Vietnam has been recognized as one of five major contributors to global ocean pollution. Recent statistics indicate that the country generates 18,000 metric tons of plastic waste every day, polluting the environment at an alarming rate. Much of this waste comes from plastic items that are used once before spending hundreds of years degrading in landfills. But one little girl in Ho Chi Minh City hopes to clean up the country’s act.
Environmental groups in Vietnam such as Zero Waste Saigon and Việt Nam Sạch và Xanh (‘aka Keep Vietnam Clean and Green’) are working hard to fight for a greener future, inspiring citizens to reduce their own waste and adopt more sustainable practices. One young student in particular is tackling the issue of plastic pollution head-on, offering a sustainable alternative to a popular single-use item unique to Vietnam.
Sage Stevenson, 11, hails from the Gold Coast, Australia and has lived with her family in Ho Chi Minh City for four years. She was on vacation in picturesque Phu Quoc island when she saw dozens of plastic bags polluting the water. Armed with a determination to help the environment, Sage returned to the big city and created her first To-Go Bag prototype.
Millions of Ho Chi Minh City residents commute to work by motorbike and pick up a fresh juice or a thick, savoury Vietnamese coffee on the way. These drinks come with a plastic drink holder (resembling a plastic bag) that wraps around the cup and features a handle that drivers can hitch onto a small hook on their motorbike, keeping their drink secure while weaving their way through traffic. Sage’s reusable To-Go Bags are are based on these drink holders, but instead they’re made from cotton and have the potential to offset thousands of single-use drink holders being tossed in the trash.
“I was in my last year of primary school and starting my PYP [Primary Year Program of the International Baccalaureate] Exhibition,” Sage told Culture Trip when asked about why she created her reusable drink-holders. “Our topic was ‘Sharing the Planet’ and I chose to look at reducing single-use plastic where I live. The drink holders were something I used and could create in a reusable form.”
The cotton used to make Sage’s To-Go Bags is sourced from Paper Wings, a children’s clothing label that supplies her with leftover pieces of material. She hand-sewed her first prototype, which was modeled after the plastic version, and then sent the mock-up to a tailor who created the rest using the leftover cotton materials. Before each To-Go Bag is sold, Sage performs quality control and cuts off any extra threads.
Sage first sold her To-Go Bags at Dolphy Coffee shop in Thảo Điền, an expat-favorite district in the city. “I spoke to the manager and she happily put them in their store on the corner of Xuân Thủy and Thảo Điền roads,” Sage said. Her bags were a success, and she was soon approached to start selling them at another location. “The owner of Truck Cafe approached me when I was at a swim meet and they are now stocked at both [Truck] cafes in Thảo Điền.” She has sold approximately 100 To-Go bags so far this year.
Sage is part of Ho Chi Minh City’s growing environmental movement, with activists encouraging residents and businesses to adopt more sustainable practices in an effort to reduce the shocking amounts of waste entering Vietnamese waterways and landfills. In 2018 alone, the movement has heralded terrific success. Dozens of restaurants have made the switch to reusable straws, local shops are favoring plastic-free items, and residents are holding workshops to create reusable beeswax food wraps. These are just a few examples of the many ways residents and local businesses are inspiring individuals to take responsibility for waste and adopt more environmentally-friendly habits.
“Instead of using plastic [just] one time, people can use Sage’s To-Go Bags over and over,” Sage told Culture Trip. “Not only are you reducing [single-use plastics] that can end up in the ocean, but also the energy and resources that made the plastic.”
Customers not only like her bags for their environmental benefits, but also for their cute designs. Sage told Culture Trip that they are “pretty and fun”, even sporting a pocket for sugar or a reusable straw!
The young entrepreneur says her favorite thing about Vietnam is her school and her community. “I love being close to school and my friends and walking into my favorite shops and cafes and being greeted by name,” Sage said. “I really enjoy opportunities like the school swim team and making friends with children from all over the world, and extra-curricular activities like musical theatre where I can sing and act.”
When asked about her future career, Sage replied she isn’t quite sure yet but knows her passion for protecting the environment will be a part of it. “I know I want to be environmentally conscious and keep our oceans clean,” she said. “I love swimming, surfing and snorkeling so that is important to me.”