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From trash to tableware: Vietnamese man turns areca leaves into plastic alternative

Friday, June 19, 2020, 10:11 GMT+7
From trash to tableware: Vietnamese man turns areca leaves into plastic alternative
Nguyen Van Tuyen is seen in this photo by Lam Minh Khoa.

A Vietnamese man from Quang Ngai Province is giving second life to the areca palm leaves that blanket his town as an environmentally-friendly alternative to single-use plastic tableware.

The combination of areca fruits and betel leaves holds a prominent position in Vietnamese tradition, representing a strong connection between two people and often offered as a wedding gift from a groom’s family to a bride’s family to express their wish for the newlyweds to live a happy life together.

In Nghia Hanh, a district in Quang Ngai, an abundance of areca trees has been planted solely to meet the needs of spouses-to-be, but while the fruit from these trees is considered valuable, the leaves often go to waste.

Areca trees lose one leaf a month for about six months of the year.

Local growers used to burn these leaves at the end of each growing season, at least until 37-year-old Nguyen Van Tuyen came along and began transforming them into environmentally-friendly plates, bowls, and spoons.

Tuyen has built a career around upcycling agricultural by-products. 

In 2010, he co-founded a company to produce animal feed from used sugarcane and cassava pulp, cashew kernel skin, and pineapple skin.

When he learned that machines could press the areca leaves into molds and transform them into useful, everyday items, he decided to import one in hopes that he could both prevent farmers from burning their unused leaves and develop environmentally-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics.

The first machine arrived in Vietnam in September 2019 and Tuyen immediately got to work, buying, cleaning, and pressing the leaves into molds.

A plate made from areca leaves is seen in a photo.

 A plate made from areca leaves is seen in this photo.

The process was so easy that he began training others to run the machine. He also pays locals VND1,000 (4 U.S. cents) for each leaf they collect.

With leaves in hand, Tuyen and his workers wash, clean, and stack them before processing them into plates, bowls, and spoons using their imported machine.

The success of his production process has led him to focus on expanding his market to other parts of Vietnam in the hope of replacing single-use plastics with areca products.

While Tuyen’s efforts have met with pushback from major supermarkets that refuse to carry his products due to their high price, small stores that target environmentally conscious customers are busy scooping up his areca silverware.

He has also been successful in selling his products to the U.S. market and listing them on Amazon.

Tran Thi Mai from Phu Chau Village, Hanh Duc commune, Nghia Hanh District, Quang Ngai Province rides a bicycle delivering areca leaves to Nguyen Van Tuyen’s factory, which makes tableware from the agricultural by-product. Photo: Lam Minh Khoa

Tran Thi Mai from Phu Chau Village, Hanh Duc commune, Nghia Hanh District, Quang Ngai Province rides a bicycle delivering areca leaves to Nguyen Van Tuyen’s factory, which makes tableware from the agricultural by-product. Photo: Lam Minh Khoa

Christopher Dunn, an Australian who sells eco-friendly products in Hoi An, is one of Tuyen’s customers.

“[Tuyen] and I talked over the areca products and how I needed a reliable supplier,” Dunn said.

“I ended up selling a good 50 percent of the samples that he gave me at Cho Phien Organic Hoi An Farmers Market. I'm so happy that I met Tuyen and that we can continue to work together promoting these and their environmental benefits.”

Inspired by Tuyen’s work, an artist in Quang Ngai has been using areca plates and areca leaves to create paintings depicting life in Vietnam, many of which have been a hit in the local market.

Nguyen Si Hai, vice-chairman of Hanh Duc Commune in Quang Ngai, is also excited about having a new product made in his province.

“I am impressed with areca products. Tens of thousands of areca trees are planted here. We sell the fruit to the whole nation, but the leaves are considered trash. This offers a new source of income for farmers and senior citizens,” Hai said.

Farmers in Nghia Hanh District, Quang Ngai Province, where areca palm trees are grown in abundance, now profit off the tree’s leaves they used to burn. Photo: Lam Minh Khoa

Farmers in Nghia Hanh District, Quang Ngai Province, where areca palm trees are grown in abundance, now profit from the tree’s leaves they used to burn. Photo: Lam Minh Khoa

Artist Nguyen Thi Dieu Hien and an artwork made from areca leaves are seen in this photo on Facebook.

Artisan Nguyen Thi Dieu Hien and an artwork made from areca leaves are seen in this photo uploaded on Facebook.

Plates made from areca leaves are seen in a photo.

Plates made from areca leaves are seen in this photo.

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Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

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