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In Vietnam, artwork made from 168,000 old straws raises awareness of plastic pollution

Monday, February 25, 2019, 07:00 GMT+7
In Vietnam, artwork made from 168,000 old straws raises awareness of plastic pollution
Benjamin Von Wong poses for a photo with The Parting of The Plastic Sea. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

More than 168,000 discarded plastic drinking straws have been given a second life in Benjamin Von Wong’s latest art installation in Ho Chi Minh City.

The artwork, titled “The Parting of The Plastic Sea," features two huge, 8m long and 3.3m tall waves.

It recently earned a Guinness record as the largest drinking straw sculpture (supported), meaning it was made from not only straws but with supported materials like wooden structures, lights, and plastic bags, as explained by Wong.

The work, made from 168,037 straws, has been on public display since late January 2019 at Estella Place in District 2, where it will stay for two months.

A promo photo of The Parting of The Plastic Sea taken by Benjamin Von Wong
A promo photo of The Parting of The Plastic Sea taken by Benjamin Von Wong

'Parting' the sea to see an ocean of plastic trash

“My hope was to create the parting of the sea to reveal what’s hiding within,” the Canadian photographer shared.

His 106,000 followers have also been encouraged to label the project #strawpocalypse.

What is hidden inside is neither fish nor sea creatures, but plastic waste.

According to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report launched at the World Economic Forum in 2016, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by the year 2050.

“Only nine percent of plastic is recycled around the world. Every day plastic waste from the ground is washed into the drain, flows into the rivers, into the seas, and then fish and birds eat the plastic, which eventually become human food. It's kind of a real brutal cycle,” Wong told Tuoi Tre News. “People think plastic ‘disappears’ into the ocean, but it never ‘disappears’.”

According to Wong, global plastic pollution sounds overwhelming, but every individual has the power to make a change.

“Straws are virtually impossible to recycle in most places around the world because of how light and small they are,” Wong explained.

“It's not that straws are the biggest problem, or that straws are going to save the world, or if we get rid of straws, the problems are going to go away,” he added.

“The problem is our way of thinking. Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, let’s focus more on what we can do, starting from our daily habits.

“It could be the first step because if every time you order a drink, you remember to ask for no straw, then this will also go down in other behaviors when you may go to the supermarket to buy something without plastic bags, and other habits on single-use plastic."

Von Wong speaks to guests at the launching ceremony of The Parting of The Plastic Sea in Ho Chi Minh City on January 25, 2019. Photo: Quang Dinh/Tuoi Tre
Benjamin Von Wong speaks to guests at the launch ceremony of The Parting of The Plastic Sea in Ho Chi Minh City on January 25, 2019. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Attending the installation’s launch ceremony on January 25, Canadian Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City Kyle Nunas shared that sometimes people do not think that one piece of plastic they use is a problem, but when they see how it comes together like this, they may think more about their actions.

“I see people taking pictures and I know that they're posting them on social media, and I hope that it will raise awareness in Vietnam and all over the world,” he said.

Meanwhile, British Consul General Ian Gibbons emphasized that “we can all make a difference, from yourself, your family, your town, your country and ultimately make the world a better place."

A video depicts the process of making The Parting of The Plastic Sea by Von Wong's team

'The magic of Vietnam'

In a video promoting the work, Wong called “The Parting of The Plastic Sea” “an art installation built by volunteers in Vietnam to fight Strawpocalypse.”

“The magic of Vietnam is someone that knows someone that knows someone who can help you do whatever you want to do," the Canadian artist said with a smile.

He received great support in the Southeast Asian country where hundreds of people spent six months collecting old straws for one shared reason: to raise awareness of an environmental disaster.

Things got started when Julia Mesner, co-founder of Zero Waste Saigon, a Ho Chi Minh City-based eneterprise dedicated to eco-solutions, reached out to Wong.

Von Wong and Julia Mesner, co-founder of Zero Waste Saigon pose with The Parting of the Plastic Sea. Photo: Anna Tenne
Benjamin Von Wong and Julia Mesner, co-founder of Zero Waste Saigon, pose with The Parting of The Plastic Sea. Photo: Anna Tenne

Following Wong’s environmental projects for years, in mid-2018, Mesner decided to invite Von Wong to Saigon “to do something.”

Without hesitation, the photographer accepted the offer.

“I told her that I would need a lot of materials to ‘do something,' anything like one hundred thousand straws, and she said 'OK,'” Wong recalled.

Six months later, Mesner stunned Wong with more than 160,000 discarded straws which Zero Waste Saigon in collaboration with organizations collected from across Vietnam.

The effort drew the attention of young Vietnamese volunteers, many aged 14 to 25, who enthusiastically joined cleanups to collect discarded straws on the street, and campaigns to ask for used straws from cafés and restaurants as well as from people who decided to give up using plastic straws.

Nguyen Thi Cam Tu, coordinator of the Hanoi branch of the global organization Let’s Do It!, said within nearly two weeks of November 2018, the environmental organization collected over 11,000 straws.

The same way, the organization’s branch in the southern city of Vung Tau collected more than 7,000 straws, with nearly 100 high school students participating in their cleanup event in early December 2018.

“All were used straws we collected and asked for from cafés and restaurants,” Let’s Do It! Vung Tau’s representative Tran Thi Cam Tu confirmed.

Volunteers join to collect discarded straws for The Parting of The Plastic Sea at a cleanup event in the southern city of Vung Tau in late 2018. Photo provided by Let's Do It! Vung Tau
Volunteers join to collect discarded straws for The Parting of The Plastic Sea at a cleanup event in the southern city of Vung Tau in late 2018. Photo provided by Let's Do It! Vung Tau

Starbucks Vietnam, one of the project’s partners, also set up collecting points for used straws at their shops.

According to Zero Waste Saigon, straws from Starbucks accounted for around ten percent of the straws used in the installation.

When materials were ready, the questions of how to actually proceed with the project started.

Wong and arrived in Saigon with a “doodle” depicting his installation and a bunch of ideas waiting to get aligned.

The initial doodle featuring idea for The Parting of The Sea by Von Wong
The initial idea for The Parting of The Sea by Benjamin Von Wong

Fortunately, he received helping hands from local volunteers, complete strangers who were willing to help him translate, lend him ladders, buckets, or even stay up all night with him to build the work’s structure.

Within two weeks, the photographer took his idea from a doodle to reality, with people supporting him in making 3D graphics, finding builders, and sorting and gluing straws together to shape the work.

The first morning of the 2-day straw sorting and washing event on January 13 attracted around 30 young Vietnamese volunteers.

Nhu Quynh, 18, said she came because she found the activity environmentally helpful and because she supports the zero-waste lifestyle.

Volunteers join Von Wong to sort the straws before washing them for The Parting of The Sea. Photo: Anna Tenne
Volunteers join Benjamin Von Wong to sort the straws before washing them for The Parting of The Sea. Photo: Anna Tenne

On the morning of January 17, Dai Huynh, 26, and her friend took the earliest bus from the southern city of Can Tho to Saigon to help with gluing the straws.

An environmental enthusiast, Huynh had followed to project since the early days.

“Each person has their own way of expressing their concerns about the environment,” Huynh said. “I support using art to talk about the problem.”

“Every day, dozens of new volunteers streamed in to give thousands of discarded straws a second life, older volunteers would teach newer volunteers, that’s wonderful,” Wong expressed.

Volunteers help with gluing the straws. Photo: Anna Tenne
Volunteers help with gluing the straws. Photo: Anna Tenne/Supplied by Von Wong

Meanwhile, Nguyen Quoc Dung had actively contributed to the project since the first days.

“The habit of using single-use plastic in Vietnam is alarming,” the volunteer commented.

“Since I participated in this project, I started to care more about plastic and what I’d found out was everything was contained in plastic, from a water bottle at a grocery shop to a cup of coffee on the street,” he said.

The 27-year-old also insisted that “we can make a change, starting from helping people learn about the issue.”

Singaporean Leanne Lim, 20, agreed that the fact that she and other volunteers were helping the project for free showed that young people are really aware of the problem and truly care about the environment.

“We’re hurting this planet. Trees are being cut down, animals are being poached everywhere, and there is a ton of plastic waste,” Don Le, a project volunteer said.

“We can do better to protect our world and make it a lot stronger,’ he added.

Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get the latest news about Vietnam!

Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

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