We just returned from a family trip to Vietnam. Whenever I travel I can’t help but compare the food, the surroundings, the culture, and even the regulations if I can figure them out. One common practice in the Vietnamese culture is re-use. Born out of necessity, the Vietnamese are masters of conservation. It seems that nothing goes to waste.
During our stay, we visited a few factories where bricks, candy and other items are produced. We learned that clay is gathered from rice patties or rivers to be made into bricks. The clay is transported by boat and loaded by hand onto a conveyer into the factory. Rice hulls heat the ovens to bake the bricks. The ashes from those hulls are then used as fertilizer. Everything in the process comes from the earth and is completely sustainable. The bricks are only used in the area where they are made so there isn’t even a transportation cost.
Coconut water, milk and meat is a common food source in Vietnam. Coconut husks are then used to heat buildings or cook food. Coir from the husks is also used to make ropes and rugs.
Many of the roofs are constructed from dried palm leaves. There is no cost to these roofs besides labor. When a section of the roof needs to be replaced dead palm leaves can be snapped off a nearby tree and then woven into the thatched roof. There is zero waste involved.
We visited the CuChi Tunnels where the CuChi community lived underground during the war with the U.S. and before that during the French occupation. The guide showed us how mortars, tanks and ammunition that littered the countryside were collected, melted down and used to create items they needed. Later I read that these same metals were also sent out of the country to make beer or soda cans and even cars. Nothing was discarded. Here we also saw sandals made from worn out tires, which had originally been constructed from rubber gathered from nearby trees. All the guides wore the sandals and they told us that they never wear out. Later at the gift shop, we saw purses, hats and bags made from recycled pop and beer cans. Materials aren’t just re-used once but over and over again giving new meaning to the term recycling.
Conservation practices in Vietnam go beyond re-use. Mangroves are planted along the river bank to keep the soil from eroding. The leaves are fed to chickens, the flowers are consumed as vegetables by humans and the stalks are dried and used to make flip flops or bags. It doesn’t get more sustainable than that.
I realize that re-use, especially to this extent, is possible and efficient, in part, because of the low cost of labor in Vietnam, which is vastly different than in the United States. Our weather is another issue. Obviously, thatched roofs wouldn’t work in Minnesota. However, we could re-use other items, including the many bi-products in our agricultural system or cast off materials in our building trades that currently end up in our landfills.
In times of plenty there isn’t as much motivation to be frugal or to conserve. We have an opportunity now during this economic downturn to alter our way of doing business to reflect the true cost of our practices. We cannot afford to subsidize wasteful and unsustainable behaviors, and yet we continue to do just that. Our throwaway mentality isn’t progressive and it doesn’t make sense on any level. We have much to learn from Vietnam and other developing countries even with all the challenges they face. I believe we would be wise to emulate the sustainable mindset that prevails throughout so many other regions of the world.
Kristin Eggerling is a board member for Conservation Minnesota Voter Center, the mother of two, and a freelance writer in northwestern Minnesota.