One of the perks of shopping at a convenience store right in your apartment block is you do not often need a bag to carry stuff upstairs.
At least that was what I told the guy at the store as he was about to pull a plastic bag out of a stack.
Then I found a favorite yoghurt brand and picked up a few cartons.
“If you still don’t need a bag, I’ll let you go free of charge,” the store guy said.
I laughed and took the bag.
Plastic bags have become omnipresent in Vietnam.
Some say they are as indispensable as water and so convenient that no one can give them up.
Every family in Vietnam uses on average more than one kilogram of plastic bags a month.
In Ho Chi Minh City, where 30 years ago one would have to take a bowl from home to buy a loaf of bread, nine million or more than 50 metric tons of plastic bags are being used every day, according to statistics released by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment last August.
The figure had doubled in four years.
But it came as no surprise judging by the plastic bags our breakfast is wrapped in every day and the many bags of food we take home at night.
When asked about a shop or a market that uses paper bags, most people think about fashion or cosmetics stores, usually the fancy ones.
But what about a store that sells some daily essentials like food?
“There are few of them,” a young consumer in the city said. “You’d better take your own bags."
Organica, a shop selling organic foods in the city through two outlets, lets customers choose between paper and plastic bags.
Tran Tuyen, an assistant at its store on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, said they opened two years ago with only paper bags.
But it did not work in the rainy season, when customers asked for plastic bags and the store had to provide them, she said.
“Paper bags cost more than plastic, but it does not matter. We want to be as organic as possible.”
She said many customers are happy when they found the store has paper bags.
“Some even bring their own bamboo bags.”
Anything other than plastic bags are considered pretty, even worth a brand name.
An eatery chain selling sticky rice in Ho Chi Minh calls itself La Chuoi, which means banana leaf, the common wrapping material for sticky rice and other foods in the country 20 years ago before the age of styrofoam boxes and plastic bags.
But, ironically, the shop puts each banana wrapping into a plastic bag for customers to take away.
Are biodegradable sellable?
Most plastic bags serve for around 10 minutes and take up to a millennium to degrade.
Major supermarkets like CoopMart, Maximark, and Metro have been selling reusable cloth or plastic bags for a few US cents apiece.
But a manager of a HCMC outlet of CoopMart said, “Only a few people buy those.”
The plastic bag question is connected with the wallet.
Jake Brunner, a program coordinator at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Vietnam, said plastic bags are a major source of pollution in the country, and there is one thing it can do to end it: “Just get the price right. Forget about campaigns.”
Producers of biodegradable bags say they are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and decompose into powder in three to nine months before fungi and microorganisms consume the powder.
Supermarkets started to use them a few years ago, but not the ubiquitous traditional markets. Most vendors at traditional markets, which are preferred for fresh and generally cheaper produce, worry about the bags’ price.
They use plastic bags that, at VND30,000 a kilogram, cost 30 percent less than the biodegradable ones.
The 2012 Environment Tax Law imposes a tax of VND40,000 on each kilogram of non-degradable bags, but tax officials admit that producers manage to evade it.
Many producers of environmentally-friendly bags are thus asking for tax cuts and price subsidies to keep up production.
Even as the government is meditating on the right prices, the country is putting thousands of tons of plastic bags every day into incinerators, underground or into the sea, where turtles mistake them for their favorite food, jellyfish.
A report released last February by researchers from the US-based Sea Education Association and University of Georgia named Vietnam among the countries most responsible for ocean plastic pollution.
China led with an estimated 2.4 million tons per year, about 30 percent of the global total. The top 10 also includes Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.
Malaysia has a no-plastic bag campaign every Saturday, when shopping malls charge customers an extra 5 US cents for each plastic bag.
Some places in Metro Manila ban plastic bags and restaurants even have to serve drinks with paper straws. Violations can cost a business its license.
So if Vietnam is not very lonely at the bottom yet, it might be soon, if the huge indifference persists.