OPINION: How to Reduce Hong Kong’s Plastic Waste in 5 Steps

OPINION: How to Reduce Hong Kong’s Plastic Waste in 5 Steps
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

All of Hong Kong's remaining landfills are expected to reach capacity before 2020. With waste exports to China off the table, sustainable action is needed – fast.

Look around. Do you see any plastic bottles? If the answer is yes, then listen up!

Hong Kong's waste crisis has reached a critical point. All landfills are expected to reach capacity before 2020 , with plastic waste filling at a rate of 2,200 tonnes a day , although many of these plastics are single-use items. Plastic is treated as a cheap Disposable commodity. In reality, it is a finite good - one which is permanently harmful to the environment, detrimental to human health, and a burden on the government's financial resources.

Hong Kong used to export most of its waste and recyclables to China until its waste import ban came into force at the end of last year. While the Chinese ban has affected numerous countries around the globe, Hong Kong finds itself in a uniquely difficult situation.

Without space for further landfills, and without the time to develop infrastructure such as incinerators and recycling factories, the city will soon be unable to cope with the municipal solid waste produced within its borders. Despite introducing a levy on plastic bags and an educational campaign to promote recycling, Hong Kong is actually moving further away from its “disposal rate per capita” reduction goals set in the Blueprint for Sustainable Resource in 2013.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
A truck unloads garbage at a landfill in Hong Kong's Tseung Kwan O District.

This negative development means that current policies are not sufficiently effective to deal with a waste crisis of this magnitude. Hong Kong is in dire need of a fast-working policy plan to avoid a collapse of the city's waste management. Prevention and recycling of plastics could be the only sustainable solution which will afford future generations the same living standards as those we enjoy today.

The following is an outline of a possible five-step approach for a policy scheme, which addresses the prevention of plastic waste:

Step One: Mandatory reporting of the volume and type of any plastic import by the commercial sector. As of now, the Environmental Protection Department only tracks the type of waste which ends up in landfills, and lacks any comprehensive data on which companies are responsible for excessive plastic packaging. Therein lies a significant problem, as it is difficult to manage what is not measured.

The Plastic Disclosure Project already offers a framework to measure plastic waste production and could be readily adopted. If a company’s plastic footprint is calculated, it will allow the government to craft future plastic waste related extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. Of course, the government would have to verify this data through auditing and enforce legal repercussions in the case of fraud.

Step Two introduces EPR schemes, a hallmark of the circular economy, which rely upon the 'polluter-pays' principle. The companies are given two choices. Either they take care of their plastic waste and ship it out of the country after use, or they are subjected to a volume-based waste fee. The severity of this waste fee is determined through the plastic footprint of each company – data which has been compiled by the methods detailed in Step One.

The reason the plastic crisis has become so dramatic, despite many people remaining so utterly oblivious to it, is because there seems to be no direct impact on the individual – yet.

Step Three consists of a variety of public awareness campaigns funded by the previously mentioned waste fee. These can consist of:

  1. Incorporating education on plastic waste reduction into the school curriculum.
  2. Mandatory labelling of plastic products, including information about their Plastic Footprint and depicting images of plastic pollution, akin to the graphic tobacco warning labels.
  3. Launching a green credit system, which promotes and awards environmentally friendly consumer behavior such as purchasing sustainable products and making green lifestyle choices. For instance, buying non-plastic wrapped fruit can translate into credit on one's Octopus card.

The reason the plastic crisis has become so dramatic, despite many people remaining so utterly oblivious to it, is because there seems to be no direct impact on the individual – yet. Through public awareness campaigns, this silent crisis will finally garner people's attention and motivate them to change their unsustainable habits before it is too late.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Plastic bags containing trash washed up on Nim Shue Wan beach at Hong Kong's Lantau Island.

Step Four is the most drastic, will show immediate results, and is the least expensive measure of the plastic-waste reduction policy scheme. Hong Kong should entirely ban specific single-use plastic items and plastic microbeads.

The European Union, Taiwan, and several other countries have either announced or already put in place multiple plastic bans for the following items: plastic bags, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers, cotton buds, sticks for balloons, bottles with removable caps, and microbeads in cosmetics.

All of these items can be easily replaced with a reusable or renewable counterpart. After an adjustment period, these bans will not negatively impact the quality of life of Hong Kong's residents. Hence, plastic bans are possible, effective, and publicly accepted.

We should welcome China's ban on waste as a wakeup call, jolting us out of our collective “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.

Step Five encourages the phasing out and replacing of plastic packaging of food and beverages. This step will take the longest as it requires a complete rethinking of packaging material and will likely only work if the public supports new packaging.

First, it should become mandatory for companies to use only one type of plastic per packaging, so it can later be more easily recycled. Furthermore, the government could incentivize the use of sustainable alternatives such as pressed bamboo and palm leaves. This step could even present a major business opportunity for companies to spearhead new packaging technologies and become pioneers in the global market.

Read Next: China’s Waste Import Ban: An Opportunity for Real Recycling

The ideal outcome of this policy scheme is a fundamental change of Hong Kong's throwaway, convenience-based, plastic-packaging-craving culture into a plastic-conscious society, valuing environmentally-friendly alternatives and ultimately leading to a circular economy.

However, we do not have to wait around for the government to take action. We should welcome China's ban on waste as a wakeup call, jolting us out of our collective “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Each and every one of us must take responsibility for our garbage, and for our personal plastic footprint. Why not begin today?

Take your first step on your journey to a plastic-free lifestyle. When you visit the coffee shop today, buy a reusable mug. You may notice that you enjoy your coffee even more, as you sip your brew with the knowledge that, however small It may be, you did a good deed for the environment.

Read Next: World Environment Day: 5 Easy Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste

Editor: Nick Aspinwall