Hong Kong's very real plastic problem

Anna Beech argues that Hong Kong must clean up after itself, by reducing use and recycling where possible, to deal with its mounting plastic waste

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 2:44pm

We consume plastic like it's an infinite resource but it's not. Our everyday lives are covered in plastic - our foods, drinks, medicine, cars, clothes, furniture; the list is long, and growing. We've lost respect for plastic, a human engineering marvel that has become a huge problem.

In Hong Kong, we have reached crisis point. We produce 1,700 tonnes of plastic waste every day yet we don't have the infrastructure to deal with it. Instead, we ship it across the border to recycling plants on the mainland.

But, already, mainland China is beginning to impose tougher policies on such imports to reduce pollution from poorly run recycling operations.

Hong Kong requires a three-pronged approach - build the infrastructure to deal with the city's own waste; reduce the consumption of plastic in the first place; and create a policy environment that gives consumers and the private sector incentives to treat plastic like the precious resource it is.

First, business. It has no obligation to address this problem, but there are expectations and a growing number of examples of companies finally stepping up. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Nike and Heinz, for example, are taking much-needed steps to reduce their plastic footprints.

Since 1994, Coca-Cola has reduced the weight of its plastic bottles by 38.5 per cent, and in 2011, it introduced the PlantBottle packaging that is 100 per cent recyclable. A Nike campaign made all the football World Cup jerseys for the 2010 South Africa games out of 100 per cent recycled polyester, with each jersey taking eight plastic bottles out of landfills. The project alone stopped 13 million plastic bottles ending up in landfills.

The Plastic Disclosure Project, which has been adopted by the United Nations Environment Programme, gives companies a way to measure their plastic footprint.

Second, government. Officials can create the right conditions for handling waste. Taiwan, in 1992, established the Plastics Industry Development Centre, funded by Taipei and the private sector. It assists Taiwanese plastic industries by improving equipment, developing new materials, promoting international co-operation and sharing technological advances to enhance competitiveness. In 2011, 193,000 tonnes of plastic were at a recycling rate of 75 per cent. These recycled plastics were made into products like clothes, toys, materials for building and construction, furniture, car parts, and electronic products, generating some US$170 million in revenue.

Third, consumers. We all must reduce our use of plastic, by using refillable bottles, choosing loose foods in the supermarket, rather than those wrapped in plastic, recycling when we can, and by supporting businesses that have adopted more sustainable practices.

We have the solutions but businesses, the government and consumers need to be made aware of them and face up to the problem. We should no longer rely on others to clean up our mess. We all know plastic is a problem - we can see it in Hong Kong when we visit the beach, so let's deal with it ourselves. Relying on others is dangerous and untenable.

Anna Beech is senior project manager at Civic Exchange