According to the United Nations Environment Programme, by 2050, there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills, the environment, and oceans. Food wrappers and plastic grocery bags will be everywhere, choking the planet and the lives that depend on it.
After repeated calls (and pleas) from governments, public and private organizations, environmentalists and social advocates, people are now starting to ditch plastic and endeavor to cut down the use of plastic bags to a minimum. Supermarkets - big and small - have also started their shift towards more eco-friendly product packaging, like using paper, jute or canvas bags instead of plastic that are expected to be thrown away after just a single use.
Food and beverage retailers, considered top plastic users, have also made the green switch. Mexico, believed to have one of the richest street food cultures in the world, has made the use of banana leaves and bamboo spoons as food packaging as popular trends. Netizens can’t even get over a Mexican ice cream served in a cup made of banana leaves!
In India, serving food on a leaf plate is a tradition with its own cultural, religious, medicinal and socioeconomic significance. Particularly, in South India, banana leaves are a popular substitute for plates, you'll experience the food being served in banana leaves for most events, even in a wedding. Leaves from a wide variety of plants are used as platters, or when steaming, cooking, and frying dishes.
In Vietnam, where the street dining scene has grown more popular over the years, the plastic-free packaging trend is starting to pick up.
A stroll through the renowned food markets like Hồ Thị Kỷ in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 10 or at Hồ Con Rùa in District 1, you’ll see a myriad of Vietnamese specialties wrapped in banana leaves.
The leaves add a delightful aroma to the likes of bánh chưng and bánh tét, making them more appetizing. While plastic or metal plates give off certain chemicals that can contaminate the food, banana leaves have a natural waxy coating, which provides good insulation for freshly prepared hot foods. And doesn't bánh chưng look and taste perfect when it's wrapped in banana leaves?
But with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing people from going out to these street food markets, many now rely on food delivery services to still get a bite of their favorite Vietnamese dishes. And now that foods are packed and delivered (and the use of ceramic dinnerware is impossible), it’s amazing to see food retailers choosing eco-friendly materials to wrap their food, and thus reducing the use of hazardous plastic.
Packaging and delivering food consume a significant amount of wrapping materials - with an average of three plastic bags used per order. Now that’s a big problem. Aware how this can damage the environment, many restaurants in Saigon, Hanoi and major cities have launched plastic-free packaging even before the pandemic, offering only paper bags to bring foods and beverages home.
For one, Anan Saigon in Saigon’s District 1, which was voted No. 39 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 and featured in Time World’s Greatest Places, is using craft papers to wrap their food.
Like paper packaging, bagasse is a superior choice for sustainable food and beverage containers. Bagasse is a by-product of sugarcane processing. Due to its malleability and stickiness, it can be easily molded into packaging suitable for food delivery and food service - similar to polystyrene.
Many stores in Vietnam are now offering alternative and biodegradable products for food and beverage. One of them is Organik House, a vegetarian restaurant located in District 1, Saigon. And because many of its customers saw and lauded the restaurant's efforts to be “Earth warriors” in its own way, the restaurant actually expanded its services by selling biodegradable tableware. The range of products it offers are all reusable and remarkably eco-friendly, committing to a plastic-free movement for the F&B sector.
In recent years, the number of coffee shops across Vietnam that have implemented “bring your own” strategy has grown tremendously. This means that customers are encouraged to bring along their own insulated tumblers/travel mugs and straw when hanging out at coffee shops. When coffee shops were still open and allowed dine-in services, it wasn’t rare to see people carrying their own tumblers and reusable straws so cafes didn’t have to use plastic products anymore.
This also propelled the popularity of bamboo, stainless and paper drinking straws, which eventually shifted consumer habits to fit rising concern about the environment.
Big Vietnamese coffee chains like The Coffee House and Highlands Coffee are also selling a wide variety of products -from mugs to sustainable thermoses - aside from their delicious coffee menu.
“No plastic straw, please” can now be seen plastered in many cafés, resulting in an almost zero-waste coffee hang out.
And now that coffee drinks are now only available for takeaway or delivery, cafes have further pushed their no-plastic policy, with the use of paper cups and sleeves, making everyone’s drinking experience not just enjoyable but environmentally-safe as well.
It’s also worth noting that restaurants ask customers ordering through an app if they need cutlery to go with their food, a strategic move to let customers proactively decide to not use disposable plastic spoons, forks and knives.