Hong Kong's recycling firms struggle with the plastic peril
Hong Kong produces mountains of plastic waste, so why are our recycling plants struggling to stay open?
Plastic, plastic everywhere, and all with nowhere to go: the bales of flattened drinks bottles, clothes hangers and other discarded items piling up at Lee Hing-tak's sprawling recycling plant in Tuen Mun Eco Park epitomise the deep dysfunction in the city's plastics recycling system.
For one thing, little recycling is actually conducted in Hong Kong aside from a few operators like Lee, who runs Telford Envirotech. Most of the purportedly recycled plastic waste is gathered by scrap collectors who bundle it for export to mainland processing plants.
Of the 843,200 tonnes of plastic waste recovered in 2011, as much as 839,300 tonnes - 99.5 per cent - was exported. Just 0.5 per cent was recycled locally, according to the Environmental Protection Department.
Although mainland regulations stipulate that only processed plastic waste can be imported, this wasn't strictly enforced. So traders have simply gathered the unsorted plastic into bales, declared it processed and sent it across the border, where the material can sell for about HK$2,000 per tonne.
For the most part, Hong Kong's plastic recycling business is "nothing more than waste smuggling to the mainland", Lee says.
Those operations came to an abrupt halt in March when the Chinese customs officials launched Operation Green Fence. Scheduled to run until November, the campaign aims to crack down on waste smuggling. Since then, more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic waste intended for the mainland has piled up at various New Territories collection points, the Recycle Materials and Re-production Business General Association estimates.
Yet local recyclers such as Telford and Wah Lung Plastic Company, also in Tuen Mun, struggle to source sufficient volumes of cheap plastic waste to sustain their operations.
Meanwhile, some 1,694 tonnes of the 2,000 tonnes of plastic that Hongkongers throw out every day (about 85 per cent) wind up in landfills - an absurd state of affairs when the government is trying to rally support to expand existing waste dumps and build a giant waste incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau.
Lee operates two production lines at Telford: one turns clear plastic bottles into plastic crystals - industrial material for generating fibre that can be spun into textile; the second converts bottles into plastic sheets, which can be used to produce rubbish bins and other containers. But he can only get enough plastic waste to run his machines for one day each week.
Similarly, Wah Lung, which processes plastic waste into pellets for industrial reuse, has had to import material from the US to feed its operations.
"Why do I need to bring in waste plastic from overseas when so much of it is dumped in landfills every year?" says Wah Lung's owner, who prefers to remain anonymous. "My dad set up the business in the '60s. Before local manufacturers moved operations to the mainland, we would collect waste plastic from them for raw material. A decade ago, there were around eight recyclers which really turned waste plastic into products for local use. But the government kept introducing obstacles to our business," he says.
Officials set conditions such as criteria for effluent discharge that small enterprises could not fulfil without any technical or financial support, he says. Many firms were forced to close.
And as the US economy soured after 2008, the Wah Lung boss says, he couldn't even import enough plastic waste to keep his machines running and has since had to reduce his team of workers from 12 people to just four.
Operation Green Fence has also hit French trader Michel Jospe, whose Hong Kong-based company, Methong Plastics, brings in plastic waste from Europe for processing on the mainland. Shipments that have been rejected by Chinese customs are now stranded in Hong Kong, so some of it will have to go to landfills, he says.
Nevertheless, Jospe reckons the mainland clampdown is a chance for Hong Kong to revamp its woeful waste disposal strategy.
"In France, 90 per cent of waste is recycled, with only 10 per cent incinerated for electricity generation," he says.
"Operation [Green Fence] is a good opportunity for Hong Kong to come up with new ideas and outlets for the waste. Such outlets exist. It's just that the Hong Kong government didn't think carefully about the situation. They either don't release licences [for recyclers] or they ask for too many [requisites] that are difficult to achieve by people who recycle. At the end of the day, things go to landfills."
Our plastic waste woes are also due to a disposal chain that went awry from the beginning - from household rubbish to waste processors to factories making products from recycled materials, says Lee Kin-man, an associate professor at the Technological and Higher Education Institute specialising in solid-waste-recycling technology.
"So collection of waste plastic is in chaos now," Lee says.
Because waste sorting was never properly done at the source, this yielded a mishmash of different types of plastics that local recyclers could not use without incurring extra cost for separation. So they merely shred the waste to produce basic industrial materials such as plastic pellets that are exported to mainland factories.
However, recyclers face fierce competition from mainland rivals as manufacturers can buy processed plastic waste domestically.
Hong Kong should do more to reuse its plastic waste, Lee Kin-man says. "Although it cannot support big-scale manufacturing, production lines can be set up to convert discarded plastic bags and bottles - the two main types of household plastic waste - into new bags and bottles. Other adulterated waste plastic can also be made into park benches."
Telford's Lee Hing-tak takes a similar view. "There are more than 30 types of plastic; it's not feasible to set up production lines in Hong Kong for handling so many different plastics," says the businessman, who is also the founding president of the Federation of Hong Kong Recycle.
"I have a mainland plant [in Zhaoqing, Guangdong province] that can turn used plastic bottles into fibre for making clothes. This is just one kind of a production line … There are seven kinds of common household plastic waste. Only four types, including those used for drink bottles and shampoo containers, are produced in quantities to make recycling economically viable."
Although the government encourages plastic recycling, Lee says, it has not educated the public about which types of plastic should go into recycling bins. As a result, people also place items such as instant noodle bags and plastic folders into recycling bins.
"This just hampers our work because adulterated plastic waste drives up our handling costs," Lee says. So while he might pay HK$1,000 for one tonne of waste plastic, it actually costs HK$2,000 because half the material can't be used without further sorting.
Even a government-subsidised operation, Eco Park Plastic Resources Recycling Centre, has run into obstacles. The Yan Oi Tong charity launched the centre in 2010, after securing a three-year lease on an eco park site for a nominal fee and HK$10 million government grant to build and equip the facility.
Under its tender agreement, the operation must process 600 tonnes of plastic waste each month to qualify for another HK$10 million from the Environment and Conservation Fund. However, it has only been able to handle 180 tonnes of plastic waste per month.
"The centre processes locally generated plastic waste into value-added materials such as plastic flakes and pellets for further processing or manufacturing into useful products," an Environmental Protection Department spokesman says. "Despite the unstable market environment, the centre has maintained production at about six tonnes of plastic waste per day on average, even after the tightening of import control on recyclable materials by the mainland."
Amid rows over landfill expansion and plans for an incinerator, a steering committee led by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is being set up to oversee the recycling sector. The government plans to establish a fund for long-term support of the industry. Among the proposals being considered are the provision of land and direct subsidies for recovery and handling low-value waste such as plastics and wood.
Lee Hing-tak hopes the committee will bring about an overhaul of the sector. Citing government plans for a glass-bottle levy that would go towards supporting a recovery network, he says the same should apply for the plastic bags levy.
"The government can [learn from] Western countries, which subsidise recyclers for every tonne of waste handled," Lee says. "I won't recycle waste with my own money as this is not a charity."
Snag with the bags
When the levy on plastic bags was introduced in 2009, officials and green groups hoped it would curb excessive use (and disposal) of plastic. But it hasn't exactly turned out that way.
About 3,000 retailers covered in the first phase of the scheme were required to charge customers 50 cents for every plastic bag issued, instead of giving them for free. While production of conventional "tank-top" bags fell by 68 per cent, the plastic industry estimates that overall use of the material has risen by 27 per cent since the levy came in. A 2011 survey by the Hong Kong Plastic Bags Manufacturers' Association found the decrease in tank-top bags was more than made up for by increases in production of rubbish bags (63 per cent) and "non-woven" bags (96 per cent). Widely distributed as so-called eco-bags, the non-woven version use 30 to 50 times more plastic than conventional bags.
The levy is a sore point for Lee Hing-tak, managing director of plastic recycling firm Telford Envirotech, who thought it might be used to support businesses like his. The fund remained in the government coffers, which put paid to his plan to open a plant in Tuen Mun Eco Park to turn old plastic bags into new ones.
"The public thinks the levy was used for recycling, but none of the plastic bags discarded here are recycled. They end up in landfills when we import tonnes of new plastic bags from the mainland every year," Lee says.
But the Environmental Protection Department says bags from domestic sources are often mixed with food residue, grease and other refuse, and therefore are difficult to clean and recycle. Instead, the government aims to reduce usage at source by encouraging consumers to bring their own reusable shopping bags. It estimates HK$110.4 million has been collected since the levy's implementation in July 2009, and the funds have mostly been used for environmental programmes and services, including activities to raise public consciousness of green issues.
Under a plan to extend the levy to the city's 60,000 plus retailers, the department has proposed that retailers should retain the sum to support green activity.
But Lee argues the levy would be better used to subsidise agents in the disposal chain.
"Each party, from the elderly scavengers to transport firms ferrying the bags and producers like us, should get 10 cents, with the government retaining 10 cents as an administration fee.
"If the elderly had some economic incentive, they would collect lots of plastic waste of their own accord and I could turn them into plastic bags for local use."