According to USAID, Vietnam produces at least 2.5 million tons of plastic waste every year, putting it amongst the world’s top five plastic polluters. The country’s accelerated economic growth over the last three decades has been driven largely by the traditional “take, make, dispose” linear economy, which results in huge amounts of unusable, non-recyclable waste ending up in landfill, or indeed in the ocean.
Fortunately, action is being taken to reduce Vietnam’s plastic-waste footprint. In June 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Le Minh Khai signed off on Decision 687 to develop a circular economy, which includes a goal to reuse, recycle, and treat 85 percent of the country’s plastic waste, and reduce its presence in the ocean by fifty percent.
Though government legislation and municipal action is necessary to help build a more circular economy, so too is the commitment of corporations, particularly those that produce disposable consumer goods.
Coca-Cola Vietnam is stepping up to the mark on this front. Since September, it’s been introducing bottles made from 100% recycled PET plastic (rPET) across the country. As a result of this, the company expects to reduce its new-plastic production in Vietnam by around 2,000 tons. The company already offers these bottles in more than 30 global markets – an initiative that’s all part of the Coca-Cola Company’s global World Without Waste vision. Through this vision, Coca-Cola aims to collect and recycle the equivalent of every can and bottle it sells by 2030, while also using at least 50% recycled materials in its packaging by 2030.
To learn more about Coca-Cola’s efforts to promote a circular economy here in Vietnam, Vietecetera recently spoke to Leonardo Garcia, who has been Vietnam & Cambodia General Manager since 2020.
You became Vietnam & Cambodia General Manager in 2020. Upon taking the role, what did you make of the scale of the sustainability and plastic waste issue in this region?
We understand that there’s an urgency to tackle plastic pollution, and we appreciate the scale of the challenge, both globally and in Vietnam. Since stepping into this role, I’ve been leading a very talented local team to both accelerate growth and do the right thing for our business, but it’s also incredibly important that we align with Coca-Cola’s global & local sustainable development goals for the country.
Since Coca-Cola first arrived in Vietnam in 1994, our company has not only affirmed its contributions in the economic sector, but also tried to create value for the community and the environment. We have recognized that plastic waste has become a major, urgent issue globally, including in Vietnam, and we’re taking action to be part of the solution. This is why in 2018, Coca-Cola announced ambitious goals towards a World Without Waste vision.
On a personal level, I’m like everyone else in that I hate it when plastic ends up as waste in nature. I have kids, so my ultimate goal as a father is to ensure my children grow up in a healthy, safe and green environment. Therefore, I am very excited to be part of the team working hard to deliver this global commitment, not only for business purposes, but for our planet and next generations also.
There are a lot of stakeholders involved in Vietnam’s plastic waste issues and solutions – policy-makers both national and local, corporates, NGOS, and the general public. Is there any single group that the burden rests more heavily on, or is it a collective issue?
We believe that solutions to the world’s plastic waste challenges can best be unlocked when stakeholders work collaboratively to create systems that enable positive change. Collective action in partnership with a range of stakeholders at a global, regional and local level is our World Without Waste packaging goals requirement.
We believe developing a circular economy—an economic system aimed at eliminating waste through the continual use of existing, valuable resources— is the most impactful way to address waste and climate issues created by packaging. Food and beverage packaging is an important part of our modern lives, yet the world has a packaging waste problem, and like many companies that make products we all love, we have a responsibility to help solve it. Together, we can grow the circular economy; if our bottles and cans are collected and recycled, we will work towards recycling those bottles to make new ones.
By investing in our planet and our packaging, we can help make the world’s packaging waste problem a thing of the past. We’ve made big strides — but we can’t do this alone. Together with our bottling partners, we are working with Governments and community organizations to strengthen recycling infrastructures and boost collection rates, customers, peers and industry associations to shape public policy and take action that supports a circular economy, nonprofits and NGOs to engage civil society in ways that address pollution, and suppliers, startups and R&D partners to fuel sustainable packaging innovation that reduces waste and minimizes our environmental impact—one bottle at a time.
As mentioned, Coca-Cola has a global World Without Waste vision to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle and can that it sells by 2030. It also has a global goal to use at least 50% recycled content in its packaging by 2030. Can you give us any insight on the progress being made towards these goals – particularly close to home in Vietnam?
Last year, we created our new vision as a team and our sustainability agenda is a critical business imperative. By integrating sustainability into how we do business, we can guarantee that things happen and that we make progress. As well as introducing 100% recycled PET (rPET) plastic (excluding caps & labels) across the country since September 2022 to reduce new plastic production by 2,000 tons, avoiding using around 2,000 tonnes of new plastic in Vietnam annually, we’ve also taken a number of other steps:
In early 2021, Coca-Cola Vietnam switched its Sprite packaging from its iconic green bottle to clear PET plastic packaging to boost local recycling rates. Also in 2021, we printed ‘RECYCLE ME’ messages on our products to encourage consumers to recycle cans and bottles after use. Back in 2019, Coca-Cola Vietnam also removed the plastic seal on Dasani water bottles to reduce single use plastic.
But we can’t achieve our goals alone. Collective action and cross-sector collaboration is crucial. This means working across industry and with the government and society to address shared challenges and accelerate the move to a circular economy. For example, we partnered with The Ocean Cleanup last year. This is a non-profit organization developing and scaling technologies to rid the oceans of plastic, and they have supported the deployment Interceptor™ solution – an innovative river clean-up system in the Can Tho river, extracting up to 400 kgs of trash daily so far, preventing it from reaching our oceans.
Most of Vietnam’s recycling is still carried out by informal waste collectors. I understand you’ve been working with them for the last few years, through various schemes with NGOs and other bodies, and plan to keep doing so. What does this work look like?
In ASEAN countries like Vietnam, there are two effective waste collection systems working in parallel – formal and informal systems – and each plays a specific role in national waste management. In Vietnam, if we have a close look at valuable waste streams which could become input materials for recycling and reproduction like PET plastic or aluminum, you will see the informal sector is the backbone of the recycling economy. We have observed and piloted different projects with both formal and informal sectors, and we’re continuing the support through public communications, incentivizing collectors and recyclers to ensure the recyclable packaging could be collected and then, have a better chance to be recycled.
Under its World Without Waste vision, Coca-Cola has been partnering with many organizations to help collect and recycle plastic waste locally. In 2018, we piloted and learnt a lot from the ‘Zero Waste to Nature’ project, partnering with formal collector CITENCO, VCCI, Unilever, and Dow Vietnam to educate communities in Tan Phu district, Ho Chi Minh city, about sorting waste at the source.
Since then, we’ve worked with the Centre for Supporting Green Development (GreenHub) to establish the Plastic Action Network program (PAN) in the North of Vietnam. This has been one of Coca-Cola’s most effective programs to redefine the value of plastic waste as well as promote the local community groups in the waste management system in the North of Vietnam. This year, we’re expanding this program to Can Gio district, Ho Chi Minh city.
Furthermore, Coca-Cola Vietnam is one of the founding members of Packaging Recycling Organisation (PRO) Vietnam, a partnership with other leading companies, recyclers and government agencies which aims to accelerate local packaging collection and recycling in support of a clean and green Vietnam.
Finally, looking forward, is there anything that you see here in Vietnam that really gives you hope that we can turn things around?
Since I first started with Coca-Cola Vietnam in 2020, it’s been two years full of changes and challenges, but I've also witnessed the country’s superpowers. Overcoming COVID-19 as a nation, growing economically, catching up quickly with the digital transformation, yet still developing in long-term eco-social sustainability.
I really believe that when we come together, Vietnam’s potential on the sustainability front could be limitless. If you’d asked me two years ago about building a circular economy for plastic packaging in Vietnam I might have been hesitant to answer, but here we are, already on our way to manufacturing 100% recycled plastic Coca-Cola bottles. Now, I can feel the strong urge from within the food & beverage industry itself, the positive support of the government and local authorities, as well as a growing care and love for the environment from young Vietnamese consumers. This really strengthens my belief that the circular economy model for packaging first, then other sustainable packaging solutions, is very promising in Vietnam. Together, we can help make the world’s packaging waste problem a thing of the past.