March is a transition month in Vietnam as the country moves from spring to summer. And globally, it is a month that also has two important transition related dates if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement’s net-zero targets.

March 18 is Global Recycling Day and March 22 is World Water Day. THP takes an active interest in both since the manufacturing of our healthy beverage drinks requires plenty of plastics and water.

We all know that we can improve our recycling abilities and water usage on both an individual and corporate level. Indeed, the UN’s latest data shows that governments will have to work on average four times faster if they are to meet the supranational agency’s SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation for all) by 2030.

In Vietnam, the government is very conscious of this since the country’s 140-year water treatment and distribution system is struggling to keep up with the pace of urbanization.

It also knows that it needs to do more to encourage recycling. Last year, the World Bank estimated that Vietnam discharges about 3.1 million metric tons of plastic on land per year, of which about 60% is single use plastic and 10% ends up in our rivers and the sea.

In 2022, it took its environmental response up a gear, enacting the Law on Environment Protection. This emphasises development of the circular economy, plus waste and wastewater management.

THP’s response

I’ve previously blogged about THP’s strategic emphasis on the circular economy. The two global awareness days feel like a good opportunity to do so again with an update about how our plans are progressing.

Firstly, I’d like to reiterate that environmental awareness for us is nothing new.

We’ve been actively looking for ways to improve our environmental footprint since 2010 when we launched our “Water is Breath” campaign, encouraging employees to think about their water usage. That same year, we also introduced the 3R model (reduce, reuse, recyle).

On the manufacturing side, we’ve also worked hard to reduce plastic consumption. Over the past 10 years, we’ve cut it by 70,000 tons, partly by reducing bottle weights.

Last year, we took another important step forward when we opened our first plastic recycling plant in Hậu Giang Province. It was, in many ways, an obvious step for us.

Our company’s great strengths lie in R&D and production: the plastic recycling plant combines the best of both. It’s the ultimate example of the circular economy in action – the reuse and regeneration of materials and products to continue production in a sustainable way.

This is a concept that nearly all of our ancestors would have instinctively understood. Our forebears were constantly re-using and re-purposing their possessions.

My grandparents’ generation did this all their lives. So did my parents’ generation during their childhoods.

It’s only in the past 40 years that this principle got lost as disposable incomes shot up and consumerism took over. But now the wheel has come back full circle towards an emphasis on responsible consumerism.

At THP, we began by recycling nylon bags and the new plant recycles plastic waste into plastic pellets.

And I’m very proud to say that success has been down to our in-house engineers rather than the foreign experts we’d initially hired, but who were unable to travel to Vietnam in 2021 because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.

At the moment, the plant isn’t economically viable. But this isn’t something we expected at the outset.

We built the plant to show that we take sustainability seriously and because we know it will become profitable in the not too distant future. The key to this happening, as with most companies, lies in scaling up and creating a much deeper and wider eco-system around it.

And this is what we are trying to do right now. The plastics recycling business is complex and in order to source the best inputs, we accept other companies’ plastic waste in addition to our own.

Additives are one complexity. Companies use them to give plastic bottles their distinctive colours (there are about 10,000 in total).

So before we can produce new pellets, we have to sort the plastic very carefully. One potentially positive step towards making this easier is the HolyGrail 2.0 Project: a collaboration between the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, the European Brands Association and about 160 companies in the plastics business.

In Europe, there’s a pilot programme for digital watermarks. These contain information about the type of plastic and the additives products contain. They can be read by scanners at recycling plants, enabling them to sort plastic waste far more effectively.

Plastic products’ lifecyle

Vietnam is not at this stage yet. Scrap sorting is highly localized and part of the informal economy.

In order to understand it better, we’ve initiated a project to trace the lifecycle of scrap bottles. We’ve sent teams to different areas to evaluate issues such as: the kind of scrap yards they have and how many scrap pickers are searching rubbish tips.

In Vietnam, scrap pickers are known as đồng nátnhôm nhựa or ve chai. More than half of them are women and unfortunately, children are estimated to account for just below 10%.

Many also face discrimination, since scrap picking isn’t considered a desirable job. The S (social) part of a company’s ESG commitment can look to address this.

As such, our plan is to create a unified system that will not only make the whole scrap collection system more efficient but also benefit all the stakeholders along the chain from the scrap pickers at one end to the consumers buying our recycled pellets at the other.

Over the medium-term new technological advances will also help to make recycling more profitable, encouraging more companies to take the plunge. For example, new breakthroughs in the development of chemicals called compatibilizers will enable recycling plants to combine different types of plastics into new products.

We all may also become familiar with a new word “nurdles.” This is a type of plastic that is not derived from petroleum but a form of waste – methane generated by water treatment plants. A US biotech is deploying a type of bacteria called methanotrophs to convert the methane into a molecule (P3HB), which is then used to create nurdle pellets.

I hope all these developments inspire you to take action in your life, as we are at THP in ours. This year’s theme for World Water Day is #bethechange. Let’s all play our part!