2022 marks 50 years since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment., the first-ever international meeting that focused on the status of the environment. At the Stockholm Conference, the idea of World Environment Day was formalized, with the first one being celebrated in 1973. Since then, June 5 is marked across the globe as Environment Day.
In recent years, environmental movements in Vietnam have witnessed significant changes as many organizations and groups have sprouted, all aiming to spread awareness of serious environmental issues. One of which is Keep Hanoi Clean (KHC), a non-profit social group that collects and cleans up trash in order to keep Hanoi clean and green.
In celebration of Environment Day, Vietcetera met with James Joseph Kendall, founder of Keep Hanoi Clean, to talk about his organization and the progress of environmental activities in Vietnam. Fondly called ‘Mr. Clean’ by the locals, James has become a driving force in the capital city’s environmental and social movement.
What's the story behind Keep Hanoi Clean?
I was on vacation in Cat Ba Island when I heard the news about the tragic chemical spill on the central coast of Vietnam. It made me think about the environment, my love for Vietnam, and nature. It also made me think about my ultimate goal in life, to make a long-lasting positive impact on the community.
I began to look around Cat Ba and saw it was also very polluted, with random pieces of waste floating in the water. It was then that I decided to start a positive movement to protect the environment and help raise awareness, in a way that would be uplifting and inspiring for people to get involved.
That’s when I made a group page on Facebook and invited a bunch of my friends to join me, to clean up a polluted area in the city. One friend suggested a location that would be perfect to start this movement. It was a canal full of waste. It was so thick with trash, you couldn’t see the water. So, I made a post on the group to invite everyone to the first cleanup event.
After cleaning by myself for about 20 minutes, a couple of friends came to join me. Then, a few random people saw us cleaning and stopped to join. One woman stopped to take a photo of me cleaning in the water and before I knew it, I was on the local news!
What happened after that was incredible: Loads of volunteers came to join and help. That’s when Keep Hanoi Clean was born. After receiving all the support from the government and the community of volunteers, I didn’t want to ever stop. I was so full of energy, I could have cleaned up every single day, but we only planned for the weekends for the first couple of years.
How do you organize a clean-up event?
That’s a complicated question because the answer is quite complex. In the beginning, our events were very simple and didn’t require much planning. As fun as this was, many of our early events didn’t go as well as we had hoped they would. Many of the areas we cleaned up quickly became dirty again and our volunteers lost hope quite fast, thereafter. Even though, looking back now, many of those areas have been transformed into clean and beautiful places, without pollution.
After we became an organization, we developed a very detailed plan and standard operating procedure that goes into each of our cleanup events. Making a Google form for people to sign up, designing event art for banners and posters, marketing, creating a Facebook event page, connecting with local government offices and submitting documents for support, contacting volunteers, doing a site check, preparing equipment…. It’s very involved and time-consuming.
How has the KHC community grown since then?
Over the last six years, our number of volunteers has grown substantially. We have also grown our team and our Green Gem Shop (a shop that sells eco-friendly and upcycled products as well as second-hand clothing), which is very important to us for being self-sustainable in the future. In addition, our projects have grown in size and scope, promoting longer-lasting impacts on the community.
You have been in Vietnam for such a long time. What do you think about Vietnamese's awareness and involvement in environmental movements?
I believe more and more Vietnamese people are becoming aware of many important environmental issues, which is delightful to see and experience. Although many people here don’t yet realize the importance of environmental protection, evidence of a heightened level of awareness is everywhere, when compared to six years ago. Hundreds of cafes and restaurants are using more eco-friendly products, and several new environmental organizations have been formed and are focusing on great issues.
It’s been truly amazing to see all the progress since KHC began. There has been an abundance of positive improvement in the past six years. Though there is still a lot more than we can do. Education is a very big part of what we want to focus on, moving into the future.
What are your thoughts on environmental activities in Vietnam?
Some messages get used too much, such as recycling. Yes, of course, it’s good to recycle, but we like to promote recycling as the very last step to protecting the environment. It’s much better to reduce and refuse, for example. Making a point to stop buying things wrapped in plastic or trying to greatly reduce single-use plastics will have a greater impact than using plastics freely, rationalizing it by saying it’s ok because you recycle. Due to the current methods of recycling, it’s much better to stop using plastic altogether.
Making sure all recyclable items you have are rinsed with water and separated from other trash is also important, but the amount of waste we produce is too overwhelming for our planet, thus the need to reduce reuse and refuse single-use plastics before your last resort of recycling.
These days, people talk a lot about “sustainable development.” What’s your take on this?
Sustainable development to me would mean developing the infrastructure of the sewage and drainage systems, and water treatment plants, implementing pollution-free public transportation, green spaces such as parks, and green energy solutions for the densely populated cities in Vietnam. With a growing population, it’s important to consider building an infrastructure to maintain and sustain good living conditions for the community, with as little pollution as possible.
What are some simple yet effective ways people can do to protect their environment?
It all starts with making well-informed choices and making the decision to be part of the solution instead of the problem. Our choices as consumers have the power to influence what companies will sell to us. If everyone made the choice to stop using single-use plastics, within a few months, they would be very difficult to find anymore because companies will change their products to meet the demands of the consumer. Every time I go to a cafe, I ask for no plastic. If they can’t give me my drink without plastic, I go somewhere else that will. Refuse to buy things that don’t align with your standards.
Eat more vegetarian or vegan food is very helpful to environmental protection. Eating meat is not sustainable due to the overwhelming growth of the population. Pollution from large factory farms is a growing problem in many parts of the world, including Vietnam. Shrimp farms are polluting the oceans at an alarming rate, which can be seen clearly from Google maps, along the coast. Eating less meat will also help control starvation. Some areas of the world are only used to grow food for the animals we produce for meat. Meanwhile, the local people don’t have access to eating meat and have very little land for growing food for themselves to eat.
Use less harmful chemicals. There have been many new products that don’t contain harmful chemicals, such as eco-friendly soaps, shampoos, detergents, and cleaning products made from plant-based enzymes. There are countless things that everyone can do to protect the environment. Being more aware of the issues and being a good example in public is always a great way to get started. I find it helpful to focus on something you are passionate about.
What can we look forward to seeing from KHC in the future?
We are working on some very meaningful projects, including education for public schools, a city-wide database, a site mapping project, and our beautification project. We also plan to grow the Green Gem Shop to have more funds for our community-based initiatives. We will continue to grow our efforts, inspiring and empowering communities to keep their neighborhoods clean and beautiful.