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Hong Kong environmental issues

For Hong Kong to win the plastics war, it must go cold turkey on tableware

  • A free gift for saying no to disposable cutlery may create a perverse incentive to order more takeaways, in plastic boxes
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 3:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 11:24pm

In collaboration with Cafe de Coral, Fairwood and Maxim’s, the Environmental Campaign Committee of Hong Kong recently announced a HK$1.2 million (US$153,000) government-funded scheme to get Hongkongers out of the habit of using disposable tableware for takeaway food (“Hong Kong fast-food chains given free utensils in ‘new habits’ scheme”, November 8).

Although it is a well-intentioned move, giving away reusable utensils may just result in their gathering dust along with all those reusable bags we have. Still, considering how hardly anyone keeps disposable plastic tableware, reducing how much we throw away is a good start.

According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic use in the consumer goods sector carries an annual hidden cost of US$75 billion. These unaccounted for costs result from air pollution caused by incinerating plastic and from marine pollution, and may include waste disposal costs passed on to local governments.

Hong Kong is no stranger to the impact of plastic waste. With just 14 per cent recovered for recycling, most of our plastic waste is sent to increasingly strained landfills. Marine plastic debris, both local and foreign, constantly besieges our coastlines despite regular clean-ups by passionate workers and volunteers. In particular, plastic takeaway containers, straws, and lids are some of most common items collected.

The latest campaign lasts for only two months, so what happens afterwards? Offering a free gift to people who say no to disposable tableware may well create a perverse incentive – encouraging more people to order takeaways for the free gift, which may result in the use of more disposable plastic containers.

Of course, restaurants can be made to cover the costs of waste collection and treatment. However, some people might oppose imposing a charge similar to that for plastic shopping bags, if the cost is passed down to consumers.

While biodegradable plastics have been offered as a solution, without clear labelling, they only confuse consumers and contaminate the plastic waste stream when recycled. Further, Hong Kong does not yet have the collection and treatment capacity for biodegradable plastics, so they will ultimately end up in landfills.

The best solution would be for restaurants to no longer carry disposable tableware and for enlightened individuals to bring reusable tableware with them if they have to order takeaways. That, however, is for the longer term. In the meantime, perhaps the government can get other fast food chains to join the scheme?

Wendell Chan, programme officer, Friends of the Earth (HK)