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From the details of using banana leaves as packaging to think about Vietnamese consumer culture


     Food products are now wrapped in banana leaves and other natural materials instead of nylon and plastic bags at supermarket chains Big C, Co.opmart and Saigon Co.op in the three big cities Hà Nội, Đà Nẵng and Hồ Chí Minh City. The new move has been well-received by the public and even the Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc sees it a model for the business community, associations, supermarkets, restaurants and hotels - those that work in the services sector - to follow: Say no to nylon and plastic bags to protect the environment.

     In response to the Prime Minister’s request, many companies have begun importing items that are friendly to the environment for food packaging. On April 1, 2019, the Vietnam Central Group was the first business to start doing so and its activity last for one month. The policy was then executed at all of the Group’s supermarket while other businesses also started doing the same like Co.opmart and Co.op Food in Phan Thiết, Quy Nhơn, Tam Kỳ and Hồ Chí Minh City. Other retailers such as Intimex and Hapro - members of the BRG Group - are in talks with their suppliers as the firms want food supplies to be wrapped in leaves when being delivered to the retail store. From a company’s sole act, the use of leaves in packing food products has become popular to all retailers and it helps change the attitude of producers, sellers and consumers towards environmental protection.


Vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves at Big C Thăng Long supermarket (Hà Nội City)


      It’s easily seen that using environmentally-friendly materials for food packing brings is more gainful than using plastic and nylon bags. Leaves had been used to wrap food for thousands of years in Việt Nam before nylon and plastic items were created. As a tropical country with abundance of trees and plants - unlike others in cold, dry and frozen weather conditions - the Vietnamese agriculture production and consumption are highly productive. After a long history, farmers still use leaves, branches and stems left over from harvested plants and vegetables to pack (wrap and tie) agricultural products when they are harvested, transported and traded. Among the natural materials being used, banana tree may be a typical example as it is some kind of highly decomposable and environmentally friendly plant, whose parts are totally capable of replacing plastics and nylon.

     As the Vietnamese culture originated from the wet rice culture, natural materials, especially plants, are useful in living and working activities. Farmers don’t carry packages and bags when harvesting the crops. The only things they bring to the field are sickle, two baskets and carrying pole. Each bunch of harvested paddies is tied by one single paddy, then the paddies are carried back to the home ground for being threshed and dried in the sun. The same action is also done with other types of crop like sugarcane and vegetable. In the coastal area, a crab is tied with soaked banana sheaths so it remains humid and fresh. All of those actions help keep the items fresh, cheap and what is left from them isn’t harmful to the environment.

     Rope is in use if someone wants to tie something firmly and rope is also naturally made. Rattan basket, creel and sedge bag were once chosen by women in the past when going to the market. For kids, the scene of the mothers and grandmothers coming home from the market and taking along some buns being covered inside a bunch of banana leaves has remained the very best of their memories.

     The Vietnamese tradition of using natural materials forces local people to find ways to boost plantation and production to improve the resources for farming and serving the daily life. Because Việt Nam was once an agricultural economy, the demand for raw materials such as bamboo to make farming, planting and fishing tools was high all the time. Bamboo, banana and other trees were closely attached to the Vietnamese people for generations as they shadowed the land and inspired the Vietnamese poetry to make everlasting sentences.

     Jute, a multi-task tree, can provide food for human and cattle, wood for burning, and raw material for craft villages to produce things like bag, mat and rope. Meanwhile, harvesting or collecting hyacinth in the past was quite a good job for local people as demand for hyacinth - as a raw material - to make mat, craft and bag for both domestic and overseas markets. There are many other examples that had symbolized the beauty of the Vietnamese consumer culture - which is attached to the agriculture, nature and environment - before plastic and nylon items flooded the country.

     However, in just a short period of a few decades, the production of single-use plastic products (nylon bag, straw…) has emerged and overshadowed Vietnam's environmentally-friendly consumer culture as plastic items are cheap, easy to use and popular. One of the man-made disasters nowadays is plastic waste covering every corner of Việt Nam. Single-use plastic bags, bottles, pipes and straws have penetrated into every corner of daily life. Even local specialties that used to be wrapped in leaves are now packaged in plastic boxes and bags such as cốm (green rice) - a Vietnamese seasonal dish associated with autumn. It often takes people a second to get rid of a nylon or plastic bag, but it will take hundreds to thousands of years for the bag to decompose. Everyone of us has realized that the overuse of nylon and plastic packages may bring benefits in short term but damages the environment (land, water and air) and living conditions of both human and animals for the next hundreds and thousands of years. It is time we had to restore, develop and preserve our naturally-friendly living style, which is using environmentally-friendly materials in the life.

     Buying environmentally-friendly products has become a new trend all around the world and Vietnamese items are becoming the center of attention. If we take a look at the retailer Amazon. com’s website, Vietnamese local crafts are often sold at very high prices. For example, a paddy broom is worth $11,99 or VND 278.000 while a cone hat is sold for $18,99 or VND 430.000. Perhaps, the market demand for environmental friendliness is what makes those Vietnamese products so expensive.

     If Việt Nam wants to preserve its environmentally-friendly consumption tradition, the Government needs to constantly educate people and raise their awareness to shape an environmentally-friendly consumer culture. In the meantime, businesses and consumers are encouraged to apply traditional methods that are friendly to the environment. There should be stronger penalties, punishments and taxes on the producers of single-use plastic and nylon bags. Besides, anyone that quits using nylon and plastic bags must be credited so that others are influenced by such action. These are the long-term, urgent solutions which will help keep the Earth green forever.


Vũ Lân - Journalist



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