Vietnam climate leaders tackle plastic pollution in the Mekong River

Vietnam climate leaders tackle plastic pollution in the Mekong River

UNICEF Viet Nam\Pham Thai Hong Van
Photo of Son
UNICEF Viet Nam\Mai Duc Huy
18 August 2021

Young people globally are more aware of climate change and environmental issues than ever before, demonstrating a strong commitment towards a climate movement for our planet. By working together with children and young people, UNICEF can empower them to address the impacts of climate change. 

As a young person, Son has many concerns about social and community issues in Vietnam, of which climate change is one of the most urgent to solve. ‘I love the environment and green rivers, so I want to be a part of the solution for the plastic waste pollution at Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho river,’ said Son, a 21-year-old student at Economy University in Ho Chi Minh City. Son comes from Kien Giang province in the Mekong River Delta, where severe impacts of climate change have been witnessed. 

His journey to implement the ‘Green River’ project started in October 2021 when he joined the Vietnam Climate Leadership Initiative, a programme jointly implemented by UNICEF, the Saigon Innovation Hub, and CHANGE (a local NGO), and supported by ING through Power for Youth. The programme aims to equip participants with climate knowledge and 21st century skills, and promote active citizenship through four phases: Outreach, Human-Centered Design Training, Incubation, and Policy Brief Workshop. After the Outreach phase, interested young people are invited to create teams of 4-5 members and submit their ideas for addressing an issue in their community, presented in the form of a problem statement, a problem analysis, and proposed solutions. 

In December 2019, Son and four other young people from Mekong River Delta provinces united in their shared passion for environmental issues. The team members are: Nhat, 25 years old; Bao, 26 years old; Tam, 22 years old; Hai, 23 years old; and team leader Son, 21 years old. 

From 28 to 31 May 2020, twelve teams were selected to participate in the next phase of the initiative – a four-day human-centered design training workshop covering project development and management. Son’s team was among the twelve and – with technical support from UNICEF and partners and seed funding from the organizers – designed a solution to address plastic waste pollution.

Son and other participants during a training session of the Vietnam Climate Leadership Initiative
UNICEF Viet Nam\Mai Duc Huy
Son and other participants during a training session of the Vietnam Climate Leadership Initiative

‘We are targeting vendors to reduce single-use plastic waste in the floating market. Together with awareness, we give them trash bins, so that they do not throw their rubbish in the river. For the bins, we collect old bins on which we draw and paint drawings promoting environmental protection messages. During the incubation phase, we developed the trash collector prototype machine’, added Son. 

Following months of planning and implementation, in October 2020, Son and the ‘Green River’ team achieved significant results, including a UNESCO award for ‘top 8 creative projects for a plastic-free ocean’. The project has also been well received and supported by vendors operating in the floating market.  

Son and other participants receive their certificates of completion following the incubation phase of the VCLI.
UNICEF Viet Nam\Mai Duc Huy
Son and other participants receive their certificates of completion following the incubation phase of the VCLI.

The team initially faced difficulties finding the right way to run the trash collector engine. While gas is a more powerful fuel, they wanted an environmentally friendly solution. After trials and much consideration, the team opted for an electric engine which uses solar-powered batteries with a 2-hour duration. 

The prototype has worked well but Son and his team are seeking support from the technology faculty at Can Tho University to improve their model, including designs that can be assembled more easily to support transportation and storage. 

‘Our team came through hard times dealing with internal conflicts. We struggled the most in figuring out mutual goals at the beginning of the project. Then we reflected to understand and match each personal purpose with the project’s mutual objectives. Now we are a complete team,’ Son said.  

The ‘Green River’ project team plans to continue their research and roll out the trash collector machine model throughout Mekong River Delta areas, for greener rivers and cleaner environments in Vietnam. In the long run, they plan to establish youth climate action forums, organize Mekong River’s eco-tours with local traders, and strengthen local environmental activities with young people. Personally, Son wishes to continue participating in environmental movements with youth-led organizations to amplify his voice. At the same time, he is studying hard to graduate from university in early 2022 and seeking opportunities to study abroad for a master's degree.  

‘With this programme, I have gained more personal development, dared to propose ideas and taken actions. Through teamwork, I find out that we should not reject anyone’s ideas. Let’s support each other to develop together and spread out to the community for a greener planet,’ concluded Son.