those reusable cups. It’s disgusting to think that my money goes directly towards making the world a less livable place right after I finish my coffee.

So please, Highlands Management, please do something.

And you dear reader, if you have any ideas on clean up drives, or other environmentally conscious businesses, please do leave them in the comments. Would love to interview the owners.

We’re all guilty. But at least, some can be less guilty than others.


  1. To tell the truth, it is so sad and disappointing that Vietnam has been increasing its use of plastics because it will never lead to a positive outcome and it will just have serious negative consequences. Of course, it is really difficult to find truly effective solutions and make the world less dependent on plastic, but I think that it is necessary in the current situation because it is escalating to a great extent. Honestly, the indifference of Highlands Coffee to the environment’s condition and such a huge use of plastic blows my mind because it is absolutely inexplicable. We can’t deny the fact that plastic has firmly entered a person’s life and we will not be able to completely abandon it, but if a lot of such companies change their policy, we will become closer to significant improvements. It is a real thing for Highlands Coffee to refuse plastic because many coffee shops are implementing it into a reality and each small contribution is a great step to a better future.

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