At the moment, 50% of all plastic that is produced is used only once. On average, single-use plastic items are in the hands of a user for just 15 minutes before they are thrown away. These objects, which can take decades to decompose, have a hugely negative impact on our environment.
Marina Tran-Vu, an entrepreneur in Vietnam, has the goal to replace all single-use plastics with more sustainable alternatives.
Originally from Canada, Tran-Vu spent a decade working in the consumer packaged goods sector, holding posts in companies like Unilever before founding Equo in Vietnam. The firm’s name is derived from “eco” and “status quo,” and it produces 100% plastic-free and compostable products to replace common single-use plastic items. Equo’s range of products includes straws, utensils, and bags made from materials like grass, rice, coconut, sugarcane, and coffee.
KrASIA recently spoke with Tran-Vu to discuss Equo’s ambitious goals and how the firm is raising awareness for sustainability.
The following interview has been consolidated and edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): What is the reason for using materials like sugarcane and rice to make Equo’s products?
Marina Tran-Vu (MTV): At the moment, there is a proliferation of paper as an alternative to plastic. While I definitely applaud the switch to something more sustainable, there is a major misconception that paper is a lot more sustainable than plastic. It actually produces the same amount or even more carbon emissions than plastic during its production. And, it’s sourced from trees, so you can argue either way to say if it’s a renewable resource. At Equo, we wanted to focus on providing options for materials that are even more sustainable than paper.
We really want to use materials that are compostable. We hear a lot about microplastics, which are going into the fish that we eat. Equo’s compostable products can break down into organic compounds that are non-toxic, so that’s why we make the materials that we provide. With rice, grass, coconut, sugarcane, and coffee, we can achieve our objective to make materials that are strong, high-quality, and overall better alternatives to paper and plastic.
Kr: Has it been difficult to raise awareness in Vietnam about sustainability and Equo’s alternatives to single-use plastics?
MTV: I think that there’s work to be done in all regions. In Canada, there is a much more organized waste management system with recycling bins. Here in Vietnam and parts of Asia, awareness is much lower. When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was a little shocked because there was garbage pretty much everywhere, even on the coastline, and that was really disheartening to see. In addition to that, recycling and composting are new concepts here.
General waste management does have a lot of room for growth in Asia, but everyone wants to be more sustainable. No one wants to pollute the planet on purpose, but the reality is that it can be difficult if you’re not aware of the options, or if the alternatives are costly, or particularly if they’re not accessible. That’s why we are creating products that are accessible, so people can realize that it is very easy to be sustainable.
Kr: Equo’s first product was a compostable straw. What other items has the company made to widen its reach?
MTV: We started off with straws because—this might sound like a funny term—it’s the “gateway plastic.” It’s the first thing that you use and throw away without noticing.
We’ve also launched utensils made out of sugarcane, coffee, as well as wood from small sustainable shrubs, not giant trees. This year, we will make reusable bags, cups, bowls, and plates. These items may not be “exciting” products but they are replacing things that end up in the oceans as harmful pollution.
Kr: What are the challenges of running a startup that’s looking to spread the message of eco-friendliness and sustainability in Southeast Asia?
MTV: I would say the biggest one was COVID-19. Before the pandemic, sustainability and a lot of other social issues were brought to the forefront, and these were problems that people wanted to tackle. But when COVID-19 began to spread, those issues were placed on the back burner, and years of progress was erased. There was a lot more pollution because people needed disposable, protective equipment. I don’t think that was anyone’s fault, more so just a consequence of the circumstances.
Another challenge is that the pandemic impacted the people who use our products, like restaurants and coffee shops. When people are trying to navigate the ambiguity around salaries, income, or even whether they’ll still have a job, it’s hard to encourage people to use products like ours that are sustainable but also a bit more expensive than what’s already on the market.
Finally, I would say the toughest challenge is getting people to understand that there are alternatives to both paper and plastic. While we have done a great job in educating people, it can be intimidating to start that sustainability journey.
Kr: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that foreign investors haven’t really shown strong interest in Vietnam, especially in organizations like Equo focused on sustainability. What are some of the barriers?
MTV: Equo makes a physical product. We’re not really a tech company. People question our scalability and our products’ usability. I think we have overcome the barrier of being seen as a niche product. But there are no barriers to entry for using our products. They can easily be widely adopted as long as people give them a chance.
Also, I think investors hesitate to take the chance to invest in companies operating in Vietnam. That is why it’s important for companies like ours to reach out to people who are overseas—not just for investments, but also to educate people about the businesses that are doing great things here. We were fortunate enough to be the first Vietnamese company ever admitted into Techstars, the seed accelerator. Last year, there was also a Vietnamese company admitted into Y Combinator. This is just the start.