It all started in the sleepy beach town of Ho Tram, Vung Tau, when Julia & Michael Burdge, a couple new to Vietnam, encountered amid the idyllic scenery of temples and lakes a monkey feeding on a plastic bag. Not that they were wild-eyed Westerners hitherto totally unaware of Vietnamese plastic-obsessed culture, but the contrast between the heavenly beauty of Ho Tram and the grotesque scene of a monkey chomping down the plastic finally jolted them to action. They started a Facebook group that soon grew wildly popular among Vietnamese and expats alike. “All these people felt like they had enough,” says Michael in a speech at the US Consulate event titled “Earth Day: Fish or Plastic – What’s Your Lunch Made Of?”.
A video they made called the No Straw Challenge, in which Michael, holding their two year old son Sebastien, calls for people to add the simple phrase “no plastic straw please” to their drink orders, went viral afterwards. The Burdges are now supplying a variety of reusable or decomposable straws to restaurant businesses around Saigon. Julia mildly objects to calling themselves a business just yet. “For now, it’s pretty much a charity. I’m hoping that in the future when we sell to a lot of big companies, we can become a business. For individual consumers, we can give the straws away for free,” she explained.
Indeed, with a simple business calculation, one can see that to make a profit, Zero Waste Saigon would have to double the prices of their products. For changes to be possible, Julia and Michael put in their time and efforts for free and buy straws from Vietnamese manufacturers with their own pocket money. They have turned the closet in their apartment into a makeshift stockroom. Now, they are also rolling out new products like compost bins to solve the food waste problems for restaurants. “I’m lucky because my business in Paris is working well,” refers Julia to her work managing 15 AirBnB apartments in Paris. “So I have the time and money.”
Her husband, Michael, a filmmaker from LA, helps her out with the website, graphic design, and promotional videos. Together, the couple and Huynh Loi Kim, their assistant and partner, make a small team with a surprising impact.
Three months into the operation (the Burdges have only been in Vietnam for six months), they have already partnered up with 15 restaurants to replace the plastic straws. One of Julia’s favourite customers is Viet Princess Cruises, who are fine-dining cruise ships on the Mekong river that aim to be waste free. They use bamboo straws for employees and disposable grass straws for guests, water is served in glass bottles, and all their food wastes are kept to the minimum and then fed to the fishes.
Another restaurant that have adopted similar policy is Jardin Des Sens, the new high-end French restaurant in District 3. The 19 restaurants by the same owners that will open in Vietnam in the next five years will also use products from Zero Waste Saigon. “It is a global policy for our brand,” says Constantin Huby, Jardin Des Sens’ manager.
According to Julia, the next exciting stage for Zero Waste Saigon is their work with Keppel Land, one of the biggest real estate investors in Vietnam, owner of huge malls like Takayashima and Saigon Centre. In support of Earth Day, the Burdges and a few friends organised an event at Saigon Centre called “What Goes In the Ocean Goes In You”, where they sets up a stall to sell their products next to a trash sculpture of a whale and a wheel of fortune with rewards like straws, bag, or a hug. “We have already supplied Keppel Land with five hundred bags and the straws,” says Julia. “They hope to launch a new trend among Vietnamese youths by making Saigon Centre green.”
“We are doing this in Vietnam because we think it’s a beautiful country, and we want to protect it,” conclude the young couple who are off to auspicious start in the south of Vietnam. Perhaps with works like Zero Waste Saigon and the growing support among the food industry, Vietnam will finally kick its costly plastic habit.