Ripples of Change: Viet Nam's Journey to Reduce Plastic Pollution

Written by Murat Okumah, UNDP Policy and Technical Specialist

February 22, 2024
Photo: Pham Van Thanh

Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the world, with annual production increasing from two million tons to about 430 million tons between the 1950s and 2019. Upsurge in production, widespread use and mismanagement of plastics have contributed to severe socio-ecological problems. With more than 8,000 tons of plastic waste generation per day (WWF Viet Nam, 2021), Viet Nam is one of the top ten countries in the world for plastic pollution. The consumption of single use plastics is a common problem in Viet Nam. Approximately 75% of solid waste in the country, including plastics, is mismanaged, or improperly disposed, with less than 30% of plastic waste being recycled. This has contributed to plastic pollution as plastics constitute 80% of marine waste in the country.

To address this alarming situation, the Viet Namese Government developed a national action plan on marine plastic debris to 2030. In line with this, UNDP supported the design and implementation of an integrated waste and plastic management (IWPM) programme in Viet Nam. The IWPM approach adopted in Viet Nam considered three important dimensions in waste management: (1) stakeholders, (2) waste system elements and (3) sustainability aspects. Implementing IWPM at the community level involves key activities such as waste characterization to detailed research on the nature and composition of the waste, sorting at source, education and training, policies, and laws.

Since 2019, UNDP has provided financial and technical assistance to civil society organizations in 5 provinces. This initiative was supported by a partnership between UNDP and the Government of Norway, using the Small Grants Programme (SGP) as a delivery mechanism. Overall, five community projects were implemented with a grant amount of USD 289,301, which generated USD548,781 in co-financing. These projects were implemented in five cities and were supported by the Women Unions of Da Nang city, Binh Thuan and Binh Duong provinces, Quy Nhon City, and the Farmers’ Association of Quang Ninh province.  The five projects focused on behavior change aimed at plastic use reduction, reducing waste generation, and improving waste management by improving policy framework. 

Photo: UNDP Viet Nam/Phan Huong Giang

The results: what was achieved? 

  • Plastic use reduction.

The initiative has contributed to plastic use reduction in the five cities. For instance, three waste management models in Binh Duong have contributed to reducing 150,000 plastic straws and 72,800 plastic bags through replacement with sustainable ecological alternatives such as biodegradable shopping bags. In addition to this, tourist boats in Quang Ninh have completed 100 commitments to reduce plastic waste.  

  • Waste collection.

So far, through this programme, 159 tonnes of plastic waste have been collected and avoided. At a pilot site in Binh Duong province, the informal waste collectors had collected about 65-70% of domestic waste from households and businesses. This includes 686kg of waste, made from plastic, paper, and others. Highlighting the importance of the project in waste collection and management, one interviewee indicated that, “garbage is collected instead of being buried as before in Nhon Chau commune”. According to the general data of Quy Nhon City's Department of Natural Resources and Environment, before the project, 46% of domestic waste volume in four communes and wards had not been collected but buried in the landfill in the commune. Since the project was implemented, the group has collected more than 31.3 tons of scrap of all kinds.

  • Livelihood creation & income generation.

The project has created livelihoods and favorable conditions to support informal waste collectors to sustainably carry out waste collection, segregation, and treatment, especially for women. Since the implementation of the model, the informal waste workers regularly operate daily and bring in additional income for the members of the groups who collect and sell garbage. In Quy Nhon Bay, an average income of 3,500,000 VND (USD 147) to 4,000,000 VND (USD 168) per month was reported for waste collection and segregation while in Da Nang, it was reported that the average income of informal waste collectors increased to VND 2,500,000 (USD 105) per month compared to VND 3,000,000 (USD 126) per month when the project started. Purchasing waste also raked in an average of VND 4 million (USD 170.5) to VND 6 million (USD 170.5) per month.

  • Women empowerment. 

Women waste collectors were trained in waste management. In addition to this, financial support, and waste collection tools and equipment were provided. This contributed to raising awareness among women, empowering them, and enhancing their participation in waste management. As one interviewee intimated, “this has helped the women realize their great role in the society, especially in terms of environmental protection”. Through these five projects, women waste collectors have teamed up in many women waste collector clubs that guide the community on waste segregation in residential areas. This meaningful contribution is very necessary especially when the Law in Environmental Protection come into effect in January 2025 and waste segregation at source is mandatory for all househouses.

  • Improvement of waste management and circular economy policy and practice.

The Project also contributes to improve the policy framework on waste management and circular economy in Viet Nam. The Law on Environmental Protection 2020 has been issued with mandatory waste sorting at source commencing from January 2025, setting roadmap to phase out single use plastic by 2030. By the end of the Project, it also opens a follow-up phase in Binh Dinh province, to pilot an inclusive material recovery facility, which is designed to further segregate recyclable materials collected by the informal sectors.

Lessons: What can we learn from this initiative?

The project engaged nearly all stakeholders including households, schools, government departments, various unions, and the private sector. This ensured improved awareness and enhanced support from all stakeholders. For instance, informal waste collectors supported with waste collection, sorting and segregation to facilitate recycling. For private sector actors, apart from adopting environmentally friendly measures, some were responsible for dispatching vehicles and people to collect waste and coordinate waste management activities while others were transporting waste collected from cities to treatment centers for recycling. Households also participated in training workshops and adopted best management practices such as reducing plastics use and sorting their waste for collection. Government departments also supervised waste management activities and enforced regulations. This coordinated whole-of-society approach was a major success factor.

Another important success factor was the context-specific solutions provided. All activities were developed to suit the needs and circumstances of the communities. As one interviewee indicated, “listening and recognizing people's opinions throughout the process was helpful in order to properly understand and solve the [community's] problems”. The projects’ ability to respond to the critical needs of the communities was based on the evidence-based strategy adopted as interventions were designed and executed based on research and waste characterization results.

Another critical success factor appears to be the action-oriented learning strategy adopted. As one interviewee asserted, “people actively and voluntarily manage plastic waste due to their direct participation in plastic waste activities”. Others added that “the practical and interesting activities directly related to the problems play an extremely important role for people to recognize the real meaning and goals of the project”. These views support the assertion that practical and consistent engagement in activities is more likely to improve awareness and trigger behavior changes compared to merely sending general awareness raising messages. Engagement in practical activities such as waste collection, sorting and segregation, composting, among others were crucial in this regard.

In conclusion, this case study demonstrates how, with coordinated collective efforts, society can make strides in tackling plastic pollution while creating sustainable livelihoods and better living conditions for informal waste workers, some of the poorest people in society. This contributes to a just transition towards a future free of plastic pollution. UNDP is committed to sustaining, replicating and upscaling such successful initiatives through the Global Plastic Offer.


IWM strengthens the connection of resources to support localities, countries, and regions to ensure their roles and responsibilities of human to human and of human to nature in terms of waste. At the same time, short-term and long-term impacts on socio-economic, natural resources, environment, public health, climate change and epidemics are also required to be considered.

The projects were implemented in the following cities: Ha Long city (Quang Ninh province), Quy Nhon city (Binh Dinh province), Binh Thuan province (Phan Thiet city, Tuy Phong district and Phu Quy district), Da Nang city, and Di An city (Binh Duong province).